Knowledge organization tools


Due to the influence of changing socio-political and economic situations, there is a marked change in the information needs of people in the 21st century. In today's context people want to have value added and customized information that would help in problem solving and creative thinking. On the other hand there is rapid growth in scientific knowledge in the past few decades, and Internet and the world wide web are emerging as major repositories of knowledge and information. Traditional subject-based knowledge organization tools are unable to cope up with the information demands of the knowledge society thus influencing information professionals all over the world to design and develop effective and efficient knowledge organization tools to meet the information requirements of the 21st century. Since knowledge and information are intricately linked with the human mind any attempt to design knowledge organization and information retrieval tools must have an insight on certain fundamental aspects like the reason for human beings seek knowledge, cognitive functions and capabilities of human mind, influence of societal and technological aspects on knowledge growth etc. This paper briefly discusses each of these fundamental aspects and suggests an alternative knowledge organization and information retrieval tool based on basic and advanced 'human needs'.


All the knowledge organization tools developed till date attempt to organize the universe of knowledge based on the fundamental subjects or subject groups. The core objective all these knowledge organization tools is to provide an immediate and precise information to users as per their information requirements. Due to the influence of changing socio-political and economic situations, there is a marked change in the information needs of people in the 21st century. In today's context people want to have value added and customized information that would help in problem solving and creative thinking. On one hand there is change in the information requirements on the other hand rapid growth in scientific knowledge in the past few decades and emergence of the Internet and world wide web as major repositories of knowledge and information. Because of these factors the knowledge organization tools developed based on the fundamental subjects are unable to satisfy the information requirements of the 21st century thus compelling information professionals all over the world to find solutions to the problem of information storage and retrieval. Before setting ourselves to develop alternatives to conventional knowledge organization tools, one should understand some of the fundamental issues like origins of knowledge, its purpose and functions, influence of socio-economic and cultural factors on knowledge growth, characteristics and role of digital technologies, media and environments on form and format in which information is stored, and study the limitations of subject-based knowledge organization tools, initiatives undertaken to improve the efficiency of existing tools and need for alternative approaches, as clarity on these issues will help in designing efficient and effective knowledge organization tools satisfying the present day requirement and hopefully set direction for future development too.

This paper briefly discusses each of these issues and then suggests strategies to improve the information retrieval in the digital environments and presents an alternative model which organizes the universe of knowledge based on basic and advanced 'human needs'.

Origins of Knowledge


Birth of internal and external knowledge

knowledge is the mental reference model formed by human mind when it experiences the physical objects or non-physical phenomena of the external world through its higher senses, and delves upon these observed facts through its cognitive capabilities such as deduction, inference, comprehension etc. In other words, the knowledge is created because of the ability of human mind to document/develop reference models in response to:

  • The interactions and dynamic relationships the humans establish with their environments (including both natural that is physical as well as social environments)
  • The interactions and dynamic relationships that operate between various components of natural/physical and social environments.
  • The results and outcomes of those interactions and so on and so forth.

Development of these mental reference models are conditioned by certain fundamental factors like -

Context - various social, economic, political, cultural situations in which human beings perform;

Functional roles - The two sets of functional roles played by human beings during their life time as members of a family and as members of the bigger society as that of an academician, professional, manufacturer, philosopher, teacher, student, so on and so forth within the geographical spaces and time frames condition the mental reference models developed by the human mind.

The knowledge so formed when shared among other members of the society or community it became the external knowledge. Knowledge consists of facts, perspectives, concepts, beliefs, judgments and expectations, methodologies, and know-how and much more. Prior to the invention of printing press humans shared and passed on knowledge from one member to another member of the community through word of mouth and later the print medium had become the predominant medium for sharing and exchanging of knowledge because of inherent advantages like ease of replication, long shelf life, and ease of dissemination etc. Thus invention of printing press had positively impacted the growth of external knowledge over the generations.

Processes by which human mind seeks and uses the knowledge

Human mind tries to know about things of the external world by dividing them into small parts and viewing each part as a whole in its own right. The process of learning includes understanding facts and phenomena about self, surroundings, and environments and also learning about personal, individual, social and societal needs and problems, etc, and forming opinions, values, beliefs etc through analysis, evaluation and comparison. Understanding is at primary level. Evaluation, analysis and comparison are at higher levels. Thus human mind learns and understands by division. However while finding solutions to human needs, human mind does so by integrating the knowledge acquired by division. In other words while working on solutions to human needs, mind retrieves information from all the relevant components of the knowledge base cutting across all arbitrary divisions like natural sciences, physical sciences, social sciences etc. That is the reason why rigid boundaries of the subject based knowledge organization tools pose obstacles in effective utilization of knowledge by human mind.

Purpose of knowledge

It is a well understood and recorded fact that the human mind seeks knowledge to sustain and improve its quality of life as an individual and of the society as a whole not only for the present but for future also. Thus at the physical level the knowledge has two purposes firstly to enable human beings to use the knowledge to solve his individual, social and societal needs, Peter Drucker (1992) very lucidly explains the point when he says, "Knowledge like electricity or money is a form of energy that exists only when doing work." Secondly to pass on the knowledge accumulated while solving the human needs to next generations, through education and also as a knowledge base. At a level higher than physical, the purpose of knowledge is to enable human being to know himself.

Influence of Socio-economic and cultural factors on growth of the knowledge

McGarry (1993) in his book titled "The Changing Context of Information" explains the reasons for the growth of disciplines. He says, "No matter how theoretical a discipline may be its origins lie in a social need of some kind and it also satisfies some of the social needs of its members. Not least among these needs are intellectual curiosity and self esteem". If we observe the trends in scientific research, we can observe the link between societal needs and growth of knowledge very clearly. Fundamental research was at its peak when man was more curious to find out the secrets of the universe and to clear the mysteries of the nature and universe etc. This type of research has contributed to the growth of knowledge by way of specialising on narrower topics and splitting the basic subjects into their minor components etc. Applied research or problem oriented research was at its peak when man wanted to find solutions to the problems of the world like hunger, diseases, energy crisis, human settlements, etc. This type of research contributed to the growth of knowledge by applying the knowledge to solve the problems and thus created a whole range of applied disciplines like engineering, medical sciences, pharmacy, agriculture, etc. Third type of research is mission-oriented research is at its helm when man wanted to apply the knowledge of one area to solve the problems in another, e.g. biotechnology, genetic engineering, expert systems etc. This kind of research contributes to the growth of knowledge by creating multi-disciplinary topics. For example, expert systems combines otherwise very distinct subjects such as computer technology, psychology, cognitive sciences, physiology of the brain, etc.

Every advancement in the field of science and technology, making the subjects more and more complex. At the same time these advancements are having tremendous influence on the social fabric of life. They are influencing a change in those subjects which are society related such as economics, commerce, business, law. This can be better illustrated with the following example. Internet technology has changed the way people communicate with each other and introduced new ways of doing business through e-commerce, e-shopping etc. These new ways of business require new ways of dealing with money, transactions. New rules and regulations have to be created to ensure the smooth and safe business transactions. As a result new theories and concepts are getting added to conventional knowledge.

Similarly due to socio-economic and political phenomena like globalization and liberalization issues like human rights, human security, human development drawing attention of not only academicians, intellectuals and development workers but also of national governments and international organizations. Though they appear to belong to the realm of social sciences, satisfactory solutions to these issues demand collaboration and synergism of all disciplines of the universe of knowledge. Such situations have given rise to multidisciplinary topics blurring the borders that were drawn among various subjects. Peter Drucker says, "The technology of the twentieth century embraces and feeds off the entire array of human knowledge, the physical sciences as well as the humanities... We cannot tolerate such a split any more. We will have to demand of the scientifically trained man that he again become a humanist; otherwise he will lack the knowledge and perception needed to make his science effective, indeed to make it truly scientific. And we will have to demand of the humanist that he acquires an understanding of science, or else his humanities will be irrelevant and ineffectual. We will, above all have to demand of the people concerned with economy, whether as politicians, as businessmen, or as researchers, that they understand both cultures and move with equal ease in both."(Drucker, P. F. 1992)

Influence of the Medium on Form and Format of information sources

Within the context of information organization and retrieval, the invention of printing of movable type by Gutenberg in early 15th century and the Internet and world wide web in the later part of 20th century which started the print era and electronic era respectively had tremendous influence on the whole process of information generation, dissemination storage and access. Some of the salient features of these eras in terms of

Forms in which information is disseminated

Books, journals, magazines, and newspapers are the major forms in which knowledge is generated, disseminated and stored during the print era. In the electronic era online publications, websites, e-mail communications, electronic documents have become the major forms for information generation storage and dissemination.

Predominant type used for information dissemination

Textual information dominated the print era, although audio visual forms also used to share information, their contribution in comparison to text is minimal and restricted to niche areas like mass media and entertainment etc. Electronic era eased out the limitations of audio-visual forms of print era and facilitating information dissemination not only in audio-visual form but through video, and multimedia also.

Physical versus virtual

Information sources in the print era are generated using physical materials like paper and ink hence occupy physical space, hence have the limitations like inability to be at more than one place on the shelf of a library at any given point of time and replication involves lot of expenditure in terms of cost, physical space and physical materials. Management and maintenance is very cumbersome. In contrast electronic information sources are generated through electronic waves so they are virtual hence provide flexibility in accessing as many times as possible by as many users as possible from as many locations as possible. Replication is simple and needs minimum maintenance. They become physical only when a hard copy is generated from the electronic version.

Information source versus information

In the context of print era, the objective of information retrieval tools is to indicate the location and presence of information sources matching with the information requirements of users. The onus of finding information in those sources lies with the users. However in digital environments the objective is to retrieve information and display it on the computer screen of the user.

Repositories of public knowledge

Libraries operating at different levels whether they are public libraries, or libraries attached to different universities, colleges, schools, or special libraries serving R&D institutions, various government private organization etc the sole repositories of public knowledge where people would go to access information. However in the electronic era due to the prevalence of personal computers and its variants with internet facility, virtually the repositories of public knowledge are sitting on the study tables of each and every individual. Unlimited access to information is just a click away.

Control over public knowledge

Since libraries are the sole repositories, they have physical control over all the information sources present within library premises. Librarians and other information professionals are authorized to decide on the place and location of any particular information source with in the framework of knowledge organization tools used by them.

When it comes to Internet and WWW, there is no single organization or group of organizations who is controlling the Internet and WWW. Hence there is no authority which can organize the information sources on the Net. Internet is like a virtual wall on which anybody and every body can put their graffiti. Nobody knows what's published on the WWW. Individuals or groups or organizations who host websites and other forms of information sources may or may not have necessary skills to organize their information based on the standard knowledge organization tools available.

Interfaces between users and information sources

In the conventional library setting users can have advantage of seeking help from either human interfaces like library and information professionals or other computer interfaces using help-lines etc. more often than not users in the library can physically browse the documents physically present on the shelves. However in the Internet environment search engines are the only interfaces present between users and the information sources. Users can only browse the results retrieved and displayed by the search engines.

Initiatives taken so far towards organizing the Web

For the last decade or so, universities, corporate R&D establishments and professional bodies have taken a lot of initiatives to bring some kind of an order and organization into WWW. Dublin Metadata project initiated by OCLC in 1995 is one of the major efforts in this direction. Although as of today metadata has certain drawbacks in terms cost, unreliability, subjectivity, lack of authentication and lack of interoperability with respect to syntax and semantics (Hunter, J.L. 2003). However efforts are underway key areas like Extensible Markup Languages (XML), which enable website publishers to develop metadata application profiles to satisfy the information needs of a particular community or application. Multimedia metadata - to describe resources like image, video, audio, multimedia and interactive digital objects. Search engines for different languages, and semantic web technologies etc, to overcome these limitations and provide an effective means to organize content on the Internet.

Among these initiatives semantic web technologies has special significance because as described by Tim Berners-Lee the brain behind www technologies "The Semantic Web is an extension of the current Web in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation."(Tim Berners-Lee et al, 2001) Formal languages like RDF (Resource Discription Framework, OWL (Web Ontology Languages) and ontologies are main building blocks of the Semantic web technologies. Ontologies are a type of controlled vocabularies used both to describe the subject contents specific to a particular domain and also to establish relationships across domains and thus enable cross-domain searching and integration of information. Most of the work in knowledge organization for digital environments is focusing on design and development of ontologies to match the domain specific information requirements (Hunter, J.L., 2003).

Research on metadata is still in its infancy so it is too early to predict the effectiveness of these initiatives. However a review of the research done so far indicates that many of the ontologies, taxonomies metadata schemas are based on the subject-based approach and people are going deep in their own specialization hence failing to develop a holistic perspective of the cognitive processes of human mind like knowledge organization information seeking and information retrieval.

On the other hand there is a continuous effort to improve the efficiency of search engines through adopting improved and better strategies for page ranking, indexing and documenting the usage patters etc. Still search engines suffer from the problems inherent in keyword searching like significant differences in results stemming from trivial variations in search statements, irrelevance and redundancy in search results etc. A survey conducted on web search patterns observed that most web queries are short, without much modification, and simple in structure. Use of advanced search features and Boolean operators is improving but still they are seldom used by public. People tend not to browse beyond the first or second results pages. The subject distribution of web queries does not seem to map to the distribution of websites' subject content (Spink, A., 2003) indicating that search engines have to have the ability to match the subject distribution of queries with the subject distribution of websites in order to improve their efficiency.

Limitations of the Subject-based Approach

Almost 75 years back Sri S.R. Ranganathan while visiting various libraries in Europe as part of his professional apprenticeship, made some observations on the status of libraries at that time about which he described in his book titled "The Five Laws of Library Science" as "Libraries were found to be in different stages of development. But the lines of development in the different sectors of library practices appeared to be unrelated. Discussions with those working in different sectors led to the impression that each was working in his own sector without much of contact or correlation with other sectors... There was no evidence of an overall view... Consequently what could be seen was only an aggregate of diverse practices without an integral relation... It all appeared to be a matter of rule of thumb and severely empirical." A lot of thought went into developing efficient knowledge organization tools in these 75 years.

Intellectuals working on knowledge organization tools like classification systems, thesauri have expressed at various points of time their helplessness and unhappiness in organizing the knowledge using subject-based knowledge organization tools. Mr. B.C.Vickery, once noted that "the implications of knowledge organisation have not been fully accepted with in information science". He recommended to look beyond the domain of library and information science and to examine more closely the variety of ways in which public knowledge can be organized (Vickery, B.C., 1997). Ranganathan's dynamic theory of classification tried to resolve the issue of formation of new subjects. He further conceived the idea of "APUPA" order to deal with classification of related and fringe subjects (Ranganathan, S.R., 1989). The editorial committee of Dewey Decimal Classification is also continuously bringing new editions by changing, relocating and expanding existing tables and schedules to accommodate new topics, new terms and new branches of subjects etc. The 22nd edition of DDC which was brought out in the year 2003 had major changes like

  • completely updated schedules 004-006 Data processing Computer science.
  • introduced several improvements to 340 Law that relate to the law of nations, human rights, and intergovernmental organizations
  • changed the name of Table 5 from "Racial, Ethnic, National Groups" to "Ethnic and National Groups" to reflect the de-emphasis on race in current scholarship, etc. However the problem still persists even after 75 years.

Disillusioned by this inability of the standard classification systems, and with the introduction of automatic information retrieval tools encouraged many people either to develop their own classification schemes to suit their specifics needs, "SATIS"[1] (Socially Appropriate Technologies Information System) classification scheme, "Akshara "[2], SCNM classification scheme[3] are some such initiatives in this direction. Or depend on keyword-based information retrieval strategies. Last decades of 20th century has seen the growth of keyword base information retrieval tools like KWIC[4] (KeyWord In Context), KWOC [5] (KeyWord Out of Context). Most of the search engines, the interfaces developed to retrieve information on the web still depend on keywords. These attempts are like 'break-away factions' of political parties. Like the 'break-away factions' these special classification schemes may develop their own methods to organize knowledge to suit their specific requirements but their approach and outlook is same as their parent classification schemes, over a period of time these niche area classification schemes are bound to face same problems those are faced by their parent classification schemes.

Reasons for persistency of the problem

Insistence to adhere to the principle of conformity with scientific and educational consensus

Henry E. Bliss (1934) while elaborating the principles underlying his bibliographic classification stated that if a classification was to serve with maximal efficiency, it should conform fundamentally to the organization of knowledge established in the scientific and educational consensus. Earlier to Bliss, James D. Brown, W.C.B. Sayers also had the same belief that there was a definite order of science which the library classification should follow. In doing so the knowledge organization tools also followed the same objectivity which science came to insist on. Science emphasized on the external verification by objective means as the only valid basis for scientific knowledge. Subjectivity of any kind was frowned upon as unscientific. Knowledge organization tools developed with this approach proved successful till the time books were devoted to describe a single topic or a single subject etc. But changing social conditions which triggered the growth of inter disciplinary topics during the industrial age and topics discussing different socio-political and economic perspectives, and points of views as in the information age. This has brought out the inability of subject-based knowledge organization tools not only in organizing the knowledge but also in retrieving the information as per the changing information needs.

Emphasis on objectivity and neutrality

Since knowledge organization tools tried to follow closely the development of science, they purposely tried to represent the universe of knowledge in a neutral, unbiased and objective manner. But neutrality and objectivity have never existed in the true sense. Information is always sought to meet human needs of some sort or the other, users always seek information with a definite orientation, bias and context, depending upon the human needs they are working at that time. If we take an example, a person working on creating awareness on HIV/AIDS requires information dealing with the concept in a more general way. But a research scientist working on the disease would like to have information on the virus and its effect on human immunity system etc. At the same time a person working on the cure of the disease would want information on the kind of medicines available in the market their curative powers, so on and so forth. All these people though looking for the same topic HIV/AIDS have different orientation, different contexts and different perspective about the same topic. But in subject-based knowledge organization tools there is no provision to represent these bias and different perspectives.

Inability to represent and reflect the meaning of a word or a phrase

This is a problem particularly prominent in the digital environments because the system performs the search based on the actual text string entered rather than on an interpretation of the meaning of the string. For example a search on AIDS may retrieve information sources dealing with educational aids, or audio-visual aids, or financial aids, so on and so forth because in a search program which treats the words or phrases as a set of characters or as a string there is no provision to make the program understand the different meanings associated with a particular word or a phrase.

Inability to represent the relationships that exists between various concepts

Conventional knowledge organization tools represent only the broad hierarchical relationships that exist between concepts, but there is no provision to represent various associative and lateral relationships that exist among concepts. For example "dog" is narrower term for "canine" and also a narrower term for "pets". When somebody needs information on dog as sub set of canines, the information required may be about canine characteristics, physiological and anatomical feature etc, and as pet the information required would be like behavioural patterns, types of breeds available as pets etc. The concept "dog" will also have an associated relationship with "crime detection" as dogs are used in crime detection. There is no provision to capture these multiple relationships of concepts.

Features of future knowledge organization and information retrieval tools

In the light of the above discussed aspects related and relevant to knowledge organization and information retrieval, the knowledge organization and information retrieval tools should have the ability to

  • capability of retrieving information based on which human beings can act in order to meet their human needs at various levels
  • ability to provide a over all view of the universe of knowledge which will set a direction and goal for human development.
  • Accommodate abstract knowledge like judgments, values, beliefs etc, and able to retrieve information on the same.
  • Flexible enough to represent and reflect the dynamic relationships that exist among various subjects and disciplines.
  • Retrieve information meet the specifications demanded by 21st century problems.
  • Organize and retrieve knowledge stored in print as well as in electronic media.

Organising knowledge based on 'Human Needs'

Human needs are eternal and universal

Human needs are the motivators for human being to seek knowledge. The needs can be of different types as described by Maslow[6] Through out the history of mankind, the human needs remained constant, because human being the 'Homosapien" is same since its origin, however the means adopted by human being to fulfill and meet his/her needs have kept on changing as human being went on acquiring more and more knowledge. Human needs are universal in nature and are same irrespective of national boundaries, economic status of nations, religions, beliefs and cultures followed by populations of the world. Hence knowledge organization model based on human needs will have

  • universal applicability,
  • adaptability,
  • scalability,
  • interoperability and
  • suitability to both electronic as well as conventional environments.

Human needs are multi-dimensional and multifaceted because they originate, and operate with in the social and natural environments in which human being lives and as a response to the dynamic interactions and relationships human being develops with its environments. Thus whatever may be the level and type of the human need, will always influence and be influenced by social, economic, environmental, political, scientific, technological situations and factors of the society at physical level and judged by beliefs, values, opinions at higher level with in the context of space and time. As a result the external knowledge created by human being will also be multi-faceted and multidimensional. If we consider 'human-needs' as the basis for designing knowledge organization and information retrieval tools then the tools so developed will be able to represent and accommodate these intricate and complex relationships that operate in the society.

Matching of knowledge base and human information needs

This approach will suit to both conventional library environments and digital environments because the purpose and reason for which information sought is same irrespective of the medium in which it is stored. It can solve the disparity or mismatch between the subject distribution of content available on the websites and subject distribution of queries as observed by Amanda Spink (Spink, A., 2003). Because in the present situation mapping of the subject content of websites is done based on subject approach, where as people have the needs-based approach. However if we organize based on 'human needs' then there will be an automatic alignment of subject content of the websites and users' information requirements

Knowledge as a resource of the knowledge society

In the knowledge society, knowledge has become a resource rather than an end in itself, knowledge is a means to some result. Knowledge as the central energy of a modern society exists altogether in application and when it is put to work (Drucker, P. F., 1992). As knowledge has become resource, in the knowledge society, knowledge is required not only for education but also various other societal and life processes/functions. So in the knowledge society, if knowledge organization tools still believe in conforming to the educational consensus only, then they are bound to fail in their objective of meeting the information requirements of its users. Since human needs are universal, and eternal, all the societal functions/application referred by Drucker are aimed at meeting the human needs, knowledge organization tool based on human needs will be able to satisfy the information requirements of the knowledge society.

Dynamic and Cyclical Universe

The universe, the nature is dynamic. Since human being is a significant part of this dynamic universe and nature, human being and the social and societal environments created by it are also dynamic. The relationships that exists in this dynamic universe can broadly be understood as

  • Human - human
  • Human - societal environment, social environment
  • Human - natural environment
  • Societal and social environment - societal and social environment
  • Societal and social environment - natural environment
  • Natural environment - natural environment

These relationships and interactions lead to results of various kinds, which in turn become part of the societal, social and natural environments in which the human being operates, thus completing the cycle. For example Global warming is a result of interaction between societal environment and natural environment. Global warming - the result will in turn become the part of natural environment, which interacts with natural environment causing climate changes, endangering fauna, flora etc. Since human needs are response and results of these interactions, and external knowledge created by human being reflects and represents these interactions and results, organizing knowledge on this basis will automatically accommodate the cyclical nature of dynamic universe.

Since ontologies are specific to a particular subject/discipline domain, they will exhibit all the relationships that exist in the particular subject/discipline which may cover one or two of categories of relationships described in the above paragraph. For example an ontology developed for agricultural science may show relationships belonging to natural environment to natural environment category, where as ontologies developed based on 'human needs' would depict relationships of all categories. The following example would illustrate the point -

If we take concept 'soil' in the context of agricultural science, it will show the following relationships of 'soil' like

  • concept relationships, whole/part relationships etc,
  • describe attributes like properties, features, characteristics or parameters that 'soil' can have and share,
  • sets, collections and types of 'soil' and
  • changing attributes of 'soil'.

But it will not be able to show relationships like 'salination of soil' on 'loss of livelihood' or 'salination of soil' on 'human development' etc. because in subject based approach such relationships may come under other domains like social sciences etc.

Writing about the current status and direction of ontologies development, Clay Shirky [7] in his paper titled "ontology is overrated: Categories, Links and Tags" poses a philosophical question, "Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?" Both views are necessary because human mind simultaneously keeps on building the mental reference models of the world by interacting with the world in both states. Ontologies developed on the basis of 'human needs' will help in depicting the knowledge perceived by human mind in both ways.


Efficient and effective tools to organise external knowledge are very important because they are the interfaces between external knowledge and the internal knowledge that resides in the human mind. Knowledge is dynamic in nature, because it is a result of the dynamic interactions of human being with its natural/physical and social/societal environments. Hence knowledge organization tools have to have the ability of representing the dynamism of the knowledge. This paper builds up the argument supporting to develop knowledge organization tools based on 'human needs', firstly by describing the factors that contribute to the dynamism of knowledge, secondly by explaining the limitations of subject-based knowledge organization tools and reasons for their inability. As the purpose of knowledge organization tools is to serve the information requirements of the contemporary times, the paper suggests to develop knowledge organisation tools based on 'human needs' as this approach has in-built capabilities to serve the information needs of 21st century.