Historiography of knowledge organization

Timeline for Knowledge Organization is an outline of the history of knowledge organization. One might say, however, that it displays a subjective or even a false story because bibliometrics, information retrieval, Internet search engines etc. are not a part of the history of a field "knowledge organization" as founded by people like Charles A. Cutter, W. C. Berwick Sayers, Henry E. Bliss and Ernest Cushington Richardson. Most of the technological innovations are not based in research done in the tradition which gave rise to the term "knowledge organization" but are based on findings from external disciplines such as computer science and linguistics.

The intention is not to deny this. On the contrary is the intention to uncover the complexity and interdisciplinarity of the issues related to "knowledge organization".

One problem is how different institutions such as libraries, achieves, museums, electronic databases and Internet-technologies are based on the same principles and should be regarded under the same historical point of view. I believe we have to consider such different traditions from an overall perspective (cf. Knowledge organization).

To illustrate, let us look at the Cranfield experiments from the last part of the 1950ties. These experiments were done be people who explicitly dissociated themselves with "library science" (cf. Hjørland, 2000). They made empirical tests of traditional knowledge organizing systems (KOS) such as the UDC-system and found that this kind of systems were simply inefficient. In a way the history of knowledge organization ends here. There are still people focusing on traditional KOS, but those people are little cited within library and information science (LIS) and have a low visibility and impact. Any fair history of the broader field must admit that the dominating force has since that time been the "information scientists" who dissociated themselves from "library science" and "knowledge organization".

We may say that traditional KOS related to libraries have been seriously challenged. Not only have "library scientists" been challenged by other kinds of scientists such as computer scientists, but the knowledge organizing work done by libraries have been challenged by competing systems. Before the development of electronic databases users had not much choice, but had to identify the needed documents by utilizing the classification and indexing provided by libraries. Today, there are many alternatives. One may, for example, find the books on Amazon. COM and then borrow them from a local library. In this way the local library's classification and indexing system is seriously challenged by alternatives provided by information services outside the library sector.

The point is: Any serious engagement in KOS for libraries must today consider the challenges from other kinds of systems and from other research traditions. If we fail to do this we cannot claim to do important work, which may improve library and information services. We have to interpret the history of the field(s) retrospectively in the light of the challenges we have to deal with today. If empirical studies once and forever have demonstrated that a certain kind of system is obsolete, we should not care much about such systems or their history. Our emphasis on different aspects of the past is in other words determined by how we interpret such studies and what we consider to be the way forward for KOS. Because traditional systems are still dominating the practical work in libraries - in spite of much evidence that they are inefficient compared to other kinds of KOS - there is still a reason to tell their story. The aim should then be to convince students and colleagues about the need to pay greater attention to the more advanced KOS, why the emphasis should reflect this aim. This is a pragmatic view on historiography, and the difficulty in applying this view is that you cannot write the history of a field without being an expert in the field and without a deep understanding of the relative importance of different aspects of the past. You cannot just "read" the history, to a certain degree you have to produce it, to read it into past achievements. It is with history as with words: they are intended to accomplish something, why their meaning is not determined by the past but by the future; what the speaker wants to accomplish.

The development of knowledge organization (in both the broad and narrow sense) may be analyzed from different perspectives such as
A. General development in society (e.g. that internalization increases the tendency toward international schemes and suppression of national or regional traditions; the "information explosion" puts pressure on all forms of knowledge mediating ).
B. Technological developments in IT (to be outlined below).
C. Developments in media- and communication (e.g. the establishing of abstracts in articles which can be reused by secondary information services).
D. Developments within the knowledge organizing institutions such as archives, databases, libraries and museums. (e.g. the development of central cataloging and cooperative cataloging in shared catalogs).
E. Theoretical developments within epistemology & ”Zeitgeist”. (e.g. impact of logical positivism and forms of pragmatism on knowledge organization).
F. Theoretical developments within library and information science (e.g. development of user-oriented, cognitive and domain-analytic views).

It is of course important to develop a genuine theory of KO and to try to write the history of the field according to that theory. However, the technological developments and their implications seem much more visible and powerful. The technological developments in KO may, for example, be described by the following stages:

Technological developments in IT
- 1876 (prehistory: Development of alphabetical and systematic principles of ordering in libraries, archives etc.)
≈1876- Knowledge Organization is established as an academic subject about classification in libraries
≈1895- Documentalist movement established by Paul Otlet and Henri Lafontaine
≈1950- “Information retrieval”
≈1963- Citation Indexing
≈1990- Fuldtekstbaser, Internet, Hypertext
After the establishing of new stages the old stages continue to exist - more or less as different, technology-based approaches to knowledge organization!

The last five of these stages have been shortly presented and discussed in, e.g., Hjørland (2003).


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Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 15-02-2006