Competency in KO (Qualifications required of indexers)

What kind of knowledge is needed in order to be able to organize knowledge?


Courses in knowledge organization (KO) are (at least partially), motivated by the fact that knowledge organization is a task done by library and information science professionals. In other words, courses in KO should somehow qualify for doing knowledge organization. In order to examine this question, let try to make a list of different views about what kind of knowledge is needed in order to be able to organize knowledge:



Some possible answers are:


  1. Intuition or common sense. Anybody using common sense and with a reasonable general education is able to organize knowledge. It may be combined with some apprenticeship: Learning the specific traditions in specific collections or databases. This view is related to a view formulated by former Rector Leif Lørring: Librarians have a special talent (”nose”) for organizing knowledge. This point of view raises the question: Where have librarians got this special talent? How has their education contributed? What elements in courses of KO are important?

  2. To know the collection of documents to be organized. To learn a specific collection, “to know it well” implies again apprenticeship: You cannot learn KO in general, only in relation to a specific library, collection or database. This view may also be (partially) right. From the point of view of courses in KO, we may ask: Can we contribute some general knowledge, which is useful by preparing LIS-professionals to organize knowledge in different specific collections? Some possible answers are provided in the points listed below.

  3. To know about knowledge organization systems and knowledge organizating processes in a more general way. To know rules, principles, standards. For example, to know about the UDC, principles of facet analysis, Cutter's rule and the principle of literary warrant. This point of view has probably been the basis for most courses on KO.

  4. To know about logics, and philosophy, including ways of defining classes, semiotics, concept theory etc. This is somewhat related to 3) (e.g. principles of facet analysis), but broader. It is also important to realize that different philosophical views exist and have different implications. Some practices may intuitively be based on sound logical and philosophical principles, but such principles become very important in discourses about alternative ways to organize knowledge.

  5. To know about information technology. This can be knowing specific tools to organize knowledge such as ”topic maps” or systems for ”automatic indexing”. It can also be argued, however, that knowledge about algorithmic procedures make one understand KO in a more precise way (put more specific questions about what humans do when they organize knowledge). Such general IT-knowledge is not directly useful for manual KO, but it may provide a kind of broader understanding useful for making certain decisions. Research and education in information science has been much driven by technological progress, why this point of view in practice is important.

  6. To know about users, ”information needs” and users’ relevance criteria. Again, this can be done by apprenticeship: By working in a specific library you learn about specific users and their information needs. It can also be done in more general ways, relating to, for example, psychological and sociological studies. Cf., cognitive view in knowledge organizion; user and user studies in KO

  7. Language and language technology (including, terminology and languages for special purposes). Obviously is language important: It is what questions are formulated by, what the sought information is mostly written in etc. In the history of the field has linguistics, however, been surprisingly unimportant. Salton, among others, found linguistics of little or no use. As pointed out by Spang-Hanssen (1974) this may, however, be due to Salton’s knowledge about less fruitful theories in linguistics.

  8. Bibliometrics. Knowledge about how to create bibliometric maps and how to interpret citation networks is a relatively new approach to KO. Cf., bibliometric knowledge organization.

  9. Knowledge about information, documents, works, genres, and literatures.

  10. Knowledge about culture and society, including different discourses, disciplines, professions, politics and ideologies.

  11. Knowledge about a specific domain. Knowledge of paradigms in arts (as described by Ørom, 2003) and the communication system relating to that domain, cf., domain analysis.

  12. Librarians cannot organize knowledge. Only subject specialists can do so. This point of view is, for example, visible in the tendency to employ subject specialists in research libraries and databases such as MEDLINE. We may ask: What kind of additional knowledge is needed for the education of subject specialists for KO-tasks? (Can schools of LIS offer courses that are evaluated important by subject specialists?). A variation of this point of view is: Librarians are able to index and to organize knowledge on certain levels, e.g. in public libraries, while subject specialists are needed on other levels, e.g. research libraries and subject bibliographies like MEDLINE.  The implication of this view is, that librarians and information specialists should specialize and learn as much as possible about specific domains during their education.  


If knowledge organization is supposed to be a reflection of the structures of  reality then is the qualification needed to organize knowledge to know the structure of reality.


  1. Knowledge is self-organizing. There is no need for specialists in KO or for subject specialists. Knowledge is self-organizing by, for example, bibliometric networks and by development of special language. A new point of view is related to folksonomies: Users performing their own KO. The challenge of self-organizing is, of course, reinforced by the development of digital media.






"Is cataloguing a professional activity? For the cataloguing of manuscripts and early printed books from the book in hand it is generally accepted to be so, as demonstrated by the qualifications required for such cataloguers and the concomitant level of their employment. For special materials, such as maps and music, cataloguing may be regarded as a professional activity. But for modern monographs? For their own prestige and salaries it is in cataloguers’ interests to insist that it is so, and the perceived devaluation of cataloguing since automation, within both many library school curricula and libraries, is a current concern on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, financial pressures understandably render deprofessionalization managerially attractive. Students and other non-professionals have successfully assisted in retrospective catalogue conversion projects involving the transfer of bibliographical data from cards to electronic format." (Attar, 2006, p. 173).



"A prospective indexer must have no less than a bachelor's degree in a biomedical science, and should also have a reading knowledge of one or more modern foreign languages. An increasing number of recent recruits hold advanced degrees in biomedical sciences. . . . Indexers are trained in principles of MEDLINE indexing, using the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) controlled vocabulary, in a classroom training course at NLM in Bethesda, Maryland. They must then complete several weeks of on-the-job training at the Library. NLM does not accept other indexing training programs as a substitute." (National Library of Medicine, 2005)








Attar, K. E. (2006). Why appoint professionals? A student cataloguing project. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 38(3), 173-185.


Krarup, K. & Boserup, I. (1982). Reader-Oriented Indexing. An investigation into the extent to which subject specialists should be used for the indexing of documents by and for professional readers, based on a sample of sociological documents indexed with the help of the PRECIS indexing system. Copenhagen: The Royal Library. 


National Library of Medicine (2005). Frequently asked questions. Who are the indexers, and what are their qualifications?


Spang-Hanssen, H. (1974). Kunnskapsorganisasjon, informasjonsgjenfinning, automatisering og språk. In: Kunnskapsorganisasjon og informasjonsgjenfinning. Oslo: Riksbibliotektjenesten, pp. 11–61.


Ørom, A. (2003). Knowledge Organization in the domain of Art Studies - History, Transition and Conceptual Changes. Knowledge Organization, 30(3/4), 128-143.



See also: Laymen as knowledge organizers, Paraprofessionals (Core Concepts in LIS).






Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 09-02-2007