Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Blog to Book

The Librarian's Apprentice is now available in good old-fashioned book format, available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for the low, low price of $10. If you, like Mr. Phillips, trust the durability of paper more than electrons, you may want to consider making the investment.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Class War, Part 3: And the Winner Is...

The auditorium was filled with the sound of people murmuring about Mr. Phillips' "perfect" classification system. I had always known Mr. Phillips was nuts. But I had never, until now, realized exactly how nuts he was.

"The man is insane," I said, scarcely able to speak. "The man is literally in...sane!"

"I have to admit, I really don't get this," said Ivan Large, puzzling over the photocopied handout of the Greater Perfect System. "Am I crazy, or does this make absolutely no sense?"

"No!" I said, no doubt sounding slightly delirious. "You're not crazy!"

There were a few more presenters after Mr. Phillips, but I didn't pay much attention, as my mind was reeling from the unsettling realization that I had been the apprentice to a mad librarian for the last four months.

My classification system was the last one to be presented. When Ivan and I had discussed the contest earlier, he had casually mentioned that I would be required to present my idea before the conference. Sensing my alarm at the prospect of speaking in front of a large audience, he had willingly offered to present it for me, "because," he said, "I really believe in your idea and I think it needs to be heard." However, after the revelation of the true nature of the GPS (and of Mr. Phillips' mental state), I no longer cared so much. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because, after initially thinking of Mr. Phillips as a great genius, the realization that he was actually crazy made me feel more confidence in my own ideas. I hadn't even been completely serious when I thought up my system, and even now I wasn't sure that I meant it completely seriously, at least not for use as an actual library classification system (everything is shelved under "X"?... come on!). But I did feel that there was an important and valid idea behind it, and that beneath its absurdist and seemingly nihilistic surface, there was a deeply significant truth about human knowledge and its limitations, and that truth was what I, and Ivan, believed in.

I told Ivan I wanted to present the system myself, though I would still like for him to introduce me, an unknown non-librarian. "It would be my honor," he said.

We proceeded to the stage. I felt a little nervous but surprisingly calm. Ivan Large took the podium first. "Our final classification system was created by a good friend of mine, Curtis ----. Curtis does not have an MLS, but in my view that should not dissuade us from considering his ideas, for it is, in my opinion, the ideas themselves that we should consider, and not the official credentials of the person who has conceived those ideas. For credentials, though they may mean something in our world, are not in themselves what give thought and originality to a human mind. Curtis has much experience working in libraries and has been developing his own ideas about classification while being assigned to help develop another classification system, which for everyone's benefit shall remain unnamed. His idea may seem shocking at first--though I don't think it will appear as shocking as certain other systems that have been presented here today--but I ask you to look beyond the surface and see what it is that Curtis is really trying to express. I think that if you keep an open mind, you will agree with me that his system--let's call it more a theory or a philosophy of classification--embodies great insight into the very nature of what it is that your noble profession strives to do: namely, to attempt to comprehend and organize human knowledge. I will tell you offhand that this system--Curtis has dubbed it "System X"--is not meant to provide a practical framework for an actual library classification. It attempts to do something else, and that is to make us think about classification itself, indeed human knowledge itself, and the limits of both. Take it, if you will, as a bit of perspective. I've said enough. Now, to speak for himself, I present to you Curtis ----."

I had to admit that was the most comprehensible utterance I had ever heard from Ivan Large. I stood behind the podium and looked out at the hundreds of librarians who stared back at me, waiting. I'm sure that I didn't speak as eloquently as Ivan had, but I think I spoke well enough. I remained calm and presented my thoughts in a logical way. The exact words aren't important, and there would be little point in reproducing here ideas which I have already told you elsewhere in this blog. Suffice it to say that I presented my realization about the infinite complexity of the universe, and how classification is based on perceiving relationships among various entities, and that ultimately all classifications are incomplete. I assured them that this did not mean that there was no value to classifying things--that classifying was, in fact, a necessary and essential part of human life, both in and out of libraries. We have to have a system of understanding the world and what things are and how different things relate to each other. My point, I said, was simply that we realize that all such systems, devised as they are by human beings with incomplete knowledge, are bound to be themselves incomplete, and that this knowledge--about the limits of our knowledge--should keep us humble. I had come to the conclusion, I told them, that classification systems can serve either of two purposes (not mutually exclusive): they can be practical, or they can be works of art. (That was one point on which I had come to agree with Mr. Phillips, though his own work of art was evidently no more than the scribblings of a madman.)

"And so," I said, "I am here to present to you my work of art. As Ivan told you, it is not meant to be a practical system. It is simply an expression. At first glance, it may appear nihilistic, but I can assure you that it is not. Somewhat tragic, perhaps, but not nihilistic. But to me, more than anything else, it expresses the vastness and richness of the universe in which we live, that we can never completely know because we can never get to the bottom of it. Anyway, I won't explain it any further. Here it is."

There was a laptop at the podium for the presenters to use, and I typed something quickly before having it projected. The audience saw a blank white screen with one short line of text in the center:


The audience was silent. I couldn't tell what they were thinking. I didn't really have anything more to say about it, or at least I didn't want to say anything more about it (that is, I didn't want to overexplain it), so I thanked them and walked off the stage. The audience applauded, with something less than standing-ovation enthusiasm yet something more than mere politeness. It didn't matter, though, what the professionals thought, or if I won one of the top three prizes. I had presented my idea, and that was enough.

"That was absolutely brilliant!" said Ivan as I left the stage. "You really floored them!"

"Well, I don't know if I would say floored, exactly."

"Trust me, you floored them."

"If you say so."

Sometime later, they announced the winners. Third place went to something called the White-Edwards Characteristic Ontology. Second place went to the Automated Referential Metadata Schema (or ARMS). These were a couple of the ones that I hadn't paid much attention to when I was still in shock over the depth of Mr. Phillips' dementia. Was he honestly delusional enough to hope, at this moment, that he would win first prize? Yes, I nodded to myself, he probably was.

"And the winner of Class War III is..." said the presenter, opening the envelope and taking a moment to make sure he had read it right. "System X, by Curtis ----!"

I just sat there, stunned. "Go, go!" said Ivan, pushing me. I stood up, half-dazed, and walked up to the stage. The audience applauded, much more enthusiastically this time. I didn't notice, but I can be sure that Mr. Phillips was none too pleased.

So there you have it. I, the librarian's apprentice, won Class War III. Not that I had much in the way of formidable competition, least of all from my mentor and his "perfect" (perfectly demented, that is) classification system. Ivan, Monica, and I celebrated by going out for drinks that night. The next day we flew back to St. Louis. On Monday Mr. Phillips called me into his office and told me my apprenticeship was complete. I think this was his polite way of saying "you're fired" (not from my job as a shelver, but from my apprenticeship). That was fine with me. And so this blog must come to an end, since it is, after all, my blog about that apprenticeship. I have decided I'm going to go to library school and get my MLS. I've learned all I can learn from Mr. Phillips and at any rate if I want to work as a professional librarian for anyone other than him (which I most certainly do), I need the credential. But I have a feeling that the most important part of my education in librarianship will always be what I learned this summer while I was the apprentice to the great librarian Walter J. Phillips.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Class War, Part 2: Perfection Revealed

The second presenter was a long-haired woman named Julie wearing an inordinate amount of bracelets. "I'm here to speak to you today," she intoned in a high, airy voice, "of the Harmonic Synchronicity System. I prefer not to use the term 'classification' because it implies a hierarchical order that embodies privilege and prejudice. A classification system is exclusive, whereas my system is inclusive; it is bound by logic, whereas mine is guided by intuition; it is rigidly structured, whereas mine is organic and free. On my Website, anyone can contribute to the Harmonic Synchronicity System by adding intuitive tags to items and linking items together according to his or her innermost feelings. No ideas will be rejected; all ideas will be welcomed and considered of equal value and validity. Through this welcoming, truly democratic system, a great harmony will be achieved and result in an awakening to potential and possibility."

"I couldn't understand a darn thing she was saying," said Ivan Large. He swooshed his hand over his dome. "Right on over it."

The third presenter was Mr. Phillips. "I am here today," he announced importantly, "to present the Greater Perfect System of Library Classification. That's GPS-LC for short, or just GPS, if you prefer. The Greater Perfect System represents a radical evolutionary step beyond the so-called Perfect System that I presented last year, and which I now call the Lesser Perfect System. I am having a handout passed out that shows a simplified diagram of the system."

A few conference volunteers moved down the center aisle, handing each row a stack of papers (for each attendee to keep one copy and pass the rest to the next person). The paper handouts were necessary, of course, because Mr. Phillips refused to touch a computer. I don't know how much money he spent on photocopies.

I looked at my copy of the diagram. It was actually the first time I had seen the overall structure of the system to which I had supposedly been contributing for the last three months.

My jaw dropped.

Here, in simplified form, is Mr. Phillips' idea of the perfect classification system:

Class A: Things that exist.
Class B: Things that do not exist.
Class C: Things that are large.
Class D: Things that are small.
Class E: Things that are visible.
Class F: Things that are invisible.
Class G: Things that are red.
Class H: General information.
Class I: Theories of Walter J. Phillips.
Class J: Books about horses.
Class K: Things that are simple.
Class L: Things that are complex.
Class M: Things that are Chinese.
Class N: Books written by Democrats.
Class O: Books written by Republicans.
Class P: Books written by Bolsheviks.
Class Q: Books written by the Chinese.
Class R: Fairy tales.
Class S: Things that are certain.
Class T: Things that are uncertain.
Class U: Things that matter.
Class V: Things that do not matter.
Class W: Things that are known.
Class X: Things that are unknown.
Class Y: Things that make sense.
Class Z: Things that do not make sense.

"I don't get it," said Ivan Large.

No further comment is necessary.

Class War, Part 1: Here Come the Robots

Saturday was the big day: Class War III, the classification system contest. The contestants took turns giving a brief presentation/explanation of their system. The first one was some bushy-haired, bearded, bespectacled guy named Mark with a laptop.

"My system is called ClassBot 2.0, based on the prototype ClassBot 1.0 that I presented last year," Mark said. "It is essentially an artificial intelligence program that not only classifies objects according to preprogrammed criteria, but also learns as it goes and further develops the classification system on its own. So ClassBot is essentially the world's first robot librarian."

Mark proceeded to demonstrate ClassBot's artificial intelligence. His computer screen was projected onto a large white pull-down screen so that the audience could see what was happening. He started by opening the program. A cutesy-looking robot face appeared and said, "Hello, I'm Classy! What can I classify for you today?"

"Hello, Classy," said Mark. "I'm going to ask the audience for a suggestion." He then asked us to suggest a classic book, one that would be old enough (i.e., out of copyright) to be likely to be found online. Someone suggested The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and Mark repeated this to Classy the robot.

After a pause, the robot said, "Let me make sure I heard you right. Did you say, Theoragen Of Speeches?" (The robot's speech was also presented in text at the bottom of the screen.)

The audience chuckled in amusement, Mark more nervously. "No."

Another pause. Then, "Okay, let's try again. Please repeat what you would like me to classify for you today!" (The robot, besides being annoyingly cute, spoke in an irritatingly chipper tone.)

Mark tried again, speaking more slowly. "The.. Origin... of... Spe-cies."

Pause. "Let me make sure I heard you right. Did you say, The Origin of Speeches?"

"No," said Mark, evidently trying to hide his embarrassment with a bemused smile.

Pause. "Okay, let's try again. Please repeat what you would like me to classify for you today!"

Mark stated the title a third time, speaking even more slowly and loudly than before. He practically yelled: "The... Or-i-gin... of... Speee-sheeez."

Pause. "Let me make sure I heard you right. Did you say, The Origin of Species?"

Mark heaved a sigh of relief/frustration. "Yes!"

"Okay! Give me a moment while I classify The Origin of Species!"

The audience waited. And waited. Mark explained that Classy was conducting an Internet search for information on The Origin of Species, after which it would run an algorithm by which it would determine how to classify the work. Finally Classy had completed its task.

"Okay! I have successfully classified The Origin of Species! Would you like to know the results now?"


"Okay! The Origin of Species is classified as: Variation. Domestic. Selection. Struggle for Existence. Difficulties. Imperfection. Recapitulation and Conclusion."

The audience members just looked at one another, puzzled expressions all around. A few people giggled.

Mark said, "Uh... obviously there are still a few bugs that need to be worked out... but the basic system is there."

Classy chirped in with, "Have I served your classification needs successfully today?"

Mark said quietly, "No."

Pause. "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you! Have I served your classification--"

"No!" Mark turned to the audience and chuckled. "I don't mean to sound harsh to Classy here, it's just that he only understands simple 'yes' or 'no' answers to questions."

Ivan Large shook his head. "So much for artificial intelligence," he said to me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Friday: Ivan Large Speaks

I started Friday by attending the presentation called "Relevance Optimization in Search Algorithms: A Systems Approach". It was kind of interesting though a bit technical. It was attended mainly by the type of people Mr. Phillips likes to call "tech gurus".

The next event was Ivan's speech, which was officially titled, "What Can It Possibly Mean?: Thoughts on the Future of Literature". When Ivan appeared on stage, he took the microphone in his hand and leaned casually against the podium. He started off by saying, "Good morning. I hope you all are enjoying the conference so far. I just came from a seminar called 'Maximize the Potential'. I have no doubt that your esteemed colleague Mr. Jackson had some really wonderful things to say about that, but I have to admit I couldn't understand a darn thing the guy was saying. Went-- [he moved his hand swiftly over his bald head and made a swooshing sound] -- right over my head. Right on over it. Anyway, I've been invited here today to say something about the future of literature. Now why they chose me to speak on the future of literature, I don't know, but I'll try to make my best guess as to what that future might be."

And so on from there. His speech was largely (no pun intended) incomprehensible, almost as much as his novels, and I'm sure many librarians in the audience were wondering who this guy was and why he got invited to speak at the conference, and, most of all, what the heck he was talking about. Here are some choice snippets:

Writing, as I'm sure you all know, implies a sort of underlying linguistic plenum, as though we--which is to say the collective reader/writer/auditor/speaker--were awash in a sea of endless symbols, infinitely combinatorial and permutational in its ever-changing array of interrelationships, mutations, and symbioses of meaning and indefinite levels of meta-meaning.

When we speak, we assert the efficaciousness of ideation and articulation in the project of establishing an epistemic base from which we may then proceed to act as knowing agents in a determinately knowable world-space.

The production of meaning-centered taxonomies is the fundamental project of the human species, and it cannot be argued that there is anything more essentially human than this.

You get the idea. At the end, the audience clapped politely. I don't think anybody was sure what they had just listened to. I know I wasn't. And I'm sure they were all wondering, as I was, what any of it had to do with the future of literature. Books went pretty much unmentioned.

Later that afternoon I attended the presentation "Ontology and Description: Orienting Metadata with Global Classificatory Schema". This one was even more technical than the first session, but I found it more engaging, perhaps because the subject matter--classification--held some interest for me. Ivan Large attended this one, too. He told me that he had convinced the judges to enter my idea into the contest.

"No way," I said. "They accepted it?"

"How could they not? Like I told them, it just makes sense!"

I don't know if Ivan Large is the most trustworthy expert on things that make sense, but whatever. My "system" (or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it an anti-system) was in the running!

Monday, August 25, 2008


I returned home yesterday from Lib Con 08. It may take me a few days to tell about everything that happened. The flight was uneventful (always a good thing) and we arrived at our hotel in Orlando on Thursday afternoon. That evening we (meaning Mr. Phillips, Vivian, Monica, and myself) attended the opening meeting of the conference, which entailed sitting through some rather pointless speeches, followed by an informal meet-and-greet. Monica and I spotted Ivan Large among the crowd and, after waiting a few minutes while he was occupied talking to other people, we introduced ourselves. He's a really friendly guy, not standoffish at all, and he was surprisingly easy and fun to talk to. He didn't act the least bit like a self-worshiping celebrity, but just like an ordinary person. Strangely enough, we hit it off so well with Ivan that the three of us went out for coffee afterward. During the course of our conversation, the topic of the classification contest came up, and at one point I mentioned that I had thought about entering my own idea into the contest. Monica and Ivan were both very curious as to what my idea was, so I told them.

"It's silly," I said.

"Tell us!" they said.

"All right. You have to understand, I'm half-joking. But only half."

"Are you gonna tell us, or not?"

"Okay. My system is exceedingly simple, but it's based on a lot of thought. Here it is: Everything... is unclassifiable."

Ivan regarded me with a frown of deep perplexity.

"I told you it's silly," I said.

"No, not at all!" said Ivan. "This is very intriguing! Please, tell me more... Why is everything unclassifiable?"

"Because everything exists with many different relations to many different things, making a specific classification impossible. So you can only classify things in the most superficial way. When you go deeper, you encounter this incredibly tangled web of relationships that prevents you from ever being able to fully describe how any two things, let alone everything in the world, is related to each other. Therefore, everything in my system can only be classified as X."

Ivan stared at me as though he were in shock. "Curtis!" he said at last. "You... are a genius!"

I snickered. "A genius? Come on."

"I'm serious! That is the most brilliant thing I have ever heard!"

"You really think so?"

"Absolutely! And you say you're not even a librarian?"

"No, just an apprentice, supposedly."

"Well, guess what, kid, I'm getting you into that contest."

"I don't know... I'd feel like I was betraying Mr. Phillips."

"Well, if his system really is as perfect as he thinks it is, then he has no reason to worry. Your idea deserves to be heard."

And so Ivan Large decided that he would persuade the judges to allow my crazy idea into the contest. When I went to bed in my hotel room that evening I felt a mixture of nervousness about what Mr. Phillips would think and excitement.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Off to Orlando

Well, today's the day we travel to Orlando for Lib Con 08. I've finished packing and am ready to leave for the airport. Should be an interesting weekend. That plane crash in Spain yesterday kind of freaked me out, but what are the chances of something like that happening two days in a row? I guess life is always a gamble, no matter what you do or don't do. The odds are usually stacked in your favor, though (after all, out of I don't know how many thousands of days I've been alive thus far, I haven't died on a single one of them). Anyway, I don't know if I'll be able to post much this weekend, since I'll be pretty busy at the conference and won't have access to my own computer, so I may not post again till after I get back. We'll see how it goes. But I'll be sure to give a full report next week.