The Importance of Being Categorized (correctly)

I buy a lot of books, and sometimes it can be hard to remember what I have. Especially if I’m standing in an airport bookshop and the book in my hand is one of a series. Did I already buy this one, and put it on the bookshelf to read later, or did I just read an advance chapter in a previous book? Arrgh!

To save myself from this, I keep a database (spreadsheet actually) of my books. When I purchase a book, I scan the ISBN into a program called Readerware. I attach a USB barcode scanner to my laptop, scan the barcode and then Readerware searches various online booksellers for the ISBN, and then imports the data it finds. I can then export portions of that data into a spreadsheet I carry in my Palm.

The problem is that the categories the books end up in are often so weird, they’re useless.

I recently purchased bunch of paperback science fiction books. Take a look at the categories (or genre) suggested for a number of these books.

Title Author Category/Genre
Hunter’s Run George R. R. Martin American Science Fiction And Fantasy
Beyond Infinity Gregory Benford Benford, Gregory Prose & Criticism
The Ruby Dice Catherine Asaro Fantasy
A Sense of Infinity Howard L Myers Fantasy fiction
Hidden Empire Kevin J. Anderson Fiction
Moonstruck Edward M. Lerner Human-alien encounters
The Killing of Worlds Scott Westerfeld Imperialism
Heart of Veridon Tim Akers Science fiction
Glasshouse Charles Stross Science Fiction And Fantasy

I really don’t get the point for many of these categories.

Fiction is a bit too broad to be useful, American Science Fiction And Fantasy is probably too specific, Imperialism sounds like it should be related to history or political science, and what can you say about a category called Human-alien encounters?

This is so amazingly useless to me (in terms of sorting or searching) that I immediately replace all of this with “SF & F” in the genre category, that way I can restrict searches to the SF & F category.

What can we learn from this?

Categories are only useful if they meets the needs of the user. I can’t imagine that the variations of what I think of as “Science Fiction books” that were listed in the category are of any use to anyone. Go into a bookstore and you’ll typically see a very broad level of categorization – “Science Fiction and Fantasy” or two sections, “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy”. We can argue what goes where ’till the vampires come home, but really, these two sub-categories are just about all most potential purchasers are ever likely to need. With all due respect to Mr. Benford, I don’t think that there are too many bookstores (online or bricks and mortar) that have a section called “Benford, Gregory – Prose & Criticism” *.

If you’re planning on dividing your information into categories (or Facets) then make sure that they make sense, both to you and to your intended audience!

* Yes, I know, Mr. Benford didn’t define the category his book was listed under, so it’s not his fault – but someone put it there!


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