edited by Birger Hjørland and Claudio Gnoli


The International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO)

by and

Table of contents:
1. Inception and history
2. Conferences and meetings
3. Aims and goals
4. Governance
5. Chapters of ISKO
6. Scholarship
7. Recent developments
8. Conclusion

The International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO) was founded in 1989 by Ingetraut Dahlberg with 9 colleagues, splitting from the existing Gesellschaft für Klassifikation. It is devoted to theory and practice of organizing knowledge, especially by intellectually-developed knowledge organization systems such as classification systems and thesauri. Research themes include general classification, interoperability, domain analysis, facet analysis, epistemology and information retrieval. It organizes an international conference every two years, publishes a series of proceedings, the journal Knowledge Organization and ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization. It has a number of regional chapters.

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1. Inception and history

The International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO) [1] was founded September 25th in 1989 in Germany. It was created by → Ingetraut Dahlberg, Robert Fugmann, Alfred Gerstenkorn, Götz Greiner, Barbara Kelm, Norbert Meder, Winfried Schmitz-Esser, and Ingeborg Stoltzenburg from Germany, as well as Padmini Raj from India and Rudolf Ungvary from Hungary (Dahlberg 1989). It thus had membership from three countries, as was required to form an international society in Germany.

Ingetraut Dahlberg had previously been instrumental in founding the journal International Classification in 1974 together with Alwin Diemer, Jean M. Perreault, Arashanipalai Neelameghan and Eugen Wüster. Encouraged by the British Classification Society (CS) [2], Dahlberg invited representatives from libraries and documentation centers, commodity cataloguers, physics, chemistry and mathematics to come to Frankfurt for a meeting on 12 February 1977, in order to found the Gesellschaft für Klassifikation (GfKl) [3], with Ingetraut Dahlberg as president, and Robert Fugmann and Hans-Hermann Bock as vice presidents (Bock and Ihm 2001; Ohly 2017; 2018; Wikipedia 2020). On June 4, 1977 Dahlberg organized GfKl’s first annual conference in Münster/Westfalen. She was elected chairperson of GfKl and acted also as its secretary until 1989. She continued in co-organizing the annual conferences until 1986 and published the proceedings volumes until the establishment of ISKO in 1989 (from 1985 on the non-numerical part) [4].

The GfKL had grown to more than two hundred members over the next 12 years, but a rift had developed between those taking a numerical, statistical approach to the subject versus those interested in exploring the meaning of concepts, how these might be classified, and the possibilities for developing superior classification systems (that is, they stressed the conceptual tools for knowledge organization; Fugmann 1996). This latter group decided to split from the GfKl to develop an international society devoted to the exploration of such questions. At their founding meeting, this group decided to choose a new name to define their efforts, rather than → “Classification”. They chose Wissensordnung ("order of knowledge"), but when translating it into English it became clear that "organization" had to take the place of "order". This combination already was used as "Organization of Knowledge" in book titles published decades earlier by Henry Bliss (1929; 1933) but had never been employed previously as a compound in German. The new phrase was soon accepted internationally (Dahlberg 2014). With → "Knowledge Organization” (“Wissensorganisation” in German) they signaled a deep desire to organize human understanding. The journal International Classification (with the subtitle Journal on Theory and Practice of Universal and Special Classification Systems and Thesauri) (1974-) became the official journal of the new society and was renamed in 1993 to Knowledge Organization (with the subtitle: International Journal devoted to Concept Theory, Classification, Indexing and Knowledge Representation).

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2. Conferences

The first ISKO conference was held in 1990 in Darmstadt, Germany. There has been an ISKO conference in every even-numbered year since: Madras in 1992, Copenhagen in 1994, Washington DC in 1996, Lille in 1998, Toronto in 2000, Granada in 2002, London in 2004, Vienna in 2006, Montreal in 2008, Rome in 2010, Bangalore in 2012, Cracow in 2014, Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and Porto in 2018. The 2020 conference planned for Aalborg, Denmark was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the organizers plan on hosting the 2022 conference in Aalborg. Details on these conferences, and many of the conferences held by ISKO chapters (usually in odd-numbered years) are available at https://www.isko.org/events.html.

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3. Aims and Goals

ISKO from its beginnings sought to combine the practical and the theoretical. Its membership included scholars interested in questions about the nature and possibilities of organizing knowledge. It also attracted practitioners who were engaged in developing classification systems, → thesauri, and other → knowledge organization systems. Most of its members are trained in → library and information science (now generally termed information science), but it often attracts philosophers, linguists, and other scientists.

As noted above, the society had inherited a scholarly journal that soon took the name Knowledge Organization. The journal published four issues a year by 1989, a figure that has grown to 8 over time. Ingetraut Dahlberg edited the journal until 1996. She was succeeded by Charles Gilreath (1997-8), Clare Beghtol (1999), Hope A. Olson (2000-2004) and Richard Smiraglia (2004-20). Vanda Broughton has been appointed editor beginning in 2021, with Maja Žumer and David Haynes as Deputy Editors. The Journal is indexed in many bibliographies, including Web of Science published by Clarivate.

At its inception, ISKO served as both an international organization and an organization of German scholars (the German chapter, as successor of the non-numerical part of the GfKl, was founded as well in October 7th 1989 with Winfried Gödert as first chairman). Within three years of its inception ISKO had members from dozens of countries on four continents. It soon developed a structure of national or regional chapters. Any particular region or language area with at least ten ISKO members can petition to create a new chapter. All ISKO members are members of the chapter of their choice. These chapters keep a portion of ISKO dues to fund their own activities. Most chapters hold a chapter conference in odd-numbered years. Most also maintain their own website. The fifteenth chapter, from the Low Countries, was approved in 2020. It joins 14 previous chapters on five continents: Brazil, Canada and the United States, China, France, Germany and Austria and Switzerland, India, Iran, Italy, Maghreb, Poland, Singapore, Spain and Portugal, United Kingdom, and West Africa. There have at times been other chapters, such as the Russian chapter that hosted a conference in 1993.

In 1993, a series of Textbooks for Knowledge Organization was started with Subject Analysis and Indexing: Theoretical Foundation and Practical Advice by Robert Fugmann (1993). This was followed by Hemalata Iyer’s Classificatory Structures: Concepts, Relations and Representations (1995, 2nd ed. 2012) and Ingetraut Dahlberg’s Wissensorganisation: Entwicklung, Aufgabe, Anwendung, Zukunft (2014). The series Knowledge Organization in Subject Areas is confined to Environmental Knowledge Organization and Information Management (Staniciková and Dahlberg 1994), which is a proceeding of a workshop in Bratislava. ISKO has not officially sponsored books since then, though many scholars associated with ISKO have published important books. Mohinder P. Satija published A dictionary of knowledge organization (2004) based on some ISKO literature when he was a research fellow at the McLuhan Institute in Maastricht.

As technology developed, ISKO introduced and expanded a website (https://www.isko.org). This website provides information on conferences sponsored both by ISKO and kindred organizations (and provides a list of kindred organizations). It provides information on and links to ISKO publications. It also provides regular bulletins on KO research published elsewhere. It describes and links to ISKO chapters. It also now includes an online encyclopedia (see below). The website in sum provides a wide range of resources both for experienced practitioners and newcomers to the field.

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4. Governance

ISKO is governed by a 7-member Executive Board. These have generally been elected to overlapping four-year terms at the biennial ISKO conference. Starting in 2020, ISKO has moved to an electronic election of the Executive, though this election still occurs at about the time of the biennial conference. Executive members are joined in meetings by the webmaster, the chair of the scientific advisory committee, and the editors of the journal, encyclopedia, and conference proceedings.

ISKO has had 8 presidents from 6 different countries in its first 30 years of existence. These were Ingetraut Dahlberg, Germany (1989–1996), Hanne Albrechtsen, Denmark (1997–1998), Clare Beghtol, Canada (1998–2002), Ia C. McIlwaine, United Kingdom (2002–2006), Maria José López-Huertas, Spain (2006–10), H. Peter Ohly, Germany (2010-14), Joseph Tennis, United States (2014-18), and Rick Szostak, Canada (2018-22).

The Bylaws of ISKO can only be changed by a vote of the General Assembly, held at every ISKO international conference. The General Assembly also receives financial statements and discusses ISKO priorities and policies. The 2020 General Assembly had to be held remotely since the annual conference did not occur because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That assembly approved a change in the location of ISKO headquarters from Germany to Canada, and a new set of bylaws that accord with Canadian laws and regulations. Canadian law requires an annual general meeting to at least receive financial statements; ISKO will therefore need in future to hold a small general meeting either virtually or at one of the chapter conferences in odd-numbered years in order to receive financial statements. Provision will be made for interested ISKO members to join general meetings electronically.

Ingetraut Dahlberg developed a Scientific Advisory Council during her term as president (chairs: Winfried Schmitz Esser (1989-2006), Alexander Sigel (2006-10), Birger Hjørland (2010-20), Dagobert Soergel (2020-2024). This Council has grown to 28 members through time. It provides advice on how ISKO can best enhance the quality and visibility of research on knowledge organization. The ISKO Executive in 2020 clarified the governance of the Council: members are appointed for four-year terms, after being nominated by existing Council members and approved by the ISKO Executive. Membership is capped at 30. The Council chooses its own director. The Council is expected to both meet and report to the General Assembly at the biennial ISKO conference.

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5. Chapters of ISKO

The current chapters of ISKO can be seen at ISKO’s website (https://www.isko.org/chapters.html).Below is a listing, which includes former chapters and regional groups. Note that it is sometimes difficult to establish precise timing since in the early days of ISKO chapters from Eastern Europe or developing countries were not required to pay dues:

  • Bulgaria (former Chapter). Peter Petrov (early coordinator)
  • Brazil. Founded 2007. Presidents/contact persons: Ulf Baranow (coordinator in the Nineties), José Augusto Guimarães (2007-2011, 2015-17), Vera Lucia Dodebei (2011-15), Thiago Henrique Bragato Barros (2017-20), Natália Bolfarini Tognoli (2020-)
  • Canada and United States. Founded 2007. Presidents/contact persons: Nancy Williamson (coordinator since 1990), Richard Smiraglia (-2009), Kathryn La Barre (2009-2013), Hur-li Lee (2013-2017), Laura Ridenour (2017-9), Heather Moulaison Sandy (2019-)
  • China, People's Republic. Restablished 2000. Presidents/contact persons: Wei Min Dei (coordinator in the 1990s), Dongmei Bao (-2018), Shujin Cao (2018-)
  • Slovakia (former Chapter). Founded Presidents/contact persons: Pavla Stanciková (coordinator till about 2004)
  • France. Founded 1996 (as incorporated association: 2000). Presidents/contact persons: Widad Mustafa El Hadi (1996-2001), Jean-Paul Metzger (2001-2005), Stéphane Chaudiron (2005-2009), Fidelia Ibekwe-San Juan (2009-2011), Amos David (2011-2015), Widad Mustafa el Hadi (2015-2019)
  • Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Founded 1989 (as incorporated association: 2001). Presidents/contact persons: Winfried Gödert (1989-1991), Peter Jaenecke (1991-1993), Hans Czap (1993-1998), Holger Nohr (1998), Peter Ohly (1998-2009), Karsten Weber (2009-2013), Christian Wartena (2013-2019), Ernesto De Luca (2019-)
  • India. Founded 1994. Reestablished 2006. Presidents/contact persons: Mohinder Satija (coordinator since 1990), Krishan Kumar (1994-), Arashanipalai Neelameghan (2005-2014), Koti S. Raghavan (coordinator since 2005)
  • Iran. Founded 2012. Presidents/contact persons: Rahmatollah Fattahi
  • Italy. Founded 2004. Presidents/contact persons: Giliola Negrini (early coordinator), Claudio Gnoli (2004-), Carlo Bianchini (2016-).
  • Japan (former Chapter). Terminated about 2004. Presidents/contact persons: Yukio Nakamura
  • Low Countries. Founded 2019. Presidents/contact persons: Steven Laporte (2019-)
  • Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco). Founded 2010. Presidents/contact persons: Sahbi Sidhom
  • Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands; former Chapter). Founded 2007. Terminated 2011. President was Mikkel Christoffersen.
  • Poland. Reestablished 2006. Presidents/contact persons: Krystyna Siwek / Eugeniusz Scibor (coordinator 1994-2003), Wieslaw Babik (2006-)
  • Russia (former Chapter). Terminated about 2006. Presidents/contact persons: Eduard R. Sukiasyan (1993-2004), Andrej I. Kapterev (till about 2006) [5]
  • Singapore. Founded 2015. Presidents/contact persons: Patrick Lambe (2015-2019), Mark Garlinghouse (2020-)
  • Spain and Portugal (Ibérico). Founded as ISKO Spain 1993 (as incorporated association: 1994). Together with Portugal since 2013. Presidents/contact persons: Emilia Curras (-1998), María José López-Huertas Pérez (1998-2007), Rosa San Segundo Manuel (2007-2015), Isidoro Gil Leiva (2015-2019), Ana Lúcia Terra (2019-).
  • United Kingdom. Founded 2007. Presidents/contact persons: Steven Pollitt (coordinator since 1994), Vanda Broughton (2007-2011), Stella G. Dextre Clarke (2011-2014), Judi Vernau (2015-2017), David Haynes (2017-)
  • West Africa. Founded 2017. Presidents/contact persons: Olufade Williams Onifade (2017-2019), Victor Odumuyiwa (2019-)

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6. Scholarship

It would be foolhardy to attempt to summarize the academic contributions of a scholarly organization that spans the world, has hundreds of members, and has existed for over three decades. We can, though, identify a few topics of enduring interest (see McIlwaine 2003):

  • The pursuit of universal classification. Ingetraut Dahlberg was driven by dissatisfaction with existing classification systems to develop the Information Coding Classification. Other ISKO members have continued this quest, notably Claudio Gnoli with the → Integrative Levels Classification and Rick Szostak with the → Basic Concepts Classification. Though Dahlberg grounded her classification in subject areas, Gnoli and Szostak have instead grounded their efforts in phenomena.
  • On a closely related point, there has been much interest within ISKO in achieving → interoperability across knowledge organization systems. Again, the goal is to allow users to readily access a wide body of knowledge.
  • Domain analysis. The core argument of domain analysis is that terminological ambiguity is limited within domains in which participants have shared understandings of terminology. For some scholars, this implies that classification should be performed only at the level of domains, while others have explored the possibility of harnessing domain analysis to the project of universal classification.
  • Facet analysis. The key idea of facet analysis is that works should be classified in terms of a set of → facets. ISKO scholars have debated the nature of facets, the number of facets, and how to employ facet analysis in classification.
  • Epistemology. There has always been a strong interest within ISKO in identifying the philosophical underpinnings of the field. How can key terminology be defined? How much shared understanding of terminology is possible? What is the nature of concepts and classes? Though epistemological concerns have dominated, ISKO scholars have also worried about ontology and ethics.
  • Reduction in bias. Many authors have addressed cultural biases within existing knowledge organization systems. They have made numerous suggestions on how gender, ethnic, and other biases might be removed from existing systems, and speculated on how knowledge organization systems might be designed to further reduce or eliminate such biases. There has also been a related stream of research on the social conditions under which knowledge organization systems are created.
  • There has been much work naturally on particular knowledge organization systems such as classifications, thesauri, and (especially in recent years) → ontologies. There has been much interest recently in → folksonomies and social tagging.
  • There has been an ongoing interest in the intersection between knowledge organization and information retrieval, and thus with the technical aspects of how information can be searched for.
  • KO scholars have often reflected on the history of the field.

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7. Recent developments

The official headquarters of ISKO moved from Germany to Canada in 2020. The ISKO Executive Board had decided years earlier that it would be easier to operate in an English-speaking country. The move to Canada was approved in principle by the ISKO General Assembly at the ISKO conference in Porto, Portugal in 2018. ISKO was incorporated in Canada in 2019, and Bylaws that reflect Canadian regulations were approved at the virtual General Assembly in 2020.

ISKO launched an online encyclopedia of knowledge organization (→ ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization, IEKO) in August 2016 under the editorship of Birger Hjørland, assisted by Claudio Gnoli. By August 2020 there were over 70 articles, with a growth rate at approximately 1 article per month. These variously addressed the history of knowledge organization, core concepts in knowledge organization, knowledge organization systems (both general treatments and specific systems), methods of knowledge organization, philosophy of knowledge organization, and organization of particular fields of knowledge. The encyclopedia provides an open access guide to central topics in the domain of knowledge organization, from scholars both within and beyond the field (thus enhancing cross-disciplinary communication). All articles are peer-reviewed and published in Knowledge Organization (which increases their visibility, findability and citability, since the journal is a stable and paginated source). Articles may be updated by their authors and all changes are registered in the colophon. The encyclopedia aims to create an open-access high-quality record of research in knowledge organization for both researchers and advanced students. This is particularly important since research in the field is diverse and is published in a variety of outlets.

The ISKO Executive appointed Daniel Martinez-Ávila in 2019 as managing editor of Advances in Knowledge Organization. ISKO has published Proceedings from its biennial international conferences from the beginning. These Proceedings have contained many important contributions to the field. Yet they were edited in different ways by different conference organizers. The role of the managing editor is to work with conference organizers to ensure consistency across conferences, and to ensure that the same guidelines are employed as in ISKO’s journal and encyclopedia. To ensure a high scholarly level, it was decided collaboratively that for the 2020 conference, both the abstracts and the final papers would be refereed. It is anticipated that full papers will continue to be refereed in future.

ISKO is also in the process of identifying how Knowledge Organization is taught in different parts of the world. Olívia Pestana of Portugal will organize a session on this theme at the 2022 ISKO conference in Denmark and has developed a questionnaire to be circulated.

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8. Conclusion

ISKO has accomplished much in three decades. At several ISKO conferences there have been conversations about what the future of ISKO should look like. Some ISKO members urge a broader and more interdisciplinary mandate. This might fit with Dahlberg’s original hope that ISKO would be a/the key component of the science of science. It might involve greater effort to interact with cognate organizations. Others urge ISKO to focus even more on how technology is changing the way knowledge is produced and the possibilities for organizing knowledge. Still others stress the importance of grappling with issues such as sustainability and cultural sensitivity. More generally, it is thought that we need to think of the purposes that knowledge organization serves in society, and strive to serve political, economic, cultural and other needs for access to knowledge (Green 2014; Ohly 2015).

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We thank Birger Hjørland and anonymous referees for invaluable advice.

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1. ISKO Homepage: https://www.isko.org/index.php.

2. Founded 1964, since 1984 called British Classification Society (BCS). Its homepage is: http://www.brclasssoc.org.uk/.

3. Gesellschaft für Klassifikation was first abbreviated GFK, starting from 1979 as GfKl. Later it adopted the English subtitle Data Science Society. At that time, its purpose was to research and organize the theory and practice of ordering systems. Its homepage is: http://www.gfkl.org/.

4. http://www.gfkl.org/publikationen/sonstige/.

5. https://www.nomos-elibrary.de/10.5771/0943-7444-1993-4-201/professional-environment-as-an-information-analysis-object-jahrgang-20-1993-heft-4.

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Bliss, Henry Evelyn. 1929. The Organization of Knowledge and the System of the Sciences. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Bliss, Henry Evelyn. 1933. The Organization of Knowledge in Libraries and the Subject-Approach to Books. New York: H. W. Wilson. (2. Edition 1939).

Bock, Hans-Hermann and Peter Ihm (eds.). 2001. 25 Jahre Gesellschaft für Klassifikation: Klassifikation und Datenanalyse im Wandel der Zeit. Aachen, Germany: Shaker Verlag. ISBN 3-8265-9778-8.

Dahlberg, lngetraut. 1989. “Editorial: The Founding of the International Society for Knowledge Organization". International Classification 16, no. 2: 71-2.

Dahlberg, Ingetraut. 2010. "International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO)". Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition, edited by Marcia J. Bates and Mary Niles Maack. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, vol. 4: 2941-9. (A reprint appeared as Dahlberg 2017).

Dahlberg, Ingetraut. 2014. Wissensorganisation: Entwicklung, Aufgabe, Anwendung, Zukunft. Würzburg: Ergon.

Dahlberg, Ingetraut. 2017. "International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO)". Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Fourth Edition, edited by John D. McDonald and Michael Levine-Clark. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2494-502. A reprint of Dahlberg 2010.

Fugmann, Robert. 1993. Subject Analysis and Indexing: Theoretical Foundation and Practical Advice. Frankfurt: Indeks Verlag. ISBN 978-3-932004-19-3

Fugmann, Robert. 1996. “The Goals of ISKO”. Knowledge Organization 23, no. 3: 173-7.

Green, Rebecca. 2014. “ISKO and Knowledge Organization's 25th Anniversary: The Future of Knowledge Organization and ISKO Panel Discussion”. Knowledge Organization 41, no. 4: 327-31.

Iyer, Hemalata. 2012. Classificatory Structures: Concepts, Relations and Representation. 2nd unchanged ed. (1st ed. 1995). Textbooks for Knowledge Organization. Würzburg: Ergon. ISBN 978-3-932004-20-9

McIlwaine, Ia C. 2003. “Trends in Knowledge Organization Research”. Knowledge Organization 30, no. 2: 75-86.

Ohly, Peter. 2015. “Knowledge Organization and ISKO: State, Demands, Ideals”. Scire 21, no. 1: 13-19.

Ohly, Peter. 2017. “Dr. Ingetraut Dahlberg Obituary”. Knowledge Organization 44, no. 8: 581-5.

Ohly, Peter. 2018. “Ingetraut Dahlberg”. ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization, edited by Birger Hjørland and Claudio Gnoli. https://www.isko.org/cyclo/dahlberg.

Satija, Mohinder Partap. 2004. A Dictionary of Knowledge Organization. Amristar, India: Guru Nanak Dev University. ISBN: 8177701010

Sukiasyan, Eduard R. 2018. “International Society for Knowledge Organization: Forty Years of Cooperation.” Nauchnye i Tekhnicheskie Biblioteki- Scientific and Technical Libraries no. 5: 91-106. (In Russian) https://doi.org/10.33186/1027-3689-2018-5-91-106.

Stanciková, Pavla and Ingetraut Dahlberg (Eds.). 1994. Environmental Knowledge Organization and Information Management: Proceedings 1st European ISKO Conference, 14-16 Sept. 1994, Bratislava, Slovakia. Frankfurt: Indeks Verlag. ISBN 978-3-932004-17-9 (with supplement 978-3-932004-18-6)

Wikipedia: The free Encyclopedia. “Ingetraut Dahlberg”. Retrieved February 22, 2020 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingetraut_Dahlberg.

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