61 Worlds of Description

In the previous two sections we have considered descriptions as designed objects with particular structures and as written documents with particular syntaxes. As we have seen, there are many possible choices of structure and syntax. But these choices are never made in isolation. Just as an architect or designer must work within the constraints of the existing built environment, and just as any author must work with existing writing systems, descriptions are always created as part of a pre-existing “world” over which any one of us has little control.

In the final part of this chapter, we will consider how choices of structure and syntax have converged historically into broad patterns of usage. For lack of a better term, we call these broad patterns “worlds.” “World” is not a technical term and should not be taken too literally: the broad areas of application sketched here have considerable overlap, and there are many other ways one might identify patterns of description structure and syntax. That said, the three worlds described here do reflect real patterns of description form that influence tool and technology choices. In your own work creating and managing resource descriptions, it is likely that you will need to think about how your descriptions fit into one or more of these worlds.

The Document Processing World

The first world we will consider is concerned primarily with the creation, processing and management of hybrid narrative-transactional documents such as instruction manuals, textbooks, or annotated medieval manuscripts. (See The Document Type Spectrum). These are quite different kinds of documents, but they all contain a mixture of narrative text and structured data, and they all can be usefully modeled as tree structures. Because of these shared qualities, tools as different as publishing software, supply-chain management software, and scholarly editing software have all converged on common XML-based solutions. (“The XML world” would be another appropriate name for the document-processing world.)

This convergence was no accident, because XML was designed specifically to address the problem of how to add structure and data to documents by “marking them up.XML is the descendant of Standard Generalized Markup Language(SGML), which in turn descended from International Business Machines(IBM)’s Generalized Markup Language, which was invented to enable the production and management of large-scale technical documentation. The explicitness of markup makes it well-suited for representing structure and content type distinctions in institutional contexts, where the scope, scale, and expected lifetime of organizing systems for information implies reuse by unknown people for unanticipated purposes.

The abstract data model underlying XML is called the XML Information Set or Infoset. The Infoset defines a document as a partially ordered tree of “information items. Every XML document can thus be understood as a specific kind of tree, although not every tree structure is expressible as an XML document.[1]

As we discussed in Inclusions and References, XML has the ability to describe graphs by incorporating the use of ID and IDREF attribute types to create references among element information items within the same document. This modest form of hypertext linking allows us to present the following document fragment that approximates the graph we saw modeled in Figure: Descriptions Linked into a Graph.


XML Implementation of a Biblio-graph
<person id="WG.Sebald">Winfried George Sebald</person>
<person id="MR.McCulloch>Mark Richard McCulloch</person>

    <title>Understanding W.G. Sebald</title>
    <subject idref="WG.Sebald"/>
    <author idref="WG.Sebald"/>
    <author idref="MR.McCulloch"/>

<book pages="371">
    <title lang="de">Die Ringe des Saturne</title>
    <title lang="en">The Rings of Saturn</title>
    <author idref="WG.Sebald"/>

<book pages="416">
    <title lang="de">Austerlitz</title>
    <author idref="WG.Sebald"/>

As one might expect, tools and technologies in the document-processing world are optimized for manipulating and combining tree structures. A “toolchain” is set of tools intended to be used together to achieve some goal.

For programmers who do not to use the XML toolchain, other programming languages also provide libraries for working with XML. This fact has led some to propose, and others to believe, that XML is a kind of universal format for exchanging data among systems. However, programmers have observed that a random XML Infoset does not map easily to the data structures commonly found in many programming languages. “Working with XML” frequently means translating from XML tree structures to data structures native to another language, usually meaning lists and dictionaries. This translation can be problematic and often means giving up many of the strengths of XML. By the same token, there are decades more practical experience working with markup languages and institutional publishing than there is with JSON and RDF.

XML is not a universal solution for every possible problem. That does not mean that it is not the best solution for a wide variety of problems, including yours. To gauge whether your resource descriptions are, or ought to be, part of the document-processing world, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do my resource descriptions contain mixtures of narrative text, hypertext, structured data and a variety of media formats?

  • Can my descriptions easily be modeled using tree structures, hypertext links, and transclusion?

  • Are the vocabularies I need or want to use made available using XML technologies?

  • Do I need to work with a body of existing descriptions already encoded as XML?

  • Do I need to interoperate with processes or partners that utilize the XML toolchain?

  • Do I need to publish my resource descriptions in multiple formats from a single source?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes,” then chances are good that you are working within the document processing world, and you will need to become familiar with conceptualizing your descriptions as trees and working with them using XML tools.

The Web World

The second “world” emerged in the early 1990s with the creation of the World Wide Web. The web was developed to address a need for simple and rapid sharing of scientific data. Of course, it has grown far beyond that initial use case, and is now a ubiquitous infrastructure for all varieties of information and communication services. (“The browser world” would be another appropriate name for what we are calling the Web World.)

Documents, data, and services on the web are conceptualized as resources, identified using Uniform Resource Identifiers(URI), and accessible through representations transferred via Hypertext Transfer Protocol(HTTP). Representations are sequences of bytes, and could be HTML pages, JPEG images, tabular data, or practically anything else transferable via HTTP. No matter what they are, representations transferred over the web include descriptions of themselves. These descriptions take the form of property-value pairs, known as “HTTP headers.The HTTP headers of web representations are structured as dictionaries.

Dictionary structures appear many other places in web infrastructure. URIs may include a query component beginning with a ? character. This component is used for purposes such as providing query parameters to search services. The query component is commonly structured as a dictionary, consisting of a series of property-value pairs separated by the & character. For example, the following URI:


includes the query component q=sebald&tbs=qdr:m. This is a dictionary with the properties q and tbs, respectively specifying the search term and temporal constraints on the search.

Data entered into an HTML form is also structured as a dictionary. When an HTML form is submitted, the entered data is used either to compose the query component of a URI, or to create a new representation to be transferred to a web server. In either case, the data is structured as a set of properties and their corresponding values.

HTML documents are structured as trees, but descriptions embedded within HTML documents can also be structured as dictionaries. HTML documents may include a dictionary of metadata elements, each of which specifies a property and its value. Recently support for microdata was added to HTML, which is another method of adding dictionaries of property-value pairs to documents. Using microdata, authors can annotate web content with additional information, making it easier to automatically extract structured descriptions of that content.[2] Microformats are another method for doing this by mapping existing HTML attributes and values to (nested) dictionary structures.[3]

Dictionary structures are easy to work with in any programming language, and they pervade various popular frameworks for programming the Web. In the programming languages used to implement web services, HTTP headers and query parameters are easily mapped to dictionary data structures native to those languages. On the client side, there is only one programming language that runs within all web browsers: JavaScript. The dictionary is the fundamental data structure within JavaScript as well.

Thus it is unsurprising that JSON, a dictionary-structured, JavaScript-based syntax, has become the de facto standard for application-to-application interchange of data on the web in contexts that do not involve business transactions. Web services providing structured data intended for programmatic use can make that data available as JSON, which is well-suited for use either by JavaScript programs running within browsers, or by programs written in other languages running outside of browsers (e.g., smart phone applications).

It is now commonly accepted that there are useful differences of approach between the document-processing world and the Web World. This does not mean that the two worlds do not have significant overlaps. Some very important web representation types are XML-based, such as the Atom syndication format. Trees will continue to be the structure of choice for web representations that consist primarily of narrative rather than transactional data. But for structured descriptions that are intended to be accessed and manipulated on the Web, dictionary structures currently rule.

To gauge whether your resource descriptions are or ought to be part of the Web world, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the web the primary platform upon which I will be making my descriptions available?

  • Are my resource descriptions primarily structured, transaction-oriented data?

  • Can my descriptions easily be modeled as lists of properties and values (dictionaries)?

  • Are the vocabularies I need or want to use made available primarily using HTML technologies such as microdata or microformats?

  • Do I need to make my descriptions easily usable for use within a wide array of programming languages?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes,” then chances are good that you are working within the Web World, and you will need to become familiar with conceptualizing your descriptions as dictionaries and working with them using programming languages such as JavaScript.

The Semantic Web World

The last world we consider is still somewhat of a possible world, at least in comparison with the previous two. While the document processing world and the web world are well-established, the Semantic Web world is only starting to emerge, despite having been envisioned over a decade ago.

The vision of a Semantic Web world builds upon the web world, but adds some further prescriptions and constraints for how to structure descriptions. The Semantic Web world unifies the concept of a resource as it has been developed in this book, with the web notion of a resource as anything with a URI. On the Semantic Web, anything being described must have a URI. Furthermore, the descriptions must be structured as graphs, adhering to the RDF metamodel and relating resources to one another via their URIs. Advocates of Linked Data further prescribe that those descriptions must be made available as representations transferred over HTTP.[4]

This is a departure from the web world. The web world is also structured around URIs, but it does not require that every resource being described have a URI. For example, in the web world a list of bibliographic descriptions of books by W.G. Sebald might be published at a specific URI, but the individual books themselves might not have URIs. In the Semantic Web world, in addition to the list having a URIs, each book would have a URI too, in addition to whatever other identifiers it might have.[5]

Making an HTTP request to an individual book URI may return a graph-structured description of that book, if best practices for Linked Data are being followed. This, too, is a departure from the web world, which is agnostic about the form representations or descriptions of resources should take (although as we have seen, dictionary structures are often favored on the web when the clients consuming those descriptions are computer programs). On the Semantic Web, all descriptions are structured as RDF graphs. Each description graph links to other description graphs by referring to these related resources using their URIs. Thus, at least in theory, all description graphs on the Semantic Web are linked into a single massive graph structure. In practice, however, it is far from clear that this is an achievable, or even a desirable, goal.

Although the Semantic Web is in its infancy, a significant number of resource descriptions have already been made available in accordance with the principles outlined above. Descriptions published according to these principles are often referred to as “Linked Data.” Prominent examples include: DBpedia, a graph of descriptions of subjects of Wikipedia articles; the Virtual International Authority File(VIAF), a graph of descriptions of names collected from various national libraries name authority files; GeoNames, a graph of descriptions of places; and Data.gov.uk, a graph of descriptions of public data made available by the UK government.[6]

Despite the growing amount of Linked Data, tools for working with graph-structured data are still immature in comparison to the XML toolchain and Web programming languages. Although there is an XML syntax for RDF, using the XML toolchain to work with graph-structured data is generally a bad idea. And just as most programming languages do not support natively working with tree structures, most do not support natively working with graph structures either. Storing and querying graph-structured data efficiently requires a graph database or triple store.

Still, the Semantic Web world has much to recommend it. Having a common way of identifying resources (the URI) and a single shared metamodel (RDF) for all resource descriptions makes it much easier to combine descriptions from different sources. To gauge whether your resource descriptions are or ought to be part of the Semantic Web world, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the web the primary platform upon which I will be making my descriptions available?

  • Is it important that I be able to easily and freely aggregate the elements of my descriptions in different ways and to combine them with descriptions created by others?

  • Are my descriptions best modeled as graph structures?

  • Have the vocabularies I need or want to use been created using RDF?

  • Do I need to work with a body of existing descriptions that have been published as Linked Data?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes,” then chances are good that you should be working within the Semantic Web world, and you ought to become familiar with conceptualizing your descriptions as graphs and working with them using Semantic Web tools.

  1. It should be noted that the content of the Infoset for a given document may be affected by knowledge of any related DTDs or schemas. That is to say that, upon examination of a given XML document instance, its Infoset may be augmented with some useful information, such as default attribute values and attribute types. (See Inclusions and References.)

  2. Microdata is an invention of WHATWG and exists and part of what they call a “living standard.” It was supported by Google, so it was widely used and there exist numerous controlled vocabularies, including those for creative works, persons, events and organizations. Support for microdata has since been withdrawn from Apple Safari and Google Chrome browsers.

  3. Microformats is a non-standard that emerged from the community and has been sponsored by CommerceNet and Microformats.org.

  4. (Bizer, Heath, and Berners-Lee 2009).

  5. It is worth noting that URIs are not required to have anything at their endpoints. Resolvability of URIs is evangelized as a best practice for Linked Data but not a requirement within the broader Semantic Web paradigm. Merely asserting that a URI is associated with a book is enough. If the URI can return a description or a resource, so much the better, but if not, at least you can talk about the book by referring to the same URI.

  6. Many more available datasets are listed at linkeddata.org.


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The Discipline of Organizing: 4th Professional Edition Copyright © 2020 by Robert J. Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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