Approaches to knowledge organization. (Theories of KO)


A) Historical Overview

1) The first edition of the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) came in 1876. Today this system is the most widely used library classification system internationally. In a way this system represents together with the UDC and similar systems the dominant approach to knowledge organization in libraries. See traditional approaches to KO for a further discussion of what kind of theory and method is involved in this approach.


2) Probably the most distinct approach to KO within Library and Information Science (LIS) is the facet-analytic paradigm (or analytico-synthetic approach) developed by S. R. Ranganathan (1892-1972) and further by the British Classification Research Group (1952-) Colon Classification and Bliss 2 are among the most important systems developed on this theoretical basis. This approach has still a strong position in the field, not least in London, but has relatively lost influence during the last decades. It is the most explicit and “pure” theoretical approach to KO, but it is not by implication necessarily the most important one. Principles from this tradition have increasingly influenced the development of classification systems, also old systems such as the DDC (cf., Miksa, 1998). The strength in this approach is it logical principles and the way it provide structures in KOS (classifications as well as thesauri, for example).


3) The 1950's saw the introduction of the computer and the concept of information storage and retrieval. This gave rise to computed based techniques (as well as semi-automatic techniques) for KO. The most primitive systems were KWIC-indexing-systems, the most influential systems were based on the vector space model developed by Gerald SaltonThe information retrieval tradition (IR), which was founded in the 1950’ties with experimental traditions like Cranfield (later continued in the TREC-experiments and with the development of Internet search engines). The Cranfield experiments found that classification systems like UDC and facet-analytic systems were less efficient that free-text searches or low level indexing systems (“UNITERM”). Although KOS such as thesauri and descriptors are children of the IR-tradition, the main tendency has been to question the value of traditional classification and facet analysis and human indexing all together. It has more or less implicit worked with the assumption that algorithms working on textual representations (best full text representations) may fully substitute human indexing as well as algorithms constructed on the basis of human interpretations. If one does not question the results obtained in this approach it implies the end of knowledge organization as a research field to be substituted by IR. This is the reason why it is important to consider IR as one among other approaches to KO in order to identify its relative strengths and weaknesses. (See Information retrieval approach to KO).

    Besides, the development of online information systems gave rise to free-text searching and descriptor based indexing and other techniques which seriously challenged traditional forms of KO such as the UDC and facet analysis. These techniques are less distinct as an approach to KO compared, for example, to the facet-analytical paradigm. Among other things they blur the borders between KO and information retrieval (IR) as well as the borders between Library and Information Science (LIS) and fields like computer science and computational linguistics.


4) In 1963 Eugene Garfield introduced the Science Citation Index which gave rise to bibliometric knowledge organization. (See, for example, maps in Åström (2002) as examples of bibliometric maps: Bibliometric_MAP_LIS.PDF; Bibliometric_LIS_2.PDF).


5) In the 1970ties and 1980ties forms of user-based and cognitive approaches to KO developed. One of the prominent examples of systems developed from this approach is the Book House System developed by Annelise Mark Pejtersen and associates.


6) The 1990ties were influenced by new technologies such as the Internet and full-text databases. Today the semantic web is one of the dominant front-technologies in KO. These technologies may be viewed as a continuation of the IR-tradition (3).


7) The 1990ties saw also an increasing interest in social and interpretative approaches to KO including the formulation of domain analysis as an approach to LIS in general and to KO in particular. Domain analysis is an approach based on an explicit theory of knowledge.


8) Many other approaches have been suggested. Among them semiotic approaches, "critical-hermeneutical" approaches, discourse-analytic approaches and genre-based approaches. They are not going to be discussed further at this place, but the mentioned approaches can be seen as belonging to the same family to which also the domain-analytic approach belongs.


What should also be mentioned as an important trend is an emphasis on document representation, document typology and description, mark up languages, document architectures (information architecture) etc. Dahlström & Gunnarsson (2000); Francke (2005); Frohmann (2004a+b) and others may be considered part this approach.   




B) Theoretical Issues

There is another way than the historical to study approaches to KO. One may regard different epistemological positions such as


Such philosophical positions have - more or less - influenced all domains (as can be seen by going to "Domains" in the same lifeboat). Most of them have also influenced LIS. By comparing basic assumptions in such positions and identify them within LIS we may be able to learn something about strong and weak sides of different approaches from other fields and in a deeper and more systematic way.


Different approaches to KO may be seen as more or less clear expressions of such different epistemological positions. Hjørland (1992, 1997), for example, views the facet analytical approach as a form of rationalism, whereas the IR-approach is seen as expression an empiricist philosophy. The advantages of looking of traditions in relation to basic epistemological and positions is that it provides us to learn from other fields about the advantages and disadvantages of different positions and thus base knowledge organization on more general findings.


Different approaches have different views on what units are organized in KO, how systems should be evaluated and so on.






Dahlström, M. & Gunnarsson, M. (2000). Document Architecture draws a circle: on document architecture and its relation to library and information science and research. Information Research, 5(2)


Francke, H. (2005). What's in a name? Contextualizing the Document concept. Literary and Linguistic Computing,  20(1), 61-69.


Frohmann, B. (2004a). Deflating information. From science studies to documentation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Frohmann, B. (2004b). Documentation redux: Prolegomena to (another) philosophy of information. Library Trends, 52(3), 387-407.


Gnoli, C. (2004). Is there a role for traditional knowledge organization systems in the Digital Age? The Barrington Report on Advanced Knowledge Organization and Retrieval (BRAKOR) 1(1).


Hjørland, B. (1992). The Concept of "Subject" in Information Science. Journal of Documentation, 48(2), 172-200. Click for full-text PDF

Hjørland, B. (1997): Information Seeking and Subject Representation. An Activity-theoretical approach to Information Science. Westport & London: Greenwood Press. 

Lindsay, P. & Norman, D. A. (1977): Human Information Processing: An Introduction to Psychology", 2nd edition, Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego.


Miksa, F. (1998). The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Albany, NY: Forest Press.


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


Åström, F (2002). Visualizing Library and Information Science concept spaces through keyword and citation based maps and clusters. In: Bruce, Fidel, Ingwersen & Vakkari (Eds). Emerging frameworks and methods: Proceedings of the fourth international conference on conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS4), pp 185-197. Greenwood Village: Libraries unlimited. Two figures: Bibliometric_MAP_LIS.PDF; Bibliometric_LIS_2.PDF



See also: Bibliometric KO; Business- or management like approaches; Cognitive view in KO; Domain Analysis in KOFacet and facet analysis; Information retrieval approach to KO; Request oriented approaches to KO; "Traditional classification";


Approaches compared


Traditional classification


How to study approaches to KO


Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 13-05-2007