The Bedford: “Abecedarian”, Arbitrary or Extraordinary?

On November 2nd 2016, we participated in a class experiment dealing with alphabetical or an “abecedarian” approach to organization. It was interesting to really think about this, as it has always seemed just widely accepted that this is typically how archives and books such as the Bedford Glossary are organized.

As we were told to line up in class alphabetically and we were soon asked “what does this mean”, I mumbled to myself “nothing”. It’s really just a method of organizing information (or in this case students). Those who have a last name starting with the letter “A” are no better than those with a last name ending in “W”.

As I was standing with the “A” last names, it reminded me of always starting first in school; graduation, anxiety-inducing middle school gym class obstacle courses, class roster attendance roll call, etc. I also thought back to my short time in the Navy, and how we would line up to head out of the barracks every day based on our height: shortest at the front, tallest in the back (me). This was entirely meaningless, yet a means for the higher ranking officers to establish order, no matter how random.

As my group and I flipped through our Bedford, we discussed how else it could be organized. One thing I brought up was chronologically, but immediately I ruled it out as kind of absurd, as most definitions cannot be organized in such a way. Unless of course we determined the origin of each word, but that would require the reader to have specific knowledge about each words origin, which is simply unrealistic. Quite on the contrary, history books are expected to be organized this way:

“This science has none of the traditional historian’s concern with establishing the ‘truth’ about the past through the sifting of evidence and the study of cause and effect within a chronological framework” (Moran’s Interdisciplinarity, p.127).

If a history book were organized alphabetically, it would assume the reader already knows exactly what is historically-relevant that they’re searching for (Letter “B” for Bay of Pigs Invasion, “M” for the Monroe Doctrine, etc.). In this case, it would be more of a reference history book, but is kind of unnecessary as there are typically reference pages in the back of chronologically-organized history textbooks, rendering this reference book idea obsolete).

In short, it is all contingent upon the material being organized, rendering alphabetical organization as either optimal or unnecessary. It was fascinating to really think about this, given it is something we usually just accept. Alphabetical order certainly has its place, specifically when it comes to reference books such as the dictionary or the Bedford Glossary. But it will always depend on what, or even who is being organized.


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