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Documentary Languages and the Demarcation of Information Units in Textual Information: The Case of Julius O. Kaiser’s Systematic Indexing

Part of the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST,volume 34)

Abstract

Information retrieval (IR) is a central task of information science (IS). Traditionally, IR has focused on document retrieval: however, another, long-established approach to IR—that of information analysis—has sought to decompose documents into retrievable units of information. This paper examines the method of information analysis propounded by one of its pioneers, the business librarian Julius Otto Kaiser (1868–1927), and its theoretical presuppositions about the nature of information. Kaiser viewed information almost exclusively in terms of text and recognized that it had both ontological and epistemological dimensions. On one hand, he held that textual information is an entity of some sort and so capable of being indexed: on the other, he deemed it to be both the product, and occasion, of interpretation on the part of author and reader alike. Kaiser’s method of information analysis sought to decompose documents into units of information on the basis of their semantic content, using a documentary language as a tool for demarcating such units. Analysis of this language indicates that it both incorporated objective features of texts (i.e., extracted terms) and gave indexers considerable interpretative leeway in establishing the boundaries of information units. Kaiser’s version of information analysis constitutes an early attempt to take account of both the ontological and epistemological features of information and so enriches our image of the information-analytic approach, which has traditionally been construed as founded in a positivistic. “objective” view of information alone.

Keywords

  • Information Retrieval
  • Systematic Indexing
  • Textual Document
  • Information Analysis
  • Information Retrieval System

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Fig. 12.1
Fig. 12.2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Within IS and its antecedents, the definition of the term “document” has historically been an elastic one, ranging from restriction of the term to “graphic records” (such as books, articles, manuscripts, and photographs) to the expansion thereof to encompass audiovisual materials (such as sound recordings and films) and even museum objects (including artefacts and even natural objects such as zoological specimens); for overviews of the main lines of discussion and a plaidoyer for the more expansive view, see Buckland (1991a, 1991b, 1997). In practice, attention has tended to focus on the treatment of graphic records bearing texts or other representations of data that are, in principle, reducible to linguistic expression (cf. Pagès 1948: 56; Hjørland 1997: 14–17).

  2. 2.

    The definition of “subject” is a controversial matter within IS; for some seminal discussions, see Hjørland (1992); Miksa (1983: 1–85); Serrai (1979a: 56–80); Wilson (1968: 69–92). Perhaps the best lapidary characterization of the concept is that of Nichols (1892: 407), according to whom, in a bibliographic context, a subject is “any event, place, person, fact, relation, topic, or anything which may be an object of thought and may become an object of search”. This can perhaps be provisionally generalized, at least for textual documents, as follows: a subject is some feature of the world about which the discursive contents of a given document provide information.

  3. 3.

    Nunberg (1996: 108–111) has dubbed this sense of the word “information” the “particularistic sense”, since it involves the conveyance of knowledge in particular discursive transactions; see also Machlup (1983: 642). For a broader overview of the spectrum of different nuances of the term in everyday discourse, see Capurro (1978: 196–204).

  4. 4.

    Note that to be “conveyed by written language” is not the same as to be equated with written language itself. In this passage, at least, Kaiser did not fall into the trap of identifying information with the visible marks of written language as such: rather, his usage approximates the idea of information as abstract “semantic content” posited by later theorists (e.g., Svenonius 2000: 7).

  5. 5.

    To understand the import of this move, it is important to recall the linguistic distinction between mass nouns and count nouns. Count nouns express countable kinds of things and take both singular and plural forms (e.g., “books”, “apples”, “minds”), whereas mass nouns express uncountable kinds of things and, in ordinary discourse, typically take only the singular form (e.g., “gold”, “water”, “traffic”, “beauty”); see Fox (1983: 88); Matthews (1997: 80, s.v. “countable”). In English, “information” is typically treated as a mass noun and its use as a count noun is rare, though by no means unparalleled (Oxford English Dictionary 2010: II.5.b, s.v. “Information”; cf. Bates 2010: 2351): as Nunberg (1996: 111) notes, the latter treatment is frequently encountered in other European languages. Treating information as a count noun in a language is to suggest that it has a discrete character or, in other words, is composed of individuable units: it thus constitutes a step on the road to a “particulate” view of information. For a slightly different interpretation that views this usage as indicative of a “particularistic” rather than strictly “particulate” view of information, see Nunberg (1996: 110–111).

  6. 6.

    Kaiser’s subdivision of concretes into real and imaginary things requires a brief comment. Other passages in his writings (e.g., Kaiser 1911: §§ 38, 108–109) indicate that, for him, the prototypical types of concretes were physical, tangible things, which he doubtless would have classed as “real” things. Much more difficult to assess is what he meant by “imaginary things”, for he did not elaborate further on this subject, although it is doubtful that, given his focus on business literature, he had unicorns, goat-stags, hippogryphs, or other members of the menagerie of the imaginary in mind. For a discussion of the different possible boundaries between the real and the imaginary, see Century Dictionary (1897: Vol. 6, 4985b, 3 s. v. “real”). If one were to understand “real things” as referring to physical objects alone, then one might interpret “imaginary things” as intangible, abstract “things” (such as, e.g., a “nitrate bill” [§ 455], “loan” [§ 344], or “patent” [§ 522], understood as “social objects” rather than the paper documents representing them): there is, however, no warrant for such an interpretation in Kaiser’s texts. Alternatively, if “real things” denoted objects actually existing at a time t, then “imaginary things” could refer to possible things—e.g., things that were planned for the future but not yet realized, such as, for example, an invention that had been planned and perhaps even outlined in a blueprint but that had not yet been built or tested. Here, too, however, Kaiser’s writings do not offer any elucidation of the matter. Most likely, “real and imaginary” functioned as an expression of totality, meaning, in effect “all things (whether real or imaginary)”: at any rate, the distinction did not play a role in the elaboration of his indexing system.

  7. 7.

    As a number of modern commentators have noted, Otlet held a very similar view, according to which documents were, essentially, containers of facts intermixed with other discursive elements, the task of the documentalist being to disengage these facts from their documentary matrix (e.g., Frohmann 2008: 78–81; Ibekwe-SanJuan 2012: 61; Rayward 1994: 247). Given that Otlet discussed in print the relation of facts to documents long before Kaiser wrote his account of his indexing system, one may well wonder if the former’s ideas had any influence upon the latter’s or whether Kaiser developed his views independently of the Belgian father of Documentation. The meager evidence at our disposal does not allow us to reach any definite conclusion on this score but suggests that the latter scenario was much more likely the case. Although Kaiser (1911: §§ 271–275) could read French, had some familiarity with the UDC (to which, by the way, he took a highly critical attitude), and knew of the indexing activities at Otlet’s Institut International de Bibliographie, he seems to have thought that the latter were confined to the indexing of documentary units as wholes: there is no indication in his writings that he associated the idea of resolving documents into aggregates of facts with Otlet. This argumentum e silentio does not, of course, prove that Kaiser was unaware of Otlet’s approach to documents as containers of facts. However, there is an additional consideration that makes it plausible to think that this was indeed the case. Otlet held that the documentalist should seek to sift out only facts—“all that has been established as true”, in the words of one latter-day commentator (Rayward 1994: 247)—from documents, whereas Kaiser (1911: §§ 48, 660–661) believed that an indexer should treat “facts” and “opinions” alike, leaving the task of differentiating fact from opinion to the user of an index. When combined with the lack of positive evidence for influence, this difference in perspective makes it highly unlikely that Kaiser drew upon Otlet's ideas in articulating the information-analytical ideas behind systematic indexing.

  8. 8.

    Wilson’s distinction between “weak information” and “strong information” is analogous to Floridi’s (2004: 42, 45, 46) distinction between a “general definition of information” and a “special definition of information”, the former of which stipulates that information consists of well-formed meaningful data and the latter, that information consists of data that is well-formed, meaningful, and true. Viewed in this light, Kaiser’s understanding of information as composed of facts and opinions clearly bears affinities, mutatis mutandis, with Floridi’s general definition.

  9. 9.

    As regards linguistic form, terms can range from a one word (e.g., “cattle”, “machine”, “wine”) to multiple words (e.g., “high tension underground electric traction motor”); see Kaiser (1911: § 317), whence these examples are drawn.

  10. 10.

    For discussions of this derivation, which, for definitional reasons that need not be discussed here, is quite problematic, see Dousa (2011: 165–166; Svenonius 1978: 137).

  11. 11.

    Although Kaiser (1926: 39) believed that, with some adjustment, an indexing system based on these three categories could be applied to domains other than business, he acknowledged that his own method had been developed on “the basis of commercial and technical literature” (1911: § 21) and so was especially appropriate for the analysis of documents from that particular sphere of human activity (§§ 296–297). Later theorists of classification and indexing working within the tradition of facet analysis would create more differentiated sets of categories applicable across multiple domains: well-known examples include Ranganathan’s (1944: 429–437) pentadic system of fundamental categories consisting of Personality, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time; Farradane’s (1950: 87) triadic system of (concrete) “objects”, “processes”, and “abstract terms”; and Vickery’s (1960: 23) system of categories for science and technology, which includes no fewer than 13 (“substance (product)”; “organ”, “constituent”, “structure”, “shape”, “property”, “object of action (patient, raw material)”, “action”, “operation”, “process”, “agent”, “space”, and “time”). For broader surveys of category systems within indexing theory, see, e.g., Cheti (1990); Vlasák (1967).

  12. 12.

    Kaiser conceded that, in exceptional cases, the rule that a concrete and/or country must precede a process might be difficult to keep; for discussion of such situations, see Kaiser (1908: § 115; 1911: §§ 322, 346, 655).

  13. 13.

    The tripartite pattern embodied in the form “[Concrete]–[Country]–[Process]” could also take a form in which the sequence of the first two members of the string of terms “[Country]–[Concrete]–[Process]” was reversed (Kaiser 1911: §§ 384–386). The interchangeability of terms for concrete and terms for countries in the first two positions of the string is in part a consequence of the theory that countries are a subclass of concretes and in part a reflection of Kaiser’s belief that businessmen would be most likely to search their indexes for information about commodities and geography (cf. footnote 16, below).

  14. 14.

    In his final presentation of his system, Kaiser (1926: 23, § 12) went so far as to characterize statements as constituting “something like … unit piece[s] of knowledge”. Taken ad litteram, this is too strong a formulation, for it suggests that the statement itself constitutes a “unit piece of knowledge”, whereas what it does, in effect, is to stipulate a conceptual boundary for identifying units of information in the sphere of literature.

  15. 15.

    For example, in the sentences “Synthetic indigo is in great demand” and “There is great demand for synthetic indigo”, the term “synthetic indigo” functions as the concrete, irrespective of the fact that in the first sentence it occupies the first position in the sentence as its subject and, in the second, the rear position as the object of a preposition (Kaiser 1911: § 301); despite the syntactic variation in the natural-language expression, both sentences would be adequately rendered by the statement “Synthetic Indigo–Demand”.

  16. 16.

    The roots of this view can perhaps be traced back to Kaiser’s experience as an indexer and translator at the library of the Bureau of Information of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum where, by his own account, he first developed his method of systematic indexing (Kaiser 1911: § 20; 1926: 20, §§ 1–3). Alongside the Bureau of Information, the Commercial Museum presented exhibits of commercial wares from around the world, which were organized either by type of commodity (i.e., “monographic” exhibits) or by geographical provenance (i.e., “geographical” exhibits): the assumption of the museum’s curatorial staff was that businessmen would be most interested in the “monographic” exhibits (Conn 1998: 124; Philadelphia Commercial Museum 1896: 16–17). It is likely that the division of the Museum’s exhibits into “monographic” and “geographic” ones was a source of inspiration for Kaiser’s categories of concretes and countries.

  17. 17.

    Note, however, that Kaiser’s (1911: § 318) strongly-worded stricture that “[i]n all cases the name of the concrete should be taken as it is found” was not absolute, for he also admitted “changes in terms may sometimes be necessary” for the sake of clarifying “the sense of the information” being indexed (§ 663, s. v. Analysis of Literature; cf. §§ 329–330). Furthermore, he also made allowance for supplying terms for concretes only implied in the text being indexed (§§ 322, 457).

  18. 18.

    A good example of this freedom in choosing terms for processes can be found in our Fig. 12.1, where the statement “Paper–India–Demand” is derived from the two-sentence passage: “During the last six months the price paid for paper have been rising continuously owing to its scarcity. The Indian market seems almost depleted of stock, it is difficult to obtain any large quantities and in some instances the usual prices have advanced by 50 to 80 percent”. Here the term for the concrete, “paper”, has been directly extracted from the first sentence and the term for country, “India”, has been normalized from “Indian market” in the second. By contrast, the process term “demand” does not occur at all in this passage. Rather, it has been derived from the informational content of both sentences, which can be reduced to the following propositions: (1) paper is in scarce supply in India and, as a consequence, (2) the usual prices for paper in India have increased by 50–80 %. According to an elementary tenet of economic theory, the supply of a commodity stands in inverse relationship to the demand for it and high demand for a commodity for which the supply is low will lead to high prices. Thus, the text can be construed as yielding information about the demand for paper in India and since, within the structural constraints of Kaiser’s documentary language and from the point of view of a mercantile business, it is most convenient to speak of demand for paper in India, the indexer has chosen the term “demand” as his term of process.

  19. 19.

    Note that, for Kaiser, “price” was a categorically ambiguous term that could be interpreted, in different indexes, as either a concrete or a process; see Kaiser (1911: § 325). Kaiser’s own preference appears to have been to use it as a term for processes (§§ 476, 530).

  20. 20.

    This perspectivist insight, which can also be found in contemporary library literature on classification (e.g., Brown 1906: 7–8, quoted in Kaiser 1911: § 278) reappears in the writings of some later IR theorists (e.g., Perry et al. 1956: 8–9) and forms one of the tenets of domain-analytic approaches to indexing and classification (e.g., Hjørland 1997: 111).

  21. 21.

    As Buckland (1991a: 352) has noted, the tendency to treat information as an object appears to be endemic to any attempt to deal with informative objects within the framework of an information system: ““information-as-thing,” by whatever name, is of especial interest in relation to information systems …. Information-as-thing is of special interest in the study of information systems. It is with information in this sense that information systems deal directly.”

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Acknowledgments

An abbreviated version of this paper was read at the Colloquium EPICIC held on 8 April 2011 at the Université Lyon 3. I am grateful to Fidelia Ibekwe-SanJuan for organizing this most stimulating conference, for her kind hospitality during the conference itself, and for her useful editorial suggestions on an earlier version of this chapter. I would like to thank the members of the Research Writing Group at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper that have materially improved the formulation of the final product at a number of places. I also wish to express my great gratitude to Kathryn La Barre for helpful critiques regarding both form and content. It goes without saying that I alone am responsible for any remaining weaknesses of interpretation or infelicities of expression.

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Dousa, T.M. (2014). Documentary Languages and the Demarcation of Information Units in Textual Information: The Case of Julius O. Kaiser’s Systematic Indexing . In: Ibekwe-SanJuan, F., Dousa, T. (eds) Theories of Information, Communication and Knowledge. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol 34. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6973-1_12

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