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Title:Julius Otto Kaiser and his method of systematic indexing: an early indexing system in its historical context
Author(s):Dousa, Thomas M.
Director of Research:La Barre, Kathryn
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Renear, Allen H.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):La Barre, Kathryn A.; Black, Alistair; Buzzetti, Dino
Department / Program:Library & Information Science
Discipline:Library & Information Science
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Epistemological individualism
Information analysis
Julius Otto Kaiser
Knowledge organization
Philadelphia Commercial Museum
Systematic indexing
Tariff Commission
Abstract:Julius Otto Kaiser (1968–1927) was a special librarian and indexer who developed, in last years of the 19th, and the first years of the 20th, centuries, an innovative method of subject indexing known as systematic indexing (SI). Although Kaiser has long been recognized as a pioneer in the field of knowledge organization (KO) and SI has been considered to be a theoretically significant knowledge organization system (KOS), little has been known about his life and, to date, discussion of his system has, with rare exceptions, tended to focus on two features of his system: (1) its use of a limited set of categories to partition an index vocabulary into classes of terms and (2) its stipulation of syntactic rules for combining terms into complex index terms. The aim of the present investigation is to provide a more detailed and historically informed account of SI and its creator than has hitherto been attempted so as to contribute to a better understanding of the design features of the system and the rationale underwriting them. To this end, the study addresses three questions: What was Kaiser’s background and what was the character of the milieux in which he created and developed his indexing system? What were the main methodological and theoretical features of SI as he conceptualized them? And how did the milieux in which he worked shape the design of his system and his conceptualization thereof? A biographical framing of Kaiser and SI shows that, after receiving a trades-oriented elementary and secondary education in the German city of Stuttgart and working as a free-lance teacher of language and music and, later, a private school teacher in Queensland and Chile, Kaiser entered into library and indexing work at the Bureau of Information of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum (PCM) in 1896, where he conceived of, and began to develop, his indexing system. Subsequently, in 1899, he moved to London where he worked successively for the Commercial Intelligence Bureau, Ltd.; the British Westinghouse Company, Ltd.; and the Tariff Commission, a private research organization associated with the Joseph Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform movement, all the while refining his system of indexing. During his tenure at the Commission, he published his two major works, The Card System at the Office (1908) and Systematic Indexing (1911), both of them directed to a business-managerial readership. Having gained a reputation as an indexing expert in the wake of these publications, Kaiser subsequently was engaged to reorganize the correspondence department of the munitions firm Vickers et al. and the works library at the Ardeer factory of Nobel’s Explosives Company, Ltd. The systematic card index that he created at the latter institution was well received there and his collaborators in implementing it publicized SI among their colleagues in the chemical industry and in the realm of special librarianship: as a result, it was adopted by several British industrial libraries in the late 1910s and early-to-mid 1920s. In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, Kaiser returned to the United States, where he eventually found work as a bibliographic researcher at the Engineering Societies Library (ESL) in New York and as an editor, reviewer of foreign journals, and indexer with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). In 1926, apparently at the behest of colleagues in Great Britain, he wrote a summary exposition of SI for the third conference of the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux (ASLIB), which brought his system into the public eye once more. Shortly after undertaking work to reorganize the library at the Experimental Station of the Hercules Powder Company in Kenvil, Delaware, in 1927, Kaiser died in an automobile accident; after his death, interest in SI was largely restricted to British industrial librarians until the 1950s, when it became known to the broader communities of general librarians and information scientists. The foregoing conspectus of Kaiser’s professional life shows that, over the course of his career, he shifted from working in organizations with a focus on commercial and economic information to ones oriented toward applied-scientific and technical information. The study gives detailed descriptions of the informational and knowledge-organizational practices of each of the foregoing institutions. A close reading of Kaiser’s works in light of contemporary literature on knowledge organization reveals that SI represented a distinctive vision of knowledge organization. He intended his indexing system to be used in an intelligence department or business library—i.e., a specialized department within a business organization dedicated to the collection, organization, and distribution of (diverse sources of) information. Within such a setting, he endorsed the use of a system of document classification based upon the type, or form(at), of documentary material, thus entirely dissociating the organization of documents from the indication of their informational contents: SI fulfilled the latter function, which resulted in the creation of a systematic card index. Kaiser endorsed a form of highly analytical indexing, or informational analysis, the goal of which was not to characterize the subjects of documents as wholes but to indicate the subjects of individual pieces of information within documents; such items of information were to be selected for indexing on the basis of their congruence with the particular sphere of interests of the organization for which an index was being created. Espousing an empiricist approach to knowledge and language alike, Kaiser advocated deriving an index vocabulary directly from the (pieces of) texts being indexed: in his view, terms, or verbal units naming things and their attributes, were the basic building blocks of the index. The relationships among terms were articulated in accordance to two orthogonal classificatory structures embodying a category semantics and a relational semantics. The category semantics of SI stipulated that each term in an index vocabulary was to be assigned to one, and only one, of three term categories: terms of concretes, terms of countries, and terms of processes, whereas relational semantics mandated that terms belonging to the same category—in particular, terms of concretes or terms of countries—could be set into hierarchical relationships whereby relatively more general, or collective terms, stood in superordinate relationships to relatively more specific terms and relatively more specific terms stood in subordinate relationships to relatively more general or collective terms. Kaiser advocated that one select index terms that were as specific as possible on the grounds that specific information, or information on specific subject, was more useful in business contexts than general information. The category-semantic distinction between terms of concretes, terms of countries, and terms of processes was foundational to SI. These categories formed the basis for the construction of complex index terms, or statements, in which no fewer than terms from different categories were combined into a single string of no fewer than two and no more than three terms in accordance with strict syntactic rules which determined the position of each component term on the basis of its membership within a category: a statement, then, consisted of first, or main filing term, which was invariably a term for a concrete or a term for a country, and one or two terms functioning as subdivisions. Conceptualized as unified expressions of informational content, statements served as the nuclei around which index items—i.e., structured representations of individual pieces of information that indicated both their content and their bibliographical loci—were formed: indeed, they served as a means for identifying, and isolating, these pieces of information within texts in the first place. Furthermore, statements (or, rather, the component terms thereof) also provided the basis for the organization of index items within a card file, which were arrayed in alphabetical order, beginning with the first, or main filing term, and extending to the subdivision(s) thereof. The internal structure of statements also was mapped onto a sophisticated system of five-position guide cards, the function of which was to visually mark the position of individual main terms and (some of their) subdivisions within a file for the benefit of index users. Overlaying this alphabetical file structure was a system of cross-references indicating semantic relationships between the first, or main terms, of statements. Understood by Kaiser to server as substitutes for “logical classifications”, cross-references took the form of lists of “related terms” inscribed upon the guide cards for main terms, by means of which persons consulting an index could navigate the index to find information on subjects collateral to those for which they were searching: based primarily on hierarchical relationships between terms, the syndetic structure of SI is remarkable for its admission of polyhierarchy. All in all, Kaiser’s method of indexing was marked by two central qualities: systematicity and a concern with catering to the individual informational requirements of particular business organizations. In negotiating the tension between the two, SI reflected a fluid interplay between theoretical principle and the pragmatic imperatives of indexing. With regard to the foregoing, the present study offers detailed and analytic descriptions of Kaiser’s views on information analysis, the epistemological and linguistic assumptions informing his work, his (not entirely unproblematic) definitions of the categories and the rationale underlying the syntax of statements, his method of formulating both statements and index items, his views on alphabetization and cross-reference structure, and the techniques he used to implement these within the technological medium of the card index: throughout, an effort is made to show how Kaiser’s theoretical views found expression in the methodological protocols of SI. Finally, this study demonstrates that some of the central features of SI were strongly conditioned by the discursive and institutional milieux in which Kaiser worked, particularly the Bureau of Information at the PCM where he first developed his system, as well as by his personal temperament and epistemological views. His conception of the function of the intelligence department and his views on analytical indexing, or information analysis, seem to have derived from the informational régime of PCM’s Bureau, while his system of term categories was based, at least in part, on categories used at the Bureau to structure its system of index files and, more broadly, at the PCM to organize its museal exhibits. Interestingly, over time, as Kaiser moved from working for organizations interested primarily in commercial information to ones dealing mainly with technical information, he altered his characterizations of the categories of concretes and processes: definitions that had originally been framed in terms of commercial, trade-related interests took on a slightly more industrial-technical coloring. Kaiser’s emphasis upon systematicity, a quality towards which he seems to have had a natural inclination, was largely shaped by the contemporary discourse of business and office organization, within which he situated his own books, while his valorization of individuality in indexing was tributary not only to this discourse but also to his own personal proclivities and strongly individualist epistemology. Kaiser, then, was very much a child of the times and socio-professional circumstances in which he lived and in which he developed SI: nevertheless, certain features of his indexing system, such as its principled use of categories; incorporation of polyhierarchical classificatory structures into its cross-referential structure; and generally domain-analytical approach to knowledge organization still make it highly relevant to ongoing theoretical and methodological discussions within the field of KO.
Issue Date:2014-01-16
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 Thomas Dousa
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-01-16
Date Deposited:2013-12

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