“A work” (substantive) also termed oeuvre or opus is a non-material entity, a creation. It may be a scientific, literary, artist, or other kind of product. A document may be seen as the fixation of a work. The same work may be represented by different documents or may be distributed in different documents. A work may not be available in the form of a document (It may not be documented). An oeuvre catalog or an opus catalog is a listing of the works of an artist. Oeuvre posthumous mean occurring after the creator's death. 

The concept of a work is recognized, for example, in copyright law. In science and scholarship it is related to “a contribution”. A work like Shakespeare’s "Hamlet” exists in many versions in many documents, e.g. in translations. A traditional goal in a library catalog is to keep works together despite there scattering in many versions and documents.


“"Works" are key elements in a vast bibliographic universe that contains all records of human knowledge. A set of ideas created with the intention of being communicated, a work may have many texts, and many documentary forms. Works convey both ideational and semantic content.

    Works may be seen as analogous to linguistic signs, consisting of ideational content that is analogous to the concepts represented by what is signified. Works are changeable in the expression of their content, variable in their perception among those who receive them, and constantly evolving in ownership as they progress through collaborative social roles.

    Quantitative data illustrate clearly the mutability of works. The importance of signs and canons in human culture provide the impetus for work-specific knowledge organization systems. The control of digital works will be critical to stem the potential chaos of the electronic environment.” (Smiraglia, 2001).


Tillett (2001, p. 23) have contributed an informative figure which proposes a continuum with many forms from "same work" to "new work".  In this model are, for example, copies of a book regarded as "equivalent", translations and different editions are regarded as "same work", while summaries, adaptations and imitations are regarded as a "new work". Criticism, reviews and commentaries are even more examples of "new works". 


Hjørland (2004) write that the concept of "work" is connected to the library cataloguing tradition but not to, for example, the documentation/information science tradition. Usually only documents are represented in abstract databases, not the works, which they represent. It is a problem, for example, that a database such as PsycINFO has indexed many more or less accidental editions of Sigmund Freud’s book. Here the notion of collocation of a work would be helpful. Another important example is the citation databases. If one wish to examine where a given work have been cited (doing a kind of reception analysis), it is a problem that there is no collocation of references to a specific work. The searcher has to identify all the different documents (e.g. editions of a book, versions of a paper) and search them individually. (This is much complicated, in particular if the name of the author is represented in many different ways, as is, for example, the transcription of Russian names). Could we examine the concept of “a work” further by considering which citations to different documents it would be most fruitful to collocate?


Hjørland (2004) further suggested that the concept of a work - like other concepts - may be understood differently by different epistemologies. A positivist would like “work” to be something that can easily be identified (and perhaps measured). Such a person would say that if a text is reproduced with no or only few changes, those two documents might represent the same work. The criterion whether or not it is the same work is, for the positivist, related to the similarity (e.g. in the number of words which have been changed). A hermeneutically inclined person, on the other hand, would say that a work is not a tangible phenomenon. A work is something that represents a creation and invention of something original. In patent-administration is is acknowledged that you can only patent something which represents a given level of invention. The hermeneutically inclined person would say that a work represents such a “level of invention”. If new documents are produced they represent the same work IF the idea behind the specific intention is maintained. Otherwise it may represent a new work. (A problem may be that many documents do not have such originality). A pragmatic person as a third possibility would ask what kind of function the concept is going to fulfil? The answer could be that "works" have to be collocated in bibliographic databases, why the definition of a work should be determined within LIS by what is relevant to collocate, and could use Tillett's (2001, p. 23) figure as a help to define the criteria of what to consider "a work".  




“To work” (verb) is a kind of human activity. Warner (2002) has written about forms of human work (or labor) in information systems.






Johansen, T. (1991). Værk og dokument - en studie i den alfabetiske katalogs problematik. 3. reviderede udgave. København: Danmarks Biblioteksskole.


Hjørland, B. (2004). How to define a scientific term such as “A Work”. Presentation given at American Society for Information Science and Technology Annual Meeting, November 12-17, 2004, Providence, Rhode Island, Sunday, November 14, 3:30-5pm Session: Interdisciplinary Concepts of the “Work” Entity. Available at:   (Visited 24-04-2006 ).


Smiraglia, R. P. (2001). The nature of a work. Implications for the Organization of Knowledge. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press.


Smiraglia, R. P. (Ed.). (2003). Works as entities for information retrieval. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.


Tillett, B. B. (2001). Bibliographic relationships. IN: Relationships in the organization of knowledge. Ed. by Carol A. Bean & Rebecca Green. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.


Warner, J. (2002). Forms of labour in information systems. Information Research, 7(4). Available:





Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 24-04-2006