Libraries don’t catalog government information like traditional collections. Traditional material is catalogued using a subject based classification system, such as the Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress Classification. The Government, however, uses provenance-based schemes for their publications, which are hard to fit into traditional library cataloging systems. This makes it hard for non-government information librarians to find relevant information as well as determine where in the stacks they should be housed.

Historically, federal documents have been cataloged differently in the United States and Canada, than traditional library information, with seemingly little standardization. Canada, however, has started using a system of cooperative documents (CODOC) as a way to standardize how government information is indexed. Professor Frank Lambert has, in fact, called CODOC “the first organizational scheme developed by an agency other than a publisher or distributer of government publications.”

Figure 1:

Information on provenance-based classification is scarce, and how the classifications are determined is even more obscure. Literature that discusses the theory behind provenance-based classification schemes is grossly deficient and understanding government information without understanding provenance and precedence is difficult at best. One must understand how and why a government entity created the document in order to find the information.

Ranganathan’s five laws of library science instruct users to take a subject approach when looking for information. Arranging materials by subject will indeed gives users a better search experience. However, government information is arranged by provenance, not subject. This means that a specific document related to cattle swaps and another  related to consumer protection can, while unrelated conceptually, both be found in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Actrangana

In the Dewey Decimal system, cattle can be found in section 630 and economics in section 330. Finding all that information would have a traditional librarian running all over the place. From a government perspective, it makes more sense to have all the information related to the Dodd-Frank Act in one place.

Figure 2:

Through provenance, government information librarians keep laws that deal both with cows and consumer protection together in one place. Provenance-based classification does not take organization by subjects into consideration, making it hard to search if you have a subject in mind, but not a specific law. The United States National Archives has principles on how government information should be classified. To the National Archive, records must stay in their original context; if alone, they lose significance.

The CODOC system is easy to use. Information seekers only need to remember certain aspects of a document to browse everything from a particular agency. For example, US1 will provide a user with United States Federal documents. There could then be subsequent letters and numbers to determine the branch of the federal government to which the information pertains and which agency created it.

This ease of use is part of the argument for neutral citation of legal documents. Neutral citation argues for states to create their own legal citations instead of relying on vendors and publishers. On the flip side, federal agencies create their own document citations, but they are so hard to navigate that databases and catalogs such as CODOC are being created to help wade through the information. If government libraries used standards like CODOC for citations they would be far more searchable to non-government librarians and information seekers would have better access and a better search experience.

Unfortunately, little has been written about provenance classification theory. One can get the idea from multiple sources, but non-governmental information workers will find it somewhat perplexing.

Because of the broad difference between traditional categorization and provenance, it is impossible to try to interfile governmental information in a traditional environment. CODOC was created to make searching government information easier.

lawbooksBeing the experts in the field, it’s no wonder that Access Innovations believes in subject matter classification. But that doesn’t mean that other types of classifications don’t have their value. CODOC is a sensible way to achieve the kind of information architecture that a government needs, and ICD-10, the International Classification of Diseases, which is a complex and definitely non-standard system, accounts for an extremely granular level of medical diagnostics. Their value is undenied but, for our purposes, they are special cases and subject matter classification will always rule them all.

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Jennifer Crawford, MLIS
Marketing Librarian for Access Innovations, Inc.