Classifying the world: John Wilkins and the invention of a universal language

I decided to allow my inner geek have a trip out, and so we went to the talk at Magdalen College Library ‘Classifying the world: John Wilkins and the invention of a universal language’, by Tabitha Tuckett, who is one of the librarians there.

John Wilkins was a clergyman and scientist from the seventeenth century who decided to try and make up his own language, to be understood by all, and his method of doing so was essentially to classify the world. As Wikipedia says, it was “brilliant but hopeless”.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mostly associate language invention with Tolkien, and my immediate mental image of an invented universal language is something like Esperanto. Wilkins’s invention of a universal language was different to both.He did not base his language on other European languages, rather, he believed that the way to achieve a language to be characterised by ease and usefulness was to base it on a logical system of classification. He would use categories and subcategories to create building blocks for conveying meaning, and attach phonemes to each building block to create words.

In the seventeenth century there was a movement to try and bring about a universal language, to create a language that could be understood by all. This movement was in part brought about by the decline in Latin as a lingua franca, and also by the increase in travel to parts of the world where the people spoke languages nothing like the European ones.

Wilkins developed a system of hierarchical classification, which he intended to be both spoken and written. The gist I got was that Wilkins’s aim was to arrange all human knowledge into categories, like Linnaeus would later do (with more success) with plants. He tried to arrange all of human knowledge into categories. Wilkins started with a broad concept, represented by one letter, and then added suffix after suffix to narrow it down. He had forty broad categories (genuses), ranging from God to disease to stones. Each genus could then be divided into sub categories, to aid the defining of them. Stones, for example, could then be divided into vulgar stones, middle prized, or precious; dissolvable and non-dissolvable. And vulgar stones could furthermore be sub categorised into greater or lesser magnitude, and so on.

His work then becomes of interest to linguists. I found the relationship between Wilkins’s language to his script and pronunciation quite hard to grasp. He developed a script, all squiggles, represented meaning directly. This means that his words could be written without ever being spoken, and his language was more of a classification scheme than a language that Tolkien might have made up.

I found it extremely interesting, especially how his language was limited by the inability to classify the extent of human knowledge. It was also limited by issues with tense and voice, and was a very brusque way of communicating. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see how even attempting to add a classification system to the world could create a comprehendible language.

BL Study Day: SAGE presentation

The slides for Karen Phillips’ presentation on the future of research and its possible impact are available to view here.

Strangely, they were included in an email sent to the SSL email account from ALISS (Association of Librarians and Information Professionals in the Social Sciences), unrelated to the fact that Lauren and I attended!

Archive Trainees Group

On Thursday I attended the first ever meeting of the Archive Trainees Group, along with Emma and Nicky, at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.

After a slightly awkward start, with lots of people sitting on leaf-shaped chairs trying not to make eye-contact with each other, things relaxed a bit and I got to do some Networking. I immediately found myself in the odd situation of recognising somebody from their blog – Holly Fairhall of the controversial ‘My Archiving Hell’. After my assurances that I was not one of the haters, she agreed to give me a shout-out on her Twitter feed.

The first formal part of the meeting consisted of two presentations, from Elizabeth Shepherd at UCL and Caroline Brown at Dundee, discussing the nature of their Archives and Records Managment courses. This wasn’t all new information for me as I have already done a bit of research about the courses available and applied for one. However, it was useful to pick up some interview tips, learn that I should forget about receiving funding and that I probably won’t get a job when I qualify.

After more chatting, coffee and unexpectedly high quality biscuits (thanks ARA!), we listened to three trainees give presentations about their jobs.

First up was Sarah Cox of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. It was reassuring to see that her role was not all that different to mine, and that we even work on similar material given Magdalen’s historical links with the Botanic Garden in Oxford. She has already started on a distance learning Master’s course, which was not something I had previously given much consideration, but might have to think about.

Second was Sharon Messenger of the Wellcome Library. Working as a student at the Wellcome Library was what got me interested in archives/special collections in the first place, so it was interesting to hear from somebody coming from a similar background. The most notable difference between the Wellcome Library and anywhere I have worked is their highly proactive acquisitions policy, so it was interesting to hear about her trips around Britain picking up people’s papers – I may need to learn how to drive after all.

Last up was our own Emma Hancox of the FutureARCH project – I had been lucky enough to get a tour of her workplace the day before, but it was nice to have it explained again in a more formal presentation. Emma’s work is quite different from that experienced by most trainees, and definitely seemed to generate the most interest around the room.

All in all it was a good experience, and it was valuable to compare notes with others at the same stage of their career- this can be rather difficult as archivists often work in small teams or by themselves.  The group will continue meeting every few months for the rest of the year,  and hopefully beyond.

Sean Rippington, Archives and Library Graduate Trainee

Hi I’m Sean. I’m the graduate library and archives trainee for Magdalen College. I graduated from UCL in September 2009, and have spent the last year volunteering in several archives; these included  Senate House Library in London, UCL Special Collections, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Royal College of Surgeons and the National Maritime Museum. And no I did not get paid for any of them.

In order to learn more about records side of ‘Archives and Records Management’, I volunteered at the IRMT, who were kind enough to offer me a part time job – the greatest compliment I can give them is that they made records management seem interesting. I also ended up with a part time job at Senate House Library – though not as an archivist, but on the circulation desk. Although I intend to go down the archives route, I did enjoy working the library, and still do as part of my current job.

At the moment I am spending two days per week in the college library, dealing with queries, circulation, managing the small but well used Law Library and invigilating users of the Old Library (amongst any other smaller tasks that need doing). I spend the other three days in the archives, where I mostly work in accessioning, cataloguing and processing requests from researchers. So far this has turned up previously classified allied propaganda from WWII, a post card to the President from Seamus Heaney (using a stamp with his own face on) and naked pictures of AJP Taylor – so perhaps not as boring as it sounds. I will also be spending some time in a conservation studio that several colleges use for preserving their rare books and archival material, where I am tasked with cleaning the College’s medieval deeds.

If anybody reading this is considering applying for a traineeship next year I would very much recommend it – the group training sessions and the opportunity to meet other people in the same situation as you is something you don’t really get from volunteer positions or part-time jobs, or even from similar traineeships at other institutions.

I am aware from personal experience that there is not always a great deal of support for aspiring archivists, so if anyone would like some help about volunteering or applying for traineeships, please feel free to email me and I will do my best to help.

Library & Information Update: Master’s Supplement

I was shown this by our librarian, and thought I should pass it along! The latest issue of CILIP’s Library & Information Update contains a supplement dedicated to the discussion of Master’s courses – including choosing a course, funding, how helpful it is in terms of finding a job, and so on. The supplement is also available to view online.

A Very Small Library in a Phone Box!

This morning I came across the wonderful story of possibly the smallest library in the country on the When I Grow Up I Want To Be A Librarian blog, a Somerset village community have adopted the old village phone box and transformed it into a lending library.  It’s extremely simple too, people donate unwanted books, DVDs and CDs to the phone box and then borrow anything that takes their fancy.

Sounds like a fantastic way for the community to maintain some sort of library service within the village (the mobile library service was cancelled a few months ago)  and also preserve a classic symbol of Britishness in the process.  Small rural village communities are often cut off from many public services and for those without transport visiting a library can be difficult.  In the wake of the recession, have come increased budget cuts and financial pressure for local authorities and the needs of certain communities can be neglected.   I wonder if the public phone box library might spark a trend amongst similar rural communities across the country where library services are being cut and people are left without?