Units or entities in knowledge organization (KO). What is being organized?

The field of knowledge organization consists of some units, elements or entities to be organized and some relations between those units (e.g., semantic relations and bibliographic relationships).


If we look at an introductory paper on knowledge organization such as Anderson (2003) many different suggestions to what is organized in KO is given.  


“The description (indexing) and organization (classification) for retrieval of messages representing knowledge, texts by which knowledge is recorded and documents in which texts are embedded. Knowledge itself resides in minds and brains of living creatures.

    Its organization for retrieval via short- and long-term memory is a principal topic of cognitive science. Library and information science deals with the description and organization of the artifacts (messages, texts, documents) by which knowledge (including feelings, emotions, desires) is represented and shared with others. These knowledge resources are often called information resources as well. Thus ‘knowledge organization’ in the context of library and information science is a short form of ‘knowledge resources organization’. This is often called ‘information organization’“. (Anderson, 2003, p. 471; underlining added).


This quotation provided six different terms (the underlined) to consider as candidate terms for the units in KO. Other views may be found scattered in different literatures. For example, in the sociology of science, Barnes writes:


"Let us remind ourselves of the basics of the small view of Kuhn. His crucial insight, on this view, is that solved problems are the fundamental units of scientific knowledge. Particular problem solutions are accepted within a collective as valid achievements on the basis of which future work should proceed; these paradigms diffuse through the collective and are passed on down the generations as the elementary components of the scientific culture" (Barnes, 2002, p. 127).


Garshol (2004) writes:


"It is generally assumed when organizing information that it consists of discrete pieces, though the terms used for these vary. The pieces are sometimes referred to as "documents", at other times as "objects". We will use the term object here for the entities being organized, as it does not seem appropriate to assume that they will all be documents in the traditional sense of the word. "

R. Stichweh writes about disciplines as units: 

"One can still find the same understandings of doctrina and disciplina in the literature of the eighteenth century. But what changed since the Renaissance is that these two terms no longer refer to very small particles of knowledge. They point instead to entire systems of knowledge (Ong 1958). This goes along with the ever more extensive use by early modern Europe of classifications of knowledge and encyclopedic compilations of knowledge in which disciplines function as unit divisions of knowledge. The background to this is the growth of knowledge related to developments such as the invention of printing, the intensified contacts with other world regions, economic growth and its correlates such as mining and building activities. But in these early modern developments there still dominates the archival function of disciplines. The discipline is a place where one deposits knowledge after having found it out, but it is not an active system for the production of knowledge." (Stichweh, 2001, 13728)

(Dogan, 2001) puts forward the view that disciplines are no longer the most important units in scientific communication. He finds that no person in disciplines like sociology today can master the knowledge of the whole discipline and contribute to many of them. Each formal discipline gradually becomes unknown in its entirety.  “There is more communication between specialties belonging to different disciplines than between specialties within the same discipline” (Dogan, 2001, p. 14852)

Based on the quoted papers and other papers, one can easily construe a long list of candidates claiming the role of basic units in KO:



Books on shelves


Information resources

Knowledge claims

Knowledge resources


Messages representing knowledge

Objects (three-dimensional)

Recorded knowledge

Signs (semiotic KO)

Solved problems


Subjects (Fields of knowledge, disciplines, professions)








Among these units are, for example, "concepts" or "ideas" often regarded as units in the "intellectual organization of knowledge" while, for example, disciplines or specialties are regarded as units in the "Social organization of knowledge". There is not today proposed any theory of how all these candidates for units in knowledge are interrelated. Different theoretical outlooks tend to focus on just some of those concepts. A comprehensive theory of KO has to relate all these concepts to each other.


Below are some of the suggestions for units in KO shortly introduced:




The term "Knowledge Organization" is historically related to the works of Cutter, Sayers & Richardson, who all recommended that book classification followed scientific classification. Among the classic books in the tradition of Knowledge Organization is Bliss' (1929) "The organization of knowledge and the system of the sciences". These persons knew the problem of fallibilism, but considered it possible for LIS to base bibliographical classification on scientific classification. (Bliss tried to interpret a consensus). The best way to organize books in libraries (and document representations in bibliographies) was to make the library classification reflect a scientific classification which, in turn, was supposed to reflect the nature of reality:



Natural order -> Scientific Classification -> Library classification (KO)


Today is "knowledge" often regarded as more relative to theories and perspectives, why it would probably be more correct to talk about "knowledge claims". Ways of ordering knowledge is also to a higher degree seen as pragmatic, as supporting different human activities, why the organization is not "objective" and "neutral" but purposeful and more or less fruitful in relation to different goals and activities. One could say that the tendency have been to move from a more "positivist" view of knowledge towards a more "pragmatic" epistemology.



In 1968 suggested Gerard Salton a change of terminology from “Knowledge organization” to “Information Organization”. It has subsequently been adopted by others (e.g. Svenonius, 2000; Taylor, 1999). Does this term represent another theoretical perspective compared to "knowledge organization" or does it just represent a fad in terminology? A deeper understanding of this issue implies an investigation of the meaning of "information". Among the critics of this concept is Furner (2004), who find it unnecessary for information studies!



Among the important advocates for "works" as the organizational units in knowledge organizations is Richard Smiraglia. His book from 2001 directly indicates this relationship: "The nature of a work. Implications for the Organization of Knowledge".  The concept of work has been central in the library cataloging tradition, but not in the scientific bibliographical databases (cf. Hjørland, 2004b).



"What's being optimized is number of books on the shelf. That's what the categorization scheme is categorizing. It's tempting to think that the classification schemes that libraries have optimized for in the past can be extended in an uncomplicated way into the digital world. This badly underestimates, in my view, the degree to which what libraries have historically been managing is an entirely different problem. " (Shirky, 2005).



Two things are important to consider in relation to units . The first one is that different approaches to KO implicitly or explicitly operate with different units. The implication is that units cannot be separated from a historical and theoretical perspective to KO. The second thing is that a given terminology may not reflect the units, which are actually used. The term “information retrieval” implies that what is retrieved is “information”. The overwhelming amount of studies using this term are, however, retrieving bibliographical references (which may or may not inform the user in the way they were intended), why "document retrieval" may be a better choice. When considering terminology we should consider what concretely is being applied in KO.

Based on such considerations, the following units may be related to approaches to KO (as presented by Broughton et al., 2005)  in the following way:


1. Traditional approaches to knowledge organization.

Concretely are documents the units organized, but the term “knowledge organization” implies a more abstract ambition to base classification on scientific and scholarly knowledge.

2. The facet-analytic approach 

“Ideas”. This approach removes itself somewhat from the empirical basis of documents and introduces logical principles for KO which are mainly based on rational intuition.

3. Information retrieval tradition

Concretely are words, co-word relations and word-document-relations the units. However, “information” is the claimed unit.

4. User oriented views

Individual, cognitive structures

5. Bibliometric approaches

Documents and citation patterns between documents.

6. The domain Analytic approach

“Knowledge” is replaced with “documented knowledge claims” or works.

(What is being organized are not eternal truths, but works with claims that are substantiated from one or another epistemological perspective).





Anderson, J. D. (2003). Organization of knowledge. IN: International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science. 2nd. ed. Ed. by John Feather & Paul Sturges. London: Routledge (pp. 471-490).


Barnes, B. (2002). Thomas Kuhn and the problem of social order in science. IN: Nickles, T. (Ed.). Thomas Kuhn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Pp. 122-141). 


Bliss, H. E. (1929).The organization of knowledge and the system of the sciences. With an introduction by John Dewey. New York: Henry Holt and Co.  


Broughton, V.; Hansson, J.; Hjørland, B. & López-Huertas, M. J. (2005). [Chapter 7:] Knowledge Organization. IN: European Curriculum Reflections on
Library and Information Science Education
. Ed. by L. Kajberg & L. Lørring. Copenhagen: Royal School of Library and Information Science. (Pp. 133-148). [Report of working group on LIS-education in Europe.
Working seminar held  in Copenhagen 11-12 August 2005 at the Royal School of Library and Information Science.] Available: http://biblis.db.dk/uhtbin/hyperion.exe/db.leikaj05 (Chapter 7 alone: Chapter 7.pdf).


Dogan, M. (2001). "Specialization and Recombination of Specialties in the social sciences" (pp. 14851-14855). International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Edited by Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. London, Pergamon-Elsevier Science.


Furner, J. (2004). Information studies without information. Library Trends, 52(3), 427-446.


Garshol, L M (2004) Metadata? Thesauri? Taxonomies? Topic maps! Making sense of it all. Journal of Information Science, 30 (4). 378-391. Available online at: http://www.ontopia.net/topicmaps/materials/tm-vs-thesauri.html


Hjørland, B. (2004a). Basic Units in Library and Information Science. Presentation given at the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Annual Meeting, November 12-17, 2004, Providence, Rhode Island, Monday, November 15, 3:30-5pm. Session: Document, Record, Work: The Basic Units of Analysis in Information Studies. http://web.archive.org/web/20051208011211/http://www.db.dk/bh/Units+in+IS_B.ppt


Hjørland, B. (2004b). 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: http://web.archive.org/web/20060205034637/http://www.db.dk/bh/Nature+of+_A+work_.ppt   .


Ong, W. J. (1958).  Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Salton, G. (1968). Automatic Information Organization and Retrieval. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Shirky, C. (2005). Ontology is Overrated: Links, Tags, and Post-hoc Metadata. From the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference held in San Diego, California, March 14-17, 2005. http://shirky.com/writings/ontology_overrated.html


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


Stichweh, R. (2001). Scientific Disciplines, History of. IN: Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B. (eds.). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier Science (pp. 13727-13731).

Svenonius, E. (2000). The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.


Taylor, A. G. (1999). The Organization of information. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited.



See also: Entity






Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 24-03-2007





  1. Discuss the relative merits and problems in regarding "works" the units to be organized in KO.

  2. Discuss the implications of fallibilism for the concepts of "knowledge" and "knowledge organization".

  3. Discuss the relative merits and problems by using the terms "knowledge organization" versus "organization of information".