Cataloging & Classification Quarterly

Volume 37, no. 3-4, 2004



The Thesaurus: Review, Renaissance and Revision


Sandra K. Roe, Alan R. Thomas

special issue guest editors



The thesaurus within the context of information retrieval was developed approximately 50 years ago in an environment quite different from the one we find ourselves in today. While paper-based formats like printed books and printed serials remain, new formats continue not only to emerge but to proliferate. A recent OCLC report tells us that annual production projections for digital materials by the year 2007 are too large to estimate [1]. Beyond the challenge of new formats and the quantities and interrelationships of those formats, additional layers of complexity are added as national libraries, bibliographic utilities, and other private and governmental entities work toward bilingual and multilingual subject access within and across online collections and catalogs. Despite all that distances us from 50 years ago, there is this commonality: an interest in thesauri. There is an unprecedented interest in thesauri and related types of vocabulary switching tools not just within the library community but also from the business community, information architects, and linguists. For instance, Rosenfeld and Morville in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web predict that “thesauri [will] become a key tool for dealing with the growing size and importance of web sites and intranets [2].”

In this time of renewed interest in thesauri, this collection of papers is designed to serve three purposes. The first purpose is to acquaint or remind the Library and Information Science (LIS) community of the history of the development of the thesaurus and the standards for thesaurus construction. Aitchison and Dextre Clarke, both active in standards development, provide a rich historical piece that takes the reader from the first use of the word ‘thesaurus’ in the context of information retrieval to the present day challenges of interoperability and end-user usability.

The second purpose of this collection is to provide bibliographies and tutorials from which any reader can become more grounded in her or his understanding of thesaurus construction, use, and evaluation. In “Teach Yourself Thesaurus,” Thomas outlines the skills one needs to create a thesaurus and supplies the reader with sources of additional readings for each. To provide an opportunity to practice these skills, Shearer presents a series of exercises intended to teach the process of building a thesaurus from an alphabetical list of terms. In contrast to Thomas’ paper, Nielsen’s presentation of readings is organized by the technical processes involved in thesaurus construction and the particular problems related to each, including methodologies to gain knowledge about an information environment through the study of information seeking behavior. Do you want to hire a thesaurus consultant or become one yourself? Will’s article, “Thesaurus Consultancy,” outlines the steps in a thesaurus project and reviews the roles and functions of both the consultant and the client. Owens and Cochrane describe evaluation methods which can be applied to a thesaurus as it is being created or used to evaluate an existing one.

The third purpose is to address topics related to thesauri but that are unique to the current digital environment, or network of networks. Greenberg presents the results of a query-expansion study that explores user comprehension and application of the thesaurus in the ABI/Info database. Johnson proposes a distributed thesaurus Web service while Riesland presents criteria for evaluating vocabulary management software packages. In “Multilingual Subject Access,” Landry describes the MACS project which links equivalent headings in English, French, and German subject heading lists so that users can access online catalogs in the language of their choice. To close, Amy Warner describes NISO’s current initiative [3] to revise Z39.19 Guidelines for the Construction, Format, and Management of Monolingual Thesauri in an interview with the editors.

Taken together, these papers are intended to inform the reader about thesaurus construction, its history and development, and speculate on its future. While it seems clear that the skills involved in thesaurus construction will continue to serve us well, it is less certain whether the thesaurus will be our next generation vocabulary switching tool of choice. That function may be carried out by some form of taxonomy, ontology, mind map, or something as yet unnamed and undefined. Among developments to monitor in this rapidly changing information environment will be the work of various standards making bodies and the new audiences and applications for their work.

Sandra K. Roe
Alan R. Thomas

The editors would like to express their appreciation to Jeff A. Jenson for his assistant in verifying the citations throughout this collection of articles.

[1]. Five-Year Information Format Trends (Dublin: OCLC Library and Information Center, 2003) p. 1. Available online at URL:

[2]. Rosenfeld, L. and P. Morville. 2002. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. 2nd ed. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, p. 188.

[3]. National Information Standards Organization. “Developing the Next Generation of Standards for Controlled Vocabularies and Thesauri” (Bethesda: NISO, 2003). Available online at URL:

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