lIS-5703 a4
Dr. Michelle Kazmer
H. Richmond Ackerman
April 24, 2003

About aboutness


What is "aboutness" and what is American Scenery about? Clearly, aboutness is more than just a list of subjects. Or is it? Svenonius uses Maron’s behaviorist definition of aboutness to initiate a discussion of the definition of subject, so clearly, aboutness and subject are very closely related. (2000, p. 46) Other researchers, though, have extended aboutness beyond Maron's conception. Of particular interest in determining the aboutness of American Scenery is the question of how to handle image objects: what is an image about? We will look briefly at these issues as we consider the aboutness of American Scenery.

aboutness of text

Aboutness is a recurring theme of Information Science. Bruza, Song and Wong (2000) discuss the history of research on aboutness over the past twenty years. They then develop the idea of aboutness by taking the “common sense approach” of defining a symbolic logic language of aboutness. The set of operators, properties, and postulates characterizing aboutness relationships between and among information carriers allows flexible and precise quantification of aboutness, but do not actually help determine what a single object is about.

Hjørland considers this difficulty (among others) and rejects Bruza et. al’s construct in a subsequent paper, where he reasserted his 1992 conclusion that subject and aboutness were synonymous. (2002) Bruza et al ’s system assigns rationalist values absolutely: something is either about something else, or it isn't. Hjørland contends, as did Maron, that behavioral and subjective considerations must be allowed. He extends Maron’s thesis of an “objective about:” “Until otherwise argued by others we should regard subject (including the compound subject matter) and aboutness as synonymous concepts (and prefer the former). The subject of a document is that something that subject analysis and retrieval are supposed to identify. This is closely related to the questions that a document should provide answers to.”

Hjørland considers that a variety of end users with different knowledge bases may come to the same information object through different trajectories, requiring a different set of subject headings (aboutnesses) to attain equally good information retrieval results. Bowker and Star have a similar conception, enriched by consideration of the effect of the passage of time on both classification schemata and information seeking behavior. (1999) These researchers share the views that aboutness and subject matter really are the same thing and that different formulations of aboutness are appropriate for different users.

aboutness of images

Image classification, too, is concerned with aboutness. What is a given image about? Choi and Rasmussen trace the development of the aboutness of images in their paper explaining a study on image database user query formulation. (2003) They describe Panofsky's early identification of three levels of meaning in visual art, described as pre-iconographic, iconographic, and interpretational. Pre-iconographic describes the identifiable objects in the image; iconographic describes the actions or activities in the image; interpretational meaning is that attributed to cultural interpretation. Further research by Shatford, Krause, Layne, and Svenonius and others is described as well. Choi and Rasmussen conclude their historical overview: "In sum, the meaning of visual images can be conceptualized at different levels of subjectivity (i.e. of-ness and about-ness). While they have a slightly different approach than Panofsky, the concept is the same: image subjects include objective (what is it a picture of?) and subjective (what is it about?)." Image classification required both elements.

The richness of a multi-layered interpretative model can be illustrated by considering a typical print from American Scenery, "Saratoga Lake" A pre-iconographic "about" (the of-ness) would characterize the objects in the picture: the name of the river, the names of hills or mountains, plant names, clothing styles, a parasol, and a name of the person, if known. Its about-ness can be characterized on Panofsky's other levels. At an iconographic level, the picture would be about man's active enjoyment of nature, walking, picnicking perhaps. At an interpretational level, this scene would be about man’s place in nature during this time of wilderness razing and Western expansion. The icons of Hudson River School painting are there: the person pointing and the craggy tree are symbols shared by many works from this time period.

aboutness of american scenery

We need an “about” for both text and images for American Scenery, written by N.P. Willis and illustrated by W.H. Bartlett. This was published serially in thirty parts and bound into two volumes in 1840. The work consists of 120 essays and corresponding etchings; each is titled with a particular feature of American geography: either natural, like a river, mountain, or waterfall; or manmade, like a government building, college campus, or humble lumber mill. The prospectus for the publication sets the tone:

“LIKE Columbus, at first, we only dream of AMERICA. It is yet both a new and an unknown world to us, in regard to its SCENES or natural beauty and sublimity. Except by name and elaborate writing, they have no place in the minds of readers. The Proprietors of the well-known Illustrated Words of Dr. Beattie, on Switzerland, Scotland, and the Waldenses, felt this; and sent BARTLETT to discover the interior of America, and to reveal its diversified forms of grandeur and loveliness to the eye of Britain and Europe.…To meet this want, and to make the natural beauties and sublimities of America as familiar as her history and character, the Proprietors of this work have engaged one of her most gifted sons, N.P. WILLIS, Esq., to depict the glories and graces of his native land in his own language….”

The book was a huge success. Theodore Stebbins says “The book was immensely influential in that it established a basic iconography for the American Grand Tour: Bartlett’s views became, almost by definition, the picturesque scenes in America, and thus were copied and imitated for years after.” (1976, p. 145-146) Thus, at the highest level of generality, literary warrant tells us that American Scenery is about American scenery. However, if we put on our classifier hat, we can go much deeper.

image analysis

The etchings capture each scene as painted by the artist during 1837 – 1839, when Bartlett toured America. At a pre-iconographic level, they offer a literal tour of Eastern United States. Place names would be the first level of subject heading. Thus, “A Forest on Lake Ontario” (Part 10) has the obvious access point of Lake Ontario; “Black Mountain (Lake George)” (Part 14) has an eponymous subject heading; similarly with “Squam Lake (New Hampshire)” (Part 16) and many more. Some etching titles, though, present a second subject heading as well: “The Gothic Church (Newhaven)” (Part 18) gives both a place and a building name, as does “Saw Mill at Centre Harbour (Lake Winnipisseogee)” (Part 18).

Many prints contain drawings of interesting objects, as well as places and buildings. These, too, would be part of a pre-iconographic aboutness. For instance, many etchings portray river scenes, and an enormous variety of steam-powered ships, sailboats, row boats and horse drawn canal boats are depicted. City scenes display styles of fashion along with the variety of horse and oxen-drawn carts, carriages, and other vehicles available in this time period, even including a horse drawn street cleaner. Different types of man-made artifacts are illustrated and not always noted in etching titles: bridges, railroad viaducts, trestles, domestic architecture, even a telegraph signaling tower.

The aboutness of the etchings, then, even on the most literal level, extends beyond geography and into architecture and technology.

Panofsky's iconographic level considers aboutness to describing activities portrayed in the images. Again, a wide variety of topics could be listed. Mercantilism is represented by trading activities at several "landings" scenes, Peekskill, for instance. Native Americans are seen dancing and hunting in others. Fashionably dressed citizens parade through a variety of etchings. Children are seen playing with pets and picnicking with parents. Street cleaning is illustrated in "State Street, Boston." Rafting, sailing, being pulled by donkeys on a canal boat, and poling logs are some of many water activities portrayed in a variety of etchings. These, then, collectively constitute a second level of aboutness for the etchings.

Beyond the iconographic we get to the interpretational level. The allegorical allusions and historical references in these works typify Hudson River paintings. The scraggy tree representing the wildness of nature, the encroachment of man on nature represented by the lone house set in the woods or mountainscape, and other subtle meanings of these works are yet a higher level of aboutness. They are about man overcoming nature just as much as they are about a particular bend in the river.

Another image illustrates these levels nicely: "Lake Winnipisseogee, from Red Hill." From a pre-iconographic perspective, this is about Lake Winnipisseogee (now spelled Winnipesaukee) and the Native Americans who lived there. From an iconographic point of view, we see a Native American attempting to shoot a bird, and one group walking to join another. Several fires are seen burning in the distance and a small boat is sailing out on the lake. From an interpretational point of view, we read this as describing the terrible relationships between Indians and European settlers. The smoke signifies homesteads burned by the Indians; a war party is returning from wreaking destruction. The boat sailing in the distance symbolizes the fact that the white man is not going to stop coming and represents the inevitability of conquest.

text analysis

Turning to Willis’s prose, we find more layers of subject matter to include in the aboutness of the work. The detail in an essay is much deeper than in an etching and many names of historical buildings, towns, and people are included; these are primary access points for researchers. (Duff & Johnson, 2002) At the fine resolution of indexing, all these could be considered elements of the aboutness of American Scenery. A second level of meaning is found in the essays, though. Willis often provided a cursory glance at the subject of the etching, and then proceeded for several pages on a different topic. These essays touch on many themes: history is predominant, but economics and sociology are also included. A comprehensive list of subjects would include not only the literal geographic features described and rendered by Bartlett, but would also include references to historical data presented in the essays.

Some examples illustrate the range of topics that should rightly be considered part of the aboutness. The etching of a landing on the Hudson illustrated above (Peekskill) stimulates a long essay on the history of Benedict Arnold. George Washington is repeatedly featured, with accounts of famous battles anchored by current (1840) renderings of scenes important some sixty years earlier during the American Revolution. Anecdotes about fights with Indians are quite common, with fairly detailed descriptions of scalpings and massacres. Unique stories are told as well; “Pulpit Rock, White Mountains” (Part 25, p. 65) lends one sentence to the granite before reciting the story of a case of New Hampshire witchcraft. Economics figures prominently in several essays, with descriptions of farm life in the Catskills, timber floats down the Susquehanna River, incentives offered by towns to gain investments in saw mills, and stories of merchants and tradesmen in the cities and their interactions with the rural farming society surrounding them. The “aboutness” then should include American history, the economic system of the early nineteenth century, and the sociology of relations between recent immigrants, established settlers, and Native Americans.


Hjørland says “The best subject analysis is the one that makes the best prognosis of the future use of the document.” Guessing the future is fraught with peril, but probably, future researchers will be as interested in the historical perspectives offered in American Scenery as in the descriptions of waterfalls. Thus a subject analysis of the text balancing descriptions of American history and American society in the 1830’s with the more obvious indices of names and places might better serve researchers in the future than one based purely on literary warrant; similarly, analysis of the images on an iconographic and interpretational levels will serve future information seekers well.


Bowker, G.C. & Star, S.L. (1999). Sorting things out. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bruza, P.D., Song, D.W., & Wong, K.F. (2000) Aboutness from a commonsense perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 51(12), 1090-1105.

Choi, Y. & Rasmussen, E. (2003). Searching for images: the analysis of users' queries for image retrieval in American Memories. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 54(6), 498-511.

Duff, W. & Johnson, C.A. (2002) Accidentally found on purpose: information-seeking behavior of historians in archives. Library Quarterly, 72(4), 472-498.

Hjørland, B. (2002) Towards a theory of aboutness, subject, topicality, theme, domain, field, content . . . and relevance. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 52(9), 774-778.

Stebbins, T.E., Caldwell, J., & Troyen, C. (1976) American master drawings and watercolors : a history of works on paper from colonial times to the present. New York: Harper & Row.

Svenonius, E. (2000). The intellectual foundation of information organization. Cambridge: MIT Press.