As most readers of this blog know, a thesaurus is a way to categorize the knowledge of certain fields or specified combinations thereof. All thesauri are built for specific fields or topical areas. This does not prevent a thesaurus from being able to cover a wide range of knowledge, especially if it’s multidisciplinary within, for instance, the area of academic subjects as a whole. (If the latter is the case, we might well have much more trouble with disambiguation than we would have in more specialized thesauri.)

A thesaurus really is an outline of knowledge. It is a way of looking at a field. It is an approach. You can influence people’s perceptions of a field with a thesaurus. In a sense, you can exert some control over the media. You’ve probably read or heard or seen a text presentation on how by the way you present your data, you can control the way that people think. And a thesaurus could certainly be considered a means of presentation of knowledge, by the way it categorizes not just associated database items, but its own terms. A thesaurus could certainly be used to convey one’s point of view.

The more specific the area we are covering, the more specific the knowledge domain we are dealing with, the more specific and deeper the thesaurus can be. So, if we built a thesaurus for a fairly narrow photonics and imaging engineering database, we can get pretty deep. On the other hand, if we are building something multidisciplinary in nature, covering a wider variety of science, for instance, we can’t get quite as deep.

However, to cover the fields adequately, we still need to be mindful of sufficient depth. Covering a multidisciplinary database with a lot of documents on a varied and broader range of topics is challenging, because the graduate students who are searching that file for dissertation topics and for support of that topic want to get very, very specific. Getting the right balance and getting all those slices of knowledge properly represented can have a strong impact on the success of research that uses the resulting thesaurus.

Marjorie M.K. Hlava
President, Access Innovations

This posting is one of a series based on a workshop, “Thesaurus Creation and Management,” that Marjorie Hlava presented in December of 2012.