Thursday, March 27, 2008

What's a Thesaurus?

I expect many of you would react with blank stares if I exclaimed, "I'm building a Disneyland thesaurus!" (That's been the extent of my real-world experience, anyway.) Well, I am in fact working on a Disneyland (Resort) thesaurus, so I need to start the education process. Most are probably familiar with the type of thesaurus sold by Merriam-Webster that provides synonyms, antonyms, and related words. In the information world, thesauri (it's a great plural world, I think) have a more precise (yet expansive) definition. At various times I'll refer to it as a thesaurus or index language and--in fact--the encyclopedia will be output from the thesaurus database.

So, what's a thesaurus? It is a resource useful in indexing that includes both approved subject descriptors and the lead-in vocabulary. The subject descriptors form the index language and can be applied to documents; the lead-in terms (as you sharp-witted ones may have already guessed) point to the approved terms. As an example--and as sacrilegious as it may seem--Disneyland is not an approved term in the thesaurus. Rather, because Disneyland can really mean several different things, that term refers to Disneyland (television), Disneyland Park and Disneyland Resort. The three latter terms are subject descriptors; Disneyland is a lead-in term. Each term record can include various types of notes (definitions, scope notes on usage) and show hierarchy and other relationships between the terms.

But a thesaurus can have additional functions beyond indexing. For a great overview of these (for those who really want more information!), I recommend a document written by my professor Dagobert Soergel. The key one for this project is the first one he mentions: "Provide a semantic road map to individual fields and the relationships among fields. Map out a concept space, relate concepts to terms, and provide definitions, thus providing orientation and serving as a reference tool." There will be a significant amount of information in this database and it will serve to relate the various parts of the Disneyland Resort together. The process of constructing the thesaurus is the conceptual first step in doing the encyclopedia. Kevin and I will have a sense of how terms relate to one another and be able to choose the terms we want. (The specificity of the thesaurus and the encyclopedia will not be the same; while we'll likely have an attraction posters term in the encyclopedia, we also have terms for all the individual posters in the thesaurus.)

Now, I think this Disneyland thesaurus is really something of a super thesaurus, with a lot more information for each term than is typical. As relative to the above definition, this thesaurus contains an index language and lead-in descriptors. Terms have hierarchy, relationships, and occasional scope notes on usage. Many thesauri have brief definitions and note literary warrant. The Disneyland thesaurus includes the definitions from all the various sources I'm consulting and notations indicating the sources where a particular term is found (this is the nomenclature part of the project). From the example given in my first post--of the House of the Future--the subject descriptor and lead-in terms show what I'm talking about (more sources to be added as I research them):
[preferred term]

House of the Future
SRC: Walt Disney's Guide to Disneyland (1958)
Walt Disney's Guide to Disneyland (1960)
Disney A-Z (2006)

[lead-in terms]

Home of the Future
SRC: Disneyland Dictionary (10/1959)
Disney A-Z (2006)

House of Tomorrow
SRC: Hayward Daily Review (6/12/1956)
Los Angeles Times (6/13/1956)

Monsanto "House of the Future"
SRC: Disneylander (September 1957)

Monsanto Chemical House of the Future
SRC: 1958 souvenir Disneyland wall map (A)
1958 souvenir Disneyland wall map (C)
1962 souvenir Disneyland wall map

Monsanto Home of the Future
SRC: Disneyland Dictionary (10/1959)
Your Guide to Disneyland (ca. 11/1965)
Disney A-Z (2006)

Monsanto House of the Future
SRC: Los Angeles Times (6/9/1957)
Disney A-Z (2006)

Monsanto's House of the Future
SRC: Walt Disney's Guide to Disneyland (1960)

Monsanto's House of Tomorrow
SRC: Los Angeles Times (6/17/1956)
The preferred term may change as I do more research. Frankly, for the early Tomorrowland exhibits, I'm inclined to believe that there's no "right" name--they were referred to by so many different names in so many different authoritative sources. In that case, it would be more important that those exhibit names be consistent. Perhaps "Monsanto House of the Future," "Monsanto Hall of Chemistry," and "Kaiser Hall of Aluminum Fame" would be most correct.

I'll have a follow-up post very soon on how this thesaurus contrasts with folksonomies. I began to put that in here, but the post began to run far too long! In the future I'll also tell about my early attempts in 2002 to create a sort-of index language and the genesis of this particular instance. I'll also have additional posts about the conceptual problems I've encountered in this construction process. Depending on your inclination, these future posts could be a lot of fun or extremely tedious! As I make these posts, I'd appreciate feedback and questions if things are unclear. I'm still determining how to clearly and succinctly explain this!


Major Pepperidge said...

I thought a Thesaurus was a kind of dinosaur! ;-)

I am almost positive I've seen it referred to as "Monsanto's Plastic House of the Future" as well (and variations of that name)

Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

Sounds like a Super Duper Disneyland Thesaurus! Seems like a massive challenge, just correlating the thesaurus to the encyclopedia is twisting my brain. I read Professor Soergel's paper; I think I actually get it. Hey lays it all out nice an clearly.

If you’re taking a vote, I don't think this is tedious at all. But then again I do read encyclopedias and old repair manuals just for fun!

Jason Schultz said...

That reminds me--I still need to get you scans of that manual! Perhaps the subject of a future post...

Anonymous said...

It was reported today that Roget made lists of words (and later his thesaurus) as a means to fend off depression.


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