Alphabetization Is Not Fit for Music Libraries

Wikipedia’s arti­cle on alpha­bet­i­za­tion explains:

Advan­tages of sort­ed lists include:

  • one can eas­i­ly find the first n ele­ments (e.g. the 5 small­est coun­tries) and the last n ele­ments (e.g. the 3 largest coun­tries)
  • one can eas­i­ly find the ele­ments in a giv­en range (e.g. coun­tries with an area between .. and .. square km)
  • one can eas­i­ly search for an ele­ment, and con­clude whether it is in the list

The first two advan­tages are things you almost nev­er need to do with music libraries. And the third has been sup­plant­ed by now-ubiq­ui­tous search box­es: if you know what you’re look­ing for, you search; and if you don’t, an alpha­bet­ized list is not the way to find it.

Web vision­ary Ted Nel­son (<mst3k>Dr. Ted Nelson?</mst3k>) has been para­phrased as point­ing out that “elec­tron­ic doc­u­ments have been designed to mim­ic their paper antecedents,” and that “this is where every­thing went wrong: elec­tron­ic doc­u­ments could and should behave entire­ly dif­fer­ent­ly from paper ones.” If the fold­er metaphor is inad­e­quate for dig­i­tal doc­u­ments, no won­der it’s so piti­ful at han­dling music. The prox­im­i­ty between pieces of music in a library should least of all be based on the first let­ter in a band’s name – it’s as arbi­trary as sort­ing them by the vocalist’s month of birth – yet this is how it’s uni­ver­sal­ly done.

Music library orga­ni­za­tion needs to be re-thought from the ground up. We need to con­sid­er how it is that peo­ple used to lis­ten to music before it was all on their iTunes. How are your CDs orga­nized (or dis­or­ga­nized) on your shelf? How are they orga­nized in your head? What is it that prompts you to lis­ten to what you lis­ten to when you lis­ten to it? And how can we use com­put­ers to adopt and enhance these ways of think­ing, rather than forc­ing us to think like com­put­ers? Con­tin­ue →