With apologies to The Bard, whether you're trying to find a document or define who a child laborer is, a rose by any other name is, in practice, somewhat different than a rose. But the field of knowledge organization (KO) makes specific information easier to access and more meaningful to information seekers. Connections and links created by professionals who organize knowledge make it easier to find a specific version of a work that does, in fact, go by many names. KO ensures access to various media and the sciences and is aware of the challenges and opportunities of diverse social and cultural contexts. In addition to having some of the world's leading KO researchers, the UW iSchool is committed to teaching and mentoring the next generation of thinkers and researchers in the field, and boasts the largest set of KO courses offered in North America.
"KO is the organization and representation of documents that society deems worth preserving," said iSchool Assistant Professor Joseph Tennis. "Our research develops and critiques methodologies for organizing this valuable knowledge." Tennis's research in classification theory poses such questions as: What are the best ways to organize knowledge to make best use of the cultural resources that create and preserve information? How do we get it to the most people in the most unambiguous ways? How do we use language in creating classifications? "KO is about language and the way we use it to get at the written record," Tennis said. "KO is also about aligning standards behind the scenes in an invisible web of interconnected sets of data and documents."
These interconnections are key in some of Associate Professor Stuart Sutton's research, which is primarily focused on the semantic web. Sutton is identifying information in the tangled documents and resources on the World Wide Web. Educators, for example, might seek to empower computers to "consistently and unambiguously" represent resources that link to desired learning outcomes. For example, "With a math objective, these might range from a lesson plan to a widget that helps solve calculus problems," Sutton said. These resources could then be aligned across states and nations so that a teacher anywhere can find reliable resources correlated with academic or content standards. "To describe resources by what learning outcomes they support is at the very core of their value to teachers and learners."
In a web that primarily links data rather than documents, Sutton explained, a click on Stratford, Shakespeare's birthplace, could take you to a map on Google Earth and from there to historical data, the population from Shakespeare's time forward and other related information, rather than just a link to another page. "The glossy stuff you see on the top is enabled by people who link all the data underneath," he said.
"In the UK, a recent, very exciting initiative," Sutton said, points to the enormous benefits of linked data. "Her Majesty's Government has declared that all UK public sector information and data will be represented for use on the semantic web as linked data" (see data.gov.uk). The government has convinced Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, to guide the initiative initially.
"I don't know of a more significant indicator than the recognition that the future of an informed UK citizenry partially relies on semantic web/linked data principles, to provide meaningful access to public sector information. We might hope that our government will follow the example. When we see initiatives like this, the invisible, enabling infrastructure is a form of knowledge organization."
But knowledge organization is also "on display." One goal of Associate Professor Allyson Carlyle's research is to create catalog displays that provide a rich environment of links to help people find a specific version of a "voluminous" work published in multiple editions and media. For example, links between The Haunted Pool by George Sand that in one uncommon translation was called The Devil's Pool would have saved a frustrated information seeker from contacting multiple libraries before obtaining Carlyle's help. "My work goes underneath; my concern is relationships, linking one thing to another. There should have been links between those two titles," she said.
Which version of Alice in Wonderland do you want--the original published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a French translation or a specific movie adaptation? Carlyle explained that for those who don't go beyond the first screen display (and most don't), the coding of relationships is critical.
Relationships in KO must be made at all levels, from system to society. Associate Professor Cheryl Metoyer is attempting to bring new ways of classifying information that reflect American Indian and Alaska Native systems of knowledge into library and information science practice. "Through our research, we hope to develop more precise, accurate and meaningful systems for organizing information related to these Native populations," she said. Four Native doctoral students are collaborating with Metoyer. "While there are just five of us here, we constitute critical mass compared to other ischools."
Fundamentally KO is about problem solving, and Assistant Professor Jin Ha Lee is doing research in music information retrieval to create vocabularies that help people find music they've heard but cannot identify. She is also developing a database of car sounds that diagnose car problems. (See Thinking about music and sound as information.)
"Whether it's semantics, invisible connections, relationships between works or giving voice to diverse perspectives," Tennis said, "the KO researchers at UW aim to solve problems. For as diverse as we are, we're all interested in appropriate methods of organization. The overarching idea is to design and evaluate processes that lead to the faithful and useful representation of information.
"But being faithful is not easy from multiple perspectives, diverse relationship structures and different uses of language," Tennis said. "Naming people, beliefs, and then categorizing them is tricky work. The devil is in the details -- the methodology. And it is often only apparent in an information system when the language or perspective doesn't match your own. It is invisible, and perhaps for some, boring."
"We say in our research circles, 'We're the people who are excited about boring things,'" Sutton said. "We enable the technology linking one thing to another so you can see the exciting results on the screen. The outcomes are not boring."