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The final version of the multilingual ETB Thesaurus came out in the beginning of Mars 2002. This article goes into details about the purpose of using a multilingual thesaurus, and it explains in depth the scope and structure of it.

by Marisa Trigari

1. Purpose of the ETB Thesaurus

The ETB thesaurus is a multilingual thesaurus in eight languages: Danish, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Swedish aimed to index educational resources.

It has been conceived within the ETB project as a documentary tool aimed to facilitate indexing and searching processes in two contexts:

  • a metadata infrastructure for information exchange, connecting European educational repositories that have their own indexing systems and documentary languages;
  • native repositories characterised by an European dimension from the very beginning.

That means that the ETB thesaurus can impact on repositories where documents have been indexed by using its descriptors or on repositories whose classification systems or thesauri have been matched with its descriptors.

Conceived within a project related to WEB resources, the ETB thesaurus is WEB enabled, described through an RDF data model, distributed in a format based on XML.

Potential users of the ETB thesaurus are indexers working in education documentation services, publishers and libraries, on the one hand; pupils, teachers, administrators, scholars, decision-makers interested in educational materials on the WEB on the other hand.

1.1 Advantages and disadvantages

Among the most important advantages expected by the use of ETB thesaurus in the ETB context we can include:

  • improving the effectiveness of the information retrieval by
    • establishing a common language for indexers and users;
    • allowing the user to search/index in his own language within a multilingual documentary environment;
    • providing a conceptual structure helping the end-user to search for suitable descriptors;
    • favoring a flexible, post-coordinated search strategy
    • facilitating co-operation among documentation services;

  • creating a European documentary language in the field of education resources;

  • allowing information retrieval in a multilingual, non-homogeneous setting, without imposing neither a different language nor a different indexing tool.

Some costs have been paid in order to gain the above advantages:

  • the limitations related to a controlled language, which cannot cover a conceptual field in a specific or exhaustive way, mostly when the scope of the thesaurus is almost boundless, as in this case;
  • the inevitable artifice implied in a controlled, even if natural, language.

1.2 Scope

The ETB thesaurus encompasses the following 17 conceptual areas (Microthesauri):

  1. individual development
  2. learning/research
  3. school activities
  4. leisure activities
  5. teaching/training/evaluation/guidance
  6. educational system
  7. content of education (including 9 curricular/extracurricular sub-groups)
  8. facilities/equipment/materials
  9. communication/information/document
  10. culture
  11. political/social/interpersonal relations
  12. health/safety/handicap
  13. environment
  14. society
  15. international organisations
  16. countries and geopolitical areas
  17. languages

Being specifically oriented to learning/teaching materials, the thesaurus is mostly focused on content of formal, informal, non-formal education (core area). Only subordinately are taken into account aspects such as teaching methods and procedures; guidance and evaluation; administration problems; psychological/cognitive development; educational system (fringe area).

These priorities are reflected in the balance between the descriptors.

Though the scope was somehow limited in that way, it was still so wide that drastic choices had to be made. Thus:

  • Curricular and extracurricular subjects have been considered first (Ex.: mathematics, botany, peace education, sport, etc.). Then, descending by grade to more specific levels, a number of ‘cumulative’ terms - covering classes of concepts statistically present in the school curricula - have been accepted (Ex.: natural phenomenon, scientific concept, economic system, etc.). Finally a few very specific topics are present (Ex.: environment, acid rain, plant, animal), thanks to their statistical relevance in the curricula at a European level.
  • The typology of documents, as well as the target audience are represented by a limited number of descriptors, being intended only as potential topics of a document, considering that – at least in the ETB system – separate authority lists have been established for the related meta-data fields.

1.3 Multilingualism

All the languages have equal status in the ETB thesaurus: each descriptor in one language matches one descriptor in all other languages.

Comments from each language in order to accept, delete or modify a proposed descriptor have been allowed whenever an equivalence problem has arisen.

Similarly, in the case of concepts not equally evolved in the different cultural contexts, and provided that a concept was recognised by the partners as a meaningful and relevant one, all the languages had the opportunity of being source language in turn. That was the case - for instance – of the English “career education”, as well as the Italian “mediatore culturale” or the German “duale Ausbildung”.

2. Standards, construction methodology, references

The ETB thesaurus has been compiled according to the international ISO standards, also taking into account a wide bibliography on the matter.

On one hand, the terminology has been established mainly on the ground of an accurate domain study, carried out through a statistical and qualitative analysis of European educational repositories, European school curricula, Socrates project guidelines and education-oriented bibliographic data-bases. The feedback from a selected group of indexers and users contributed in a meaningful way to test both the terminology and the semantic structure.

On the other hand, existing thesauri in the education field, partially overlapping the ETB thesaurus scope, provided a strong input and relevant support to the whole work. Among them was particularly relevant the multilingual European Education Thesaurus - focused on educational research and the education system.

2.1 Structure

The structure of the ETB descriptors depends on the classical semantic relationships in a thesaurus:
  • The micro-thesaurus relationship (MT nn):
    • Each preferred term belongs to a micro-thesaurus, i.e. a classification groups

  • The inter-language equivalence:
    • Each term in a language version has an equivalent term in the other seven languages of the thesaurus;

  • The intra-language equivalence (USE):
    • Non preferred synonyms or quasi-synonyms (non-descriptors) guide the user to the term (descriptor) that has been preferred in order to cover the concept. The number of non-descriptor is different from a language to another one, according to the different number of signifiants grouping around a signifié in different languages. Anyway, a large number of non-descriptors has been encouraged in the different languages, in order to increase the access key to semantic information;

  • The generic or whole/part relationship (BT-NT):
    • Each descriptor is hierarchically linked to that/those descriptor/s of the thesaurus that is/are its/their generic (BT= broader terms) or specific (NT = narrower terms) term/terms from a semantic point of view. A descriptor may have more than one broader term, according to different points of view (polyhierarchy);

  • The associative relationship (RT)
    • Each descriptor is linked to other descriptors of the thesaurus that are associated to it by an implication relationship.

2.2 Display

The ETB thesaurus makes three kinds of display possible:

  • structured alphabetical (opens in Word): each descriptors can be displayed accompanied by the net of its semantic relationships (MTs, BTs, NTs, RTs), so that alternative terms for indexing by or searching for are suggested;

  • systematic (opens in Word): each descriptor is included in a predefined classification group, together with others descriptors pertaining to the same conceptual field. Among several possibilities, we chose:

    to classify the descriptors combining a cultural approach with a strictly logical/categorial one.
    As well known, a logical/categorial approach regroups terms according to broad categories such as entities, qualities, processes, space and time - totally culture-independent.

    A cultural approach, on the other hand, takes into account a subdivision of conceptual fields that is derived from the science encyclopedia in a specific context (See the organisation of the knowledge into academic disciplines). They have both advantages and disadvantages, the first being rigorous and culture independent, but often abstract, the second being culture dependent, but far more familiar to an end user.

    Considering the ETB project, on the one hand, we had to deal with a multilingual, multicultural setting; on the other hand, we could not identify a restricted user group, whose competence or search behavior was easily foreseeable. Thus, we tried to make the best of the two approaches:

    • at a first level the micro-thesauri identify the components of the conceptual field by category: entities – content of education, languages, facilities, equipment, materials, etc.-; processes – individual development, learning, research, school activities, communication, information, etc; systems – educational system, culture, society, environment, international organisations, etc.-; space – countries and geopolitical areas-;

    • at a second level a mixed approach has been preferred. Thus, if systems are in turn articulated in entities, processes, persons, the MT content of education – i.e. the focus of the ETB thesaurus – has been articulated according to the science encyclopedia implied in a virtual European school curriculum.

      In fact, even if the convergence of the education systems in Europe is not yet a reality, the domain study carried out through the analysis of the European curricula and educational repositories proved that content of education is homogeneous enough to make a cultural approach possible.

    Moreover, the study showed that an even more important European dimension involved cross-curricular subjects, such as ‘peace education’, ‘health education’, ‘education for sustainable development’, ‘computer literacy’, etc., where problems of terminological homogeneity were almost absent.

    The ETB thesaurus adequately represents this trend, connected to a growing European educational setting more and more focused on an interdisciplinary approach, with a common emphasis on skills and competencies, problem solving, learning to learn.

    In order to by-pass the unavoidable difficulty of different wordings for the same concept, the most general denomination of the discipline – generally the academic one - was preferred as the most likely to be recognised by the end user. Similarly, curriculum subjects including more than one discipline were divided in their components, given the possibility - guaranteed by a thesaurus - of reassembling the whole set by post-coordinated search strategies. As a general strategy, a high percentage of non-descriptors was recommended to in the different language versions (rate: 0.5-2), so to ensure that the more familiar term would be available as an access key.

    è to keep information on the semantic relationships within the classification scheme.

    In this way, each descriptor is put in its context of use, semantically meaningful as a whole, without loosing the richness of the hierarchical and associative relationships.

  • Rotated (opens in Word): terms are displayed in alphabetical order, in such a way that compound terms comes more than once in the list, having each significant word as a word of order

2.3 The thesaurus in figures (updated January 18th, 2002)

  • Micro-thesauri: 17
  • Descriptors (country names and languages included): 1155
  • Country names: 90
  • Language names: 53
  • Non descriptors:
    • DA: 5
    • DE: 178
    • EN: 257
    • ES: 361
    • FR: 859
    • GR: 174
    • IT: 496
    • SV: 24

If we disaggregate the ETB thesaurus descriptors by MT, we can note that, according to the defined scope of the thesaurus, 40% of the descriptors cover contents of education.

Without considering countries and languages terms, the descriptors related to society (145), which cover a number of important concepts recurring as learning topics, reach 13%. Educational system, individual development, teaching, learning, information, environment are between 5% and 2%; an even more peripheral area (<2%) includes topics as leisure, relations, health, etc.

The MT content of education, disaggregated by curriculum subjects, shows that humanities (26%) and maths and natural sciences (25%) together cover half micro-thesaurus in a perfectly balanced way. Art and technologies are present with a percentage of 13%. Ethics, including the wide world of ideologies and religions, cover 8%, preceding social sciences (6%) and cross-curricular topics (6%). Basic skills and physical education come last.

The average distribution of the curriculum subjects in the European curricula is reflected in the above figures.

3. Potentiality of the ETB thesaurus for browsing and searching the ETB

As said above, the ETB thesaurus is supposed to be the main search tool in the multilingual setting of the ETB repositories.

Its characteristics will make it possible to use a variety of browsing and searching approaches, most of which are already available in the prototype of the searching infrastructure (

First of all, given the advantages of a multilingual thesaurus, an end user will search for documents by using his own language or whatever language he likes better. Since each descriptor in a language is matched by an equivalent term in the other languages, the represented unique concept is going to be reached anyway.

The end user will also have the possibility of choosing between retrieving documents in all the represented languages, or only in a selected language. In addition, the language in which the indexes of the documents are displayed can be chosen, so to evaluate the whole semantic content of the unit.

Thanks to the richness of non-descriptors in many languages of the ETB thesaurus, the search interface will create a bridge between the natural free language of the end user and the controlled language of the thesaurus. By clicking on the non-descriptor, the end user will be automatically sent to the related descriptor.

Scope notes, signaled by a different color of the term, will be displayed in a window on request, being of great use when the meaning of the term is not commonly shared. A Another solution could be having a clickable icon like that next to descriptor with Scope Note.

Moreover, the alphabetical, systematic and rotated displays will provide a functional integrated search system, where different approaches will take place in turn, according to the choices of the user and the steps of the process. Each descriptor, at any point of the system, will open the net of the semantic relationships and - what is most important – the end user will take advantage of a dynamic inter-connection between different displays of the terms. Starting from a rotated list, the end user can open the micro-hierarchies of single descriptors; from a micro-hierarchy you can jump to the whole related micro-thesaurus and vice versa, thus navigating the thesaurus at the degree of specificity you are more comfortable with at that stage of the searching process.

3.1 The double role of the thesaurus within the ETB infrastructure

As said above, searching by content in the ETB system will meet two different scenarios: on one hand, documents/collections included in the native ETB repository or in repositories which are willing to adopt the ETB standards – in this case the ETB thesaurus is the compulsory documentation tool. On the other hand, resources belonging to existing educational web sites, indexed by a variety of classification systems, thesauri, authority lists. In the latter case, particularly when a huge number of documents is concerned, the direct use of the ETB thesaurus is unthinkable, at least for the moment.

Anyway, the role of the ETB thesaurus is even more important when the heterogeneity of the semantic indexing is concerned.

In this case, cross-concordances have to be conceptually established una tantum between the ETB thesaurus and each controlled vocabulary for indexing or classification system coming into play, so to represent in the best possible way the original indexing terms/codes through single or combined descriptors of the thesaurus.

The adopted tools and methodology - used for establishing cross-concordances and for integrating them into the ETB infrastructure - are described in details by Michael Kluck, the co-ordinator of the WP responsible for this part of the project, in his Report on results and usability of cross-concordances lists of controlled terms and authorithy lists, to which we refer the reader.

What we would stress here is the added value of a well constructed multilingual thesaurus as a meta-structure to cross and ‘translate’ both simple term lists and other structured vocabularies or classification schemes. Cross-concordances in any languages will automatically include all the other languages covered by the thesaurus. Moreover, being formally organised according to rigorous paradigmatic relationships, the ETB thesaurus will make it possible to build much more than the mere ‘one to one’ concordance in case of exact equivalence between two terms (Ex.: history = history). Cross-concordances can be made with a broader term, generating an inexact, but still acceptable equivalence (Ex.: climatic phenomenon = rain), which is semantically guaranteed by the thesaurus hierarchies. Finally the modularity of the thesaurus can also make it possible to have ‘several to one’ exact equivalencies (Ex.: art + 15th century + Italy = Italian Renaissance art).

3.2 Integration of the ETB thesaurus in the planned search interface

Two search facilities have been planned by WP10, responsible for the browsing/searching interface: The simple search interface makes the following steps possible:
  • Two starting search approaches:

    a) navigation through the ETB micro-thesauri following a top down path to detect the most suitable search term within the conceptual field you are interested in;

  • b) directly entering an ETB thesaurus term;

  • Some search options and limit fields

    1. searching language

    2. searching term considered as an exact; phrase or potential part of compound terms (rotated approach);

    Plus, by clicking

    3. displaying documents' index language;

    4. displaying the number of documents per page;

  • Possibility of going to the advanced search keeping the selected configuration.

Clicking on a descriptor immediately displays the metadata of the related documents, if any. The microthesauri label, as well as the single terms, is accompanied by the indication of the related documents (number). Moreover, once a descriptor is identified through one of the above procedure, all the possibilities of further exploring the ETB thesaurus and of specifying the search are open, being each term a hot point connecting with the whole thesaurus net.

Even the descriptors showed in the indexes of the retrieved documents are hot points and can re-start the navigation through the thesaurus, a very interesting option indeed.

The advanced search interface provides further facilities:

  • Boolean operators AND, NOT, OR taking fully advantage of the modularity of the thesaurus by constructing very specific search expressions
  • more limit fields:

    1. target audience

    2. pupils age level

Moreover, when a hierarchy is opened, the end user can select one or more terms from the thesaurus in order to automatically add them to the search expression - in OR modality in the same set, in AND or NOT modality in different sets.

To sum up, the planned ETB browsing/searching interface provides one of the most complete set of options and facilities that a thesaurus can offer as a semantic search tool on the web.

Moreover, the possibility of downloading the ETB thesaurus in RTF format in eight languages from the ETB site will make it possible to use it in situations - schools, local educational services, etc. - where a printed version is still useful, also in view of a future integration into the Internet multilingual environment.

3.3 The maintenance of the ETB thesaurus

Strategies will be established in order to make the evaluation and updating of the ETB thesaurus possible.

At least an on-line proposal form will be available in order to gather proposals both of new descriptors, non-descriptors, scope notes, and of deletion or of modification of descriptors or hierarchical relationships.

A more sophisticated methodology would imply the recording of the log files relating to the search strings in free languages, initially to measure the gaps in the thesaurus terminology, later as a starting point to automatically match free searching terms with the descriptors of the ETB thesaurus - when the amount of established cross-concordances combined with a statistical co-occurrence analysis will make it possible (See on this respect the hypothesis made by M. Kluck in the cited Report, p.14).

In the meantime, a team responsible for the maintenance should manage the transition from manual to semi-automatic updating processes.

3.4 Future perspectives

The relation between the ETB Thesaurus and other European multilingual thesauri in the field of education (EET, EUN, Cedefop, Ortelius) is a challenging issue for the near future.

Each of these thesauri deals with different aspects of the education world, all of them partially overlapping the other ones. The links between the ETB thesaurus, the EET and the EUN thesaurus are particularly meaningful.

It would be interesting to explore the possibility of co-ordinating and of harmonising the work carried out on these indexing vocabularies, so to make the inter-operability among different documentary resources easier.

The multilingual ETB thesaurus – an outcome of the European Treasury Browser Project. Authors:

  • INDIRE (Istituto Nazionale di Documentazione per l’Innovazione e la Ricerca Educativa (ex BDP), Firenze, IT, coordinator (resp.: Marisa Trigari)
  • HUB (Humboldt-Universität Dept. of Computers in Education), Berlin, DE;
  • IZ (InformationsZentrum Sozialwissenschaften, Bonn, DE (resp.: Michael Kluck)
  • UNED Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Madrid, ES (resp: Felisa Verdejo)
  • collaborated to implement the ETB thesaurus version in their language:

Organisation of the work

A recommended semi-centralised procedure was adopted:

Workpackage did most of the work, but comments were encouraged from all the partners, mostly in the testing phase. The working group has included the Danish, Greek and Swedish partners when the extension of the thesaurus from 5 up to 8 languages was established. In case native speakers were not present in the working group and terminology expertise was not sufficient, external terminological experts were hired in order to test language equivalencies.

A six months testing phase (June-December 2001) gave the possibility to some partners of evaluating the effectiveness of the terminology in the indexing/searching processes and provided some feedback for implementing the final version.

Planned date for Release 1.0: April 2002

ISO 5964 : Guidelines for the establishment and development of multilingual thesauri. - Genève : ISO, 1985
ISO 2788 : Guidelines for the establishment and development of monolingual thesauri. - Genève : ISO, 1986. - 1 ed.: 1974
For more information see:

Report on results and usability of cross-concordances lists of controlled terms and authorithy lists / Michael Kluck. - ETB Project: WP6 - Deliverable n. D6.1, 2001-12 The document outlines the issues related to the usability of cross-concordances to be included in ETB and describes these cross-concordances and their use in the context of the ETB user interface.


Upd: Nov. 22nd 2001

(in alphabetical - author/title - order)
[An asterisk signals references which proved to be particularly relevant for our purposes]

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Author: Marisa Trigari
Web Editor: Riina Vuorikari
Published: Thursday, 21 Feb 2002
Last changed: Wednesday, 18 Aug 2004
Keywords: Thesaurus, etb, standardisation

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