1 Module 1. Perspectives on Information (and Its Organization)

Module 1. Perspectives on Information (and Its Organization)

  1. Welcome to Module 1. Perspectives on Information (and Its Organization)
  2. What Is Organization of Information?
  3. “Knowledge Organization” (Wikipedia, 2019)
  4. Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) entry for “Information organization”
  5. Perspectives on Information
  6. “Information as Thing” (Buckland, 1991)
  7. “DIKW Pyramid” (Wikipedia, 2020)
  8. The Work of Information Intermediaries
  9. The Problem of Bias in Organization
  10. “Foundations for Organizing Systems” (Glushko, 2016)
  11. Self-Study: Examples of Organization in Practice
  12. Module 1. For Further Study

Welcome to Module 1. Perspectives on Information (and Its Organization)

Many perspectives on organizing and on information exist. In this module, we will focus on notions of what information is and will broadly consider organizing information in professional contexts.

Learning Objectives

After completing this module, you will be able to:

  • Explain what information means in the context of the information professions.
  • Summarize basic ideas about organizing information in several professional environments.

imageEssential Questions

  • What is it that we mean when we talk about organizing information?
  • Why is this activity important?


    In order to study the organization of information, we need a shared understanding of what exactly we’re organizing. In Module 1, we start off thinking about information in different ways, focusing on library and information science (LIS) perspectives, and then we start integrating ideas about the organization of information that will be used throughout the material.

What is Organization of Information?

Organization of information is a pillar of librarianship and essential for work in all kinds of cultural heritage institutions. Wikipedia has an entry on the topic that serves as a decent point of departure (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_organization):

Knowledge organization(KO),organization of knowledge,organization of information, orinformation organizationis an intellectual discipline concerned with activities such asdocument description,indexing, andclassification that serve to provide systems of representation and order for knowledge and information objects.

Wikipedia, “Knowledge Organization”

You’ll have a chance to read through the Wikipedia article for Knowledge organization next, but you can navigate there now if you’re curious to read more right away! Once you’re ready, come back to this section to continue to think about what this might mean.

This OER is titled Organization of Information, but according to this Wikipedia entry, there are a number of different ways of naming this idea — two include the word “information” and two include the word “knowledge.” Over the course of this module, you will see why this OER chooses to focus on “information” rather than on “knowledge,” even if the terms can be used synonymously.

Of the “activities” mentioned in the introduction to that Wikipedia article, all are very tightly tied to what is covered in this OER.

  • All of the activities listed describe some kind of resource or document. This involves, among other things, providing structured information about the resource.
  • The descriptions are then stored in some kind of system where they can be discovered and retrieved. This ultimately allows users to find and access the resources.
  • In information agencies and cultural heritage institutions, the description of resources and related work is carried out by information professionals, who act as information intermediaries. With this work, a number of ethical concerns emerge that must be considered as well.

In broad strokes, those are the topics that will be covered in this OER.

Organization of Information in Libraries and Archives

The Library of Congress is a good source of information about the organization of information.

The authority record in the screenshot below is for the Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) “Information organization.” You may be familiar with LCSH terms from seeing them used in your local library catalog. Did you know that information professionals keep a master list of these LCSH terms (called an authority file) to ensure that every time the LCSH term is used in a catalog or system, it is used correctly?

These master lists of terms/authority files are made up of authority records like the one for “Information organization” in the screenshot below (see Figure 1). Information intermediaries like catalogers will consult these records when they are organizing information. If you have never worked as a cataloger, you have probably never seen one of these authority records before!

Take a close look at the information about the LCSH term “Information organization” provided here (open the URL if that is easier to read the information provided). What can you tell from this record? In what ways is the content similar to the information from the Wikipedia article in terms of kind of information provided (e.g., synonyms)? What about the kinds of professional work each says is involved?

Figure 1 Authority Record for the Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) Term “Information organization”

Note. Retrieved from https://lccn.loc.gov/sh99001059.

Authority records, such as this one, often include variations of the term (e.g., Information storage and retrieval), references to related terms (e.g., Information storage and retrieval systems), and “scope notes.” Read the Scope note, which gives the parameters for the use of “information organization” as a subject term:

… identifying, describing, and providing access to information-bearing entities in all kinds of environments, such as archives, libraries, museums, offices, and on the Internet, through the gathering of the entities into organized collections and/or through the creation of retrieval tools, such as bibliographies, catalogs, indexes, finding aids, registers, search engines, etc.

The environments mentioned will be a focus in this OER. As you can imagine, they all have slightly different approaches, partly because the users and the information described are very different.

For example in archives, information professionals talk about arrangement and description as part of processing materials, rather than the organization of information. Below is the text of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) glossary entry for processing:



Narrower Term:

Related Term:
archival processing
n. –1. The arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons. –2. The steps taken to make the latent image on exposed photographic or microfilm materials visible; see archival processing1. –3. Computing · The machine execution of instructions in a computer program.

Some archives include accessioning as part of processing.

(Ford) A collective term used in archival administration that refers to the activity required to gain intellectual control of records, papers, or collections, including accessioning, arrangement, culling, boxing, labeling, description, preservation and conservation.

The scope note also mentions “information-bearing entities” and includes a list of retrieval tools: bibliographies, catalogs, indexes, finding aids, registers, search engines, etc. Those will be a focus of this OER, too.

Summing It All Up

In short, organizing information means doing work that allows the users to find the resource they are seeking. In information agencies, this work is carried out by information intermediaries. A lot of specialized terminology supports this work, and you will see that standards and practices have been instituted to make it easier for information intermediaries to share the load in terms of the work they do.

IO or OI?

Is it Organization of Information (OI) or Information Organization (IO)—or something else? This text will call it IO—the logical counterpart to IR (Information Retrieval), the well-established initialism used to describe the field that is the other side of the coin, so to speak. You can also just say “Info Org” and everyone gets what you mean.


Take a closer look at what is meant about “organizing information” by reading the Wikipedia article mentioned and looking at the authority record for the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Information organization.”

“Knowledge Organization” (Wikipedia, 2019)

The previous section introduced the Wikipedia article “Knowledge Organization.” Take a moment now to read through the rest of the article to get a sense of the big picture of the topic.

Knowledge organization. (2020, December 24). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Knowledge_organization&oldid=996122332


A number of terms included in this article will come up again in this material:

  • information resources
  • description
  • indexing
  • classification
  • controlled vocabularies
  • information retrieval

Begin to incorporate these in your vocabulary. At this point, a general understanding about what they mean is fine.


Review the Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) authority record for “Information organization.”

Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) entry for “Information organization”

Earlier, you looked at a screenshot from the Library of Congress authority file. For most students, this was the first time looking at an authority record. You might not have known they exist!

Use the link below to visit the authority record for “Information organization” in the database. When you get there, follow the links within the record and see where they take you.



While there, consider the following:

  • Why would a system that provides an “authorized” form of a term to describe an idea be useful when describing resources?
  • What value do the variant terms provide for library uses?


Before delving into other IO topics, an understanding of the concept of “information” is important. When you are ready, click Next to move to the next entry in the Module, which is about that concept.

Perspectives on Information

Have You Ever Tried to Define Information?

What does it really mean? Take a moment, grab a pen or a keyboard, and try to write up an explanation of what information is—or, if that is proving to be a challenge, start by thinking about what information is not.

There is no quiz on this and you do not have to submit what you came up with (though you can!). The point is to think really deeply about information at the beginning of the semester, before going too far. Why? Because information is what is being organized in information agencies, so you need to have a sense of what that means before continuing.

How did you do? Were you very satisfied with your response? If you found information an elusive concept to define, you are not alone. And frankly, if you thought it was easy… there is a lot to consider in the readings this week that might make you ultimately change your mind.

What IS Information?

Ultimately, the question of what information is has challenged thinkers in the field of Library and Information Science (LIS) for a long time! It is still a somewhat unresolved question in LIS today, unfortunately.

Questions for Self-Study

To help pin down what is meant by information, based on your knowledge of libraries, archives, and museums, identify one or two examples of things that might be collected in each of the following: a large research library (e.g., electronic access to a scholarly journal); a rural public library (e.g., a paperback novel); an archives (e.g., a handwritten manuscript); and a museum (e.g., a necklace from Imperial Russia).

Make note of your answers:

  • large research library
  • rural public library
  • archives
  • museum

Now, reflect on what is similar and what is different about each of these things. In what ways is each information? Is there a special or specialized user group for each? Could there be more than one user group? What background will the user group(s) have to have in order to get the most of the thing (e.g., specialized knowledge of a field), or is some basic interest in the item enough to begin learning? What about things that are for enjoyment, like the novel? Or arguably for some, the necklace?

Spend about five minutes on this.

You may have noticed the discussion moved quickly from being about “information” to focusing on “things.” What is the connection? Michael Buckland (a GIANT in our field, and someone whose ideas have changed a bit throughout his career) stated in 1991 that there are three kinds of information (p. 351). The text in Figure 2 is taken from the next reading.


In this OER, we will be focusing on information-as-thing. The takeaway is that the information organized in this OER is not only informative, it is also recorded. As such, it can be curated, selected, preserved, retrieved, evaluated, and any of a number of other things information professionals do when working with information resources to support their users.

Figure 2 Buckland’s (1991) Definitions of Information-as-Process, Information-as-Knowledge, and Information-as-Thing (p. 351).

Where Does Information Fit In?

Recorded information is the purview of information professionals. Instances of recorded information (or things that are informative), that will be useful to the users served, are collected and organized in information agencies. The focus is definitely on information resources, though work might also be done directly with an artifact that is, in and of itself, informative.

The data-information-knowledge-wisdom (DIKW) hierarchy is one way to consider information’s place in our lives.


The image in Figure 3 gives the four main aspects of the hierarchy as well as some ideas for how each might be interpreted in the real world.

A number of criticisms of the DIKW hierarchy have been put forth, but for now, as you begin to consider what is covered in this OER, it can serve as a useful point of departure.

Figure 3 An Example of the DIKW Hierarchy

Software Development: Relationship Between DIKW Hierarchy

Note. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-121Js06FPac/VOwYkVGa6UI/AAAAAAAACFk/RHNQp1Je5T4/s1600/dikw.png. Image not released under the Creative Commons.



This section introduced information from Buckland and about the DKIW hierarchy. The next two readings are the sources from which the information came.


Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science,42(5), 351–360.https://skat.ihmc.us/rid=1KR7VC4CQ-SLX5RG-5T39/BUCKLAND(1991)-informationasthing.pdf

“Information as Thing” (Buckland, 1991)

Read this classic article:

Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 351–360.https://skat.ihmc.us/rid=1KR7VC4CQ-SLX5RG-5T39/BUCKLAND(1991)-informationasthing.pdf

A preprint version of this article is available in a plain text format at https://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~buckland/whatdoc.html.


  • Pay attention to the types of information mentioned. What are the key characteristics of each?
  • What are the characteristics of a document?
  • Beyond this article:
    • See if you can find the version of record of this article through the campus library.
    • How long did the peer-review process take for this piece?
      • Do you know what “peer review” means? It is an important aspect of scholarly communication and is necessary for articles to be “scholarly.”
      • Do you know if that length of time is unusual?


These foundational (and quite challenging!) ideas have given the field much to think about. On the next section, you will visit the Wikipedia page for DIWK and will be asked to continue to think about how these aspects of information affect LIS and the work done in information agencies.

“DIKW Pyramid” (Wikipedia, 2020)

DIKW pyramid. (2020, August 1). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=DIKW_pyramid&oldid=970701494


  • Look through this article, which is primarily based on research in LIS!
  • Pay special attention to the perspectives on information.
    • Contrast the term “information” with data, knowledge, and wisdom, which are all different from information.
    • Continue to consider how this plays out in information agencies, and what implications there are for organizing information for retrieval by end-users.


The next section considers more carefully the work done by information intermediaries working in information agencies.

The Work of Information Intermediaries

Information Intermediaries in Their Professional Environments

In archives, archivists might specialize in arrangement and description … or might do it all. In libraries, information organization (IO) generally is practiced as cataloging librarianship or metadata librarianship. Those working with the organization of digital resources might include electronic resources or digital services librarians and scholarly communication librarians. In museums, curators will need to organize the artifacts, both for themselves (to be able to find and identify the artifacts) and also for presentation in collections to the museum patrons. In offices, employees will need to think about personal information management (PIM). Specialists may be employed, too, and they may focus on knowledge management (KM) of employee knowledge; access to the organization’s assets; and the discovery and presentation of new knowledge about external factors (such as the work carried out through current awareness services and competitive intelligence/research work). Finally, on the internet and through other information and communication technologies (ICTs) professionals work to organize content for consumption and use by machines and users. This content can include social media and may work with big data, artificial intelligence, data science, etc.

Given this material is about a library and information science approach to the organization of information, this material will focus on libraries, archives, and to a lesser extent, museums, but will mention examples from offices and the internet since these environments overlap with the professional work being done in information agencies.

“Organized” versus “Disorganized” = Not a Problem!

Fortunately for our users, information intermediaries do not need to be people with meticulously organized sock drawers or spotless desks to be successful professionals. Plenty of information professionals who do organization of information for a living have extremely messy office desks.

Reflect for a moment: Are you the kind of person who is disorganized and needs help? Perhaps you are more like the pigeon in Figure 4 wearing the baseball cap.

Figure 4 A Cartoon Pigeon Asks for Synonyms forDisorganized

Thesaurus Plus: Disorganized Pigeon Synonym Lecture

Notes. Retrieved from https://thesaurus.plus/img/synonyms/119/disorganized.png. Image not released under the Creative Commons.

Or maybe you are more like the pigeon wearing a crust of sliced bread around its neck. You are organized. You are smart and have a good vocabulary. You are largely alphabetical (until you’re not). You wear glasses…

Information professionals come with a variety of backgrounds and can be successful regardless of whether they are “organized” or “disorganized” in their personal lives.

But, when it comes to their professional duties to make information available and retrievable by our user, well… that is a different story altogether. Fortunately, all humans are inherent organizers in some way or another, and all can learn to organize professionally!

Inherent Organization

Putting aside personal preferences and personality features, the human mind systematically seeks to organize, and to make sense of its surroundings. Cognitively, individuals make sense of the world around them based on what they have already seen. In contextualizing knowledge organization systems (KOSs), Hodge (2000) writes the following:

It is often said that humans are inherent organizers. From an early age, children play sorting and matching games. We cope with our ever-changing world by comparing new objects or experiences with those with which we are familiar, identifying patterns and categorizing what is new into our existing frame of reference. (p. 3)

Don’t believe her? Think of the last time you saw a fancy bathroom faucet that was a little mysterious.

Since you already know how to use one like the one in Figure 5.

Figure 5 Large Sink with Two Faucets


black plastic faucet on white ceramic sink

Note. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/.

…and like the one in Figure 6.

Figure 6 Large Sink with One Faucet

yellow banana fruit on white ceramic bowl

Note. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/.

…and you once saw something like the one in Figure 7 in a television show about home remodeling.

Figure 7 Bathroom Sink with One Faucet

gray steel faucet

Note. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/.

…you’re confident you can work through using the one in Figure 8 too.

Figure 8 Tub Faucet with Several Dials

focus photo of silver stainless steel faucet

Note. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/.

As Hodge (2000) explained, when you look at something new, your mind makes connections to what it has already seen.

Fun fact: If you have studied machine learning, then you know that computers can be trained to process new information in a way that is similar to what the human mind does. This is what neural networks do in deep learning algorithms.

Human minds assess and organize new input based on what is familiar. But of course, humans are complex and their interpretations of objects and the objects themselves are likewise complex. The field of IO provides information about the principles and tools used by information professionals so that materials can be organized consistently for retrieval under the best possible circumstances.

Why IO?

This OER covers principles and practices for organizing materials in information environments.

When many students come to study LIS, they have never thought much about organizing information. Sometimes, that is because most organizing goes on behind the scenes. In some cases, students might not even be aware it is a thing!

Rest assured: NOTHING else works if organization has not taken place. That is true in information agencies, on the web, in social media, your desktop, with your photos on your phone, etc.

The content of this material may be a little un-intuitive—challenging, even! IO is the foundation of everything the information professions do, however, so it is a great place to start.

In this material, we will be looking at the many environments in which information is organized, how that information gets organized, standards that are used, etc. There is much more to it than you probably dreamed possible!

Although our systems are imperfect, a result of the biases we all have, they are critical to the work of libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs).

  • It comes down to the fact that nothing would be usable if not for organization. In the information professions, organization does not just happen.
  • When organizing information in today’s technology rich-environments, some information still needs to be supplied by human intermediaries.
  • Nearly every element of the authority record for the LCSH term was created manually by someone, somewhere.
  • In information environments information has to be organized in order to be retrieved, and computers just are not as smart as humans!


The next section in this module looks at the problem of bias. All humans have biases, but information intermediaries need to understand how this can affect users, and how to make sure that biases in the systems, in the vocabularies, and in the mindsets of the information creators and organizers does not harm users, or keep them from acquiring and using resources in any way.


Hodge, G. (2000). Systems of knowledge organization for digital libraries: Beyond traditional authority files. The Digital Library Federation / Council on Library and Information Resources. https://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub91/1knowledge/

The Problem of Bias in Organization

Yet, there is a caveat. How individuals understand the world around themselves and how they organize is a product of their personal and cultural biases

Acknowledging these biases in organization can be difficult for librarians. Yet, the American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics is very specific about the need for unbiased professional work. The first principle puts the need for unbiased responses to the fore.

1. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics

Please note that the ALA does not pretend that organizing can be unbiased—only responses to requests can be unbiased.

As much as information intermediaries want to do work that addresses the needs of all users, including those from marginalized and underrepresented groups, and describes people in a way that is respectful, there is a caveat. Every information professional has biases, and the systems for organization used have biases. Biases allow users to make sense of their work (e.g., use the new faucet on the previous section) so they are not all bad. However, it is important to acknowledge biases and to address any that result in systems that are not equitable or that disenfranchise users in any way.


The next section sets you up to read a chapter from an OER textbook on organization of information. The slightly different perspectives and emphases are a good way to round out the readings you have done so far in this module.

“Foundations for Organizing Systems” (Glushko, 2016)

The next reading is from Bob Glushko’s OER. It includes some additional insight into “information” and is the first chapter the book he edited. You will encounter ideas similar to what you have already read (possibly formulated in a slightly different way), but also some new ones.

Glushko, R. J. (2016). Foundations for organizing systems. In R. J. Glushko (Ed.), The discipline of organizing (pp. 25–52). MIT Press. https://ischools.org/resources/Documents/Discipline%20of%20organizing/Professional/TDO4-Prof-CC-Chapter1.pdf

Do a careful reading of this chapter as well, with the following notes in mind:


  • This is a chapter from an OER textbook on organizing in the information professions. This version of the text is designed for information professionals. The full book is available for download here: https://ischools.org/Discipline-of-Organizing-Professional.
  • This chapter gives a great overview of systems used in the organization of information.
  • Skip “1.4 Organizing This Book”
  • How does the information you learn here supplement what you’ve been reading so far in this module?

Self-Study: Examples of Organization in Practice

To wrap up this module, study how three different organizations present information to their users through the web. For each, spend about five minutes to look around, follow the links, etc.
Library Catalog Resource

The first “retrieval tool” to examine is a library’s catalog—the link is to a “record” (the next module will cover these terms) for a book in the library of congress online catalog

LCCN record: https://lccn.loc.gov/67012068

  • This is one of the bibliographic records in the online catalog.
  • From looking at this record, what do you learn about the information resource?
    • How many pages it is?
    • What is it about?
    • Who wrote it?
    • Who published it?
  • Note the search options available.

Archival Collection

Next, look to the University of Minnesota archives to learn about their collection of information resources supporting study of the organization called the Great Alkali Plainsmen: https://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/12/resources/449

  • What is contained in an archival collection, based on what you see here?
  • What is this collection about?
  • What does this collection include?

Contrast the information in this record used in an archive with the information in the MERLIN record. The system has different functionality, too.

Museum Collection

Finally, look to an image of an artifact in the collections at the Nelson Atkins Museum: https://art.nelson-atkins.org/objects/20749/air?ctx=82d6c2ab-88d1-41c6-8a43-929c15048f5cidx=3

  • What can you learn about this artifact from the description?
  • What is it made from?
  • When and where was it made?


This module described information and talked about how it is organized in the information professions. The next section provides some very short optional readings (very engaging blog posts) to help situate the cognitive processes in play and the need for organizing.

Module 1. For Further Study

For Further Study

Why do we organize? These two easy-to-read articles (blog posts) address this question.

Brodkin, J. (2007, January 23). You are wasting time; find out why. Network World. https://www.networkworld.com/article/2303260/you-are-wasting-time–find-out-why.html

  • Think of all the wasted time that goes into searching!
  • Consider this quote, taken from the beginning of the article:

“A company that employs 1,000 information workers can expect more than $5 million in annual salary costs to go down the drain because of the time wasted looking for information and not finding it IDC research found last year” (para. 1).

Murphy, B. (2019, September 20). Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and Susan Wojcicki all made this top 10 list. Inc. https://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/elon-musk-jeff-bezos-jack-ma-susan-wojcicki-all-made-this-top-10-list-can-you-guess-who-else-is-on-it.html

  • How do people process information?
  • How do they want to?

“Human beings are inundated with information. We respond when it’s organized, coupled with a promise of digestible authority” (para. 15).

IBM. (2020, July 1). What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)? IBM Cloud Learn Hub. https://www.ibm.com/cloud/learn/what-is-artificial-intelligence
IBM. (2020b, December 18). What is Machine Learning? IBM Cloud Learn Hub. https://www.ibm.com/cloud/learn/machine-learning
IBM. (2021, January 6). What are Neural Networks? IBM Cloud Learn Hub. https://www.ibm.com/cloud/learn/neural-networks
IBM. (2020a, June 10). What is Deep Learning? https://www.ibm.com/cloud/learn/deep-learning
  • How do computers process information, when they process it like humans?
    • From the page on AI: “Artificial intelligence enables computers and machines to mimic the perception, learning, problem-solving, and decision-making capabilities of the human mind.”
  • Machine learning is an exciting area of artificial intelligence (AI) — this is not IO, but is interesting to see how principles introduced in this material is used in computer science.


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Organizing Information in Information Agencies by Moulaison-Sandy, H. & Dykas, F. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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