What is a thesaurus?

Suzanne Barbalet

Recently we attended an International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO) event in London entitled The Great Debate: “This house believes that the traditional thesaurus has no place in modern information retrieval”.

Little contention marked the proceedings in what, at first glance, appeared to be a rather contentious topic. In fact both sides of the debate were happy to acknowledge at times that they all seemed to be leaning towards ‘singing from the same song sheet’. Helen Lippell, speaking for the motion, even said it felt heretical speaking against the thesaurus.

Nevertheless the speakers quickly got to the nub of the matter when each in turn raised the question “What is a Thesaurus?”. Judi Vernau, speaking for the motion, suggested that practically it might be what is defined by ISO standard 25964, and much discussion followed throughout the debate regarding how best the ISO standard might keep abreast with the fast changing world of knowledge organization.

When it came to Vanda Broughton her argument that, in the context of semantic web applications, thesauri were knowledge organization tools (KOTs) like ontologies and taxonomies could be interpreted as turning the question around. Rather than ask “What is a thesaurus?” she had possibly broadened the question to “What is a Knowledge Organization System?”. Stella Dextre Clarke, in comments from the floor, felt this might be a step too far, but the point Professor Broughton wished to make here was that once integrated in sophisticated search and retrieval systems thesauri became central control systems in much the same manner as ontologies and taxonomies while still retaining their ‘traditional’ knowledge organization features.

Speaking against the motion both Vanda Broughton and Leonard Will turned the spotlight on the opposition: the strong and powerful ‘Google’ type search. Vanda Broughton pointed out that a Google search on the word ‘thesaurus’ can retrieve no information on what it is. We cannot go to Google to answer the question “What is a Thesaurus?”. Leonard Will adopted a similar argument. Google, he argued, cannot tell you that an ‘engine’ is a ‘locomotive’. Wikipedia can because it has an embedded thesaurus structure.

Speaking for the motion Helen Lippell focused her argument on costs. While thesauri are undeniably a good option, can we justify the cost of constructing and maintaining them? Judi Vernau, on the other hand, said that she did not want to be misunderstood as arguing for ‘dumbing down’ of KOTs but rather for something more flexible and more sophisticated than the ‘traditional’ thesaurus. We have the tools for making the ‘traditional’ thesaurus more powerful already was Vanda Broughton’s first point in the debate. This was the combination of thesauri and classification functioning together, rather like the elements of a Rubiks Cube, by employing facet analysis to produce a powerful KOT.

The question “What is a thesaurus?” then is best answered by addressing what it does. Here Leonard Will chose to demonstrate the HASSET/ELSST Visual Graph as proof that by incorporating visualization, a ‘traditional’ thesaurus had managed to step across the line and convert what has been generally viewed as an impenetrable tool, requiring the assistance of a reference librarian to refine the research question, into an attractive online search tool. Using HASSET, Leonard Will demonstrated to an appreciating audience how quickly the Visual Graph can guide the user through a maze of related terms, dipping down hierarchies at a speed that should satisfy millennials and non-millennials alike.

In his conclusion too, the chair Martin White rehearsed the argument that we had caught a glimpse of the future in the demonstration of the UK Data Service’s Visual Graph which Leonard Will had given the audience. Thesauri need to turn their attention to interfaces that satisfy users need for fast and attractive search options in order to retain their relevance in a world where demand for information will always exceed supply.

The motion was carried, with only a handful of dissenters, but it was clear that the question of “What is a thesaurus?” or “What is a knowledge organization tool?” will remain on the agenda for many more meetings to come.

Do read and listen to the full debate at www.iskouk.org/content/great-debate and read Stella Dextre Clarke’s account at iskouk.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/thesaurus-debate-needs-to-move-on.html. Stella is Vice-president of ISKO and Chair of ISKO UK. We were delighted to read her opening lines:

“To defeat any argument of the form “XXX has no place in YYY”, all you have to provide is one counter-example. Just for starters: The UK Data Archive, powered by the HASSET thesaurus …”

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