APAIS home APAIS ThesaurusSearch or BrowseDownload the ThesaurusContact UsVersions of the Thesaurus
About the Thesaurus


About the APAIS thesaurus

The APAIS thesaurus lists the subject terms used to index articles for APAIS: Australian Public Affairs Information Service, a subject guide to literature in the social sciences and humanities. The APAIS thesaurus was introduced in 1978 when APAIS became available as an online database and was first published by the National Library of Australia in 1980 to facilitate online searching.

While still primarily used as an indexing tool, the APAIS thesaurus is an essential aid for efficient online searching of the APAIS and Australian Public Affairs - Full Text databases. Besides serving the APAIS clients the published Thesaurus has been adopted in a number of wider projects that require a structured list of Australian subject terms, such as the recommendation for its use for subject indexing when using the Australian Government Locator Service metadata standard.

See Versions for comparison of version changes.

Subject Areas

The following broad subject areas are covered in the APAIS thesaurus:

  • Aboriginal studies
  • Accounting
  • Agriculture- economic, social, political aspects
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Architecture
  • Archives
  • Arts
  • Banking
  • Communications
  • Computer applications
  • Conservation
  • Crime
  • Cultural affairs
  • Defence
  • Drug abuse
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Environment
  • Ethnic groups
  • Family
  • Finance
  • Geography
  • Government
  • Graphic arts
  • Health
  • History
  • Industrial relations
  • Industry
  • Labour issues
  • Language
  • Law
  • Libraries
  • Linguistics
  • Literature
  • Local government
  • Management
  • Music
  • Occupational Health
  • Philosophy
  • Politics
  • Psychology
  • Public administration
  • Religion
  • Science
  • Scientific and industrial research-social; economic; Legal; political and cultural aspects
  • Social aspects of medicine
  • Social issues
  • Sociology
  • Taxation
  • Technology
  • Theatre
  • Town planning
  • Transport
  • Urban affairs
  • Welfare
  • Women
  • Youth


The APAIS Thesaurus does not attempt to present a uniform or comprehensive coverage of the social sciences and humanities. Descriptors are established only as required according to the range and amount of material indexed in APAIS and reflect the subjects which come within the broad subject scope.

Terms and relationships

Terms and relationships in the APAIS Thesaurus are established using the following standards: ANSI/NISO Z39.19-1993. Guidelines for the Construction, Format and Management of Monolingual Thesauri, Bethesda, MD: NISO Press, 1994 and Thesaurus Construction and Use: A Practical Manual (London: Aslib, 2000, 4th ed.

The Thesaurus contains terms linked by a reference structure. The two categories of terms in the Thesaurus are:

  • Preferred terms (also called descriptors), which are terms used in indexing to represent subjects found in the literature. In the print version of the Thesaurus, preferred terms are bolded. The year when a preferred term was first used in APAIS is shown next to each preferred term. Thesaurus terms no longer used are included in the  Dead Descriptor index in Appendix 3.
  • Non-preferred terms, which provide access points to direct the indexer or user to the preferred term. They include terms which are synonymous with preferred terms. In the online thesurus, non-descriptor or non-preferred terms are coded "ND."

The following reference structure is used to link terms in the Thesaurus:

Reference Abbrev Meaning
USE   Indicates the preferred term, e.g. Currency USE Money
Note   Scope notes are used to indicate the meaning or application of certain descriptors.
USED FOR UF Indicates the non-preferred terms which the synonymous preferred term encompasses, e.g. Wildlife UF Fauna
BROADER TERM BT Indicates the name of the class of which the term is a member, e.g. Consumption tax BT Taxation
NAROWER TERM NT Indicates members of the class represented by the term, e.g Women NT Aboriginal Women; Women NT Professional women
RELATED TERM RT Indicates concepts associated with the term but not related in a class membership way, e.g. Counselling RT Crisis centres; Counselling RT Social work

The Broadly Used For (BUF) field which was specific to the APAIS Thesaurus is no longer incorporated within the Thesaurus structure. Broadly Used For terms (or non-preferred terms) were originally included to encompass more specific terms than preferred terms. Online users can still search on these terms in an APAIS record via the identifier field. A list of Broadly Used For terms can be found in Appendix 4.


The specificity of a descriptor reflects the compilers’ knowledge and judgment of how frequently a concept is likely to occur in the literature indexed in APAIS, and the desire to provide a workable degree of collocation of related material without overloading the number of entries cumulating under a particular descriptor in the online files. Topics central to the literature indexed in APAIS are represented by relatively specific descriptors; less specific descriptors are established for subjects which occur less frequently in APAIS.

The Thesaurus contains two types of descriptors—subject descriptors and geographic descriptors.

Subject descriptors

Subject descriptors take a variety of forms—single word terms, multiple word terms in direct order, and terms with parenthetic qualifiers. In establishing the terminology of subject descriptors, preference is given to single and direct noun forms which reflect current Australian usage. Plural forms are preferred to singular nouns. Important events may be established as descriptors as appropriate, e.g. World War 2.

Descriptors denoting an activity are generally considered to include the class of people performing that activity, unless the amount of material indexed justifies the establishment of a descriptor for a class of people, e.g. Legal profession. Descriptors denoting an activity are also considered to include the broader economic aspects of that activity, e.g. Building is the term used to cover the Building industry.

Subject descriptors are assigned to documents in exactly the form in which they appear in the Thesaurus. There are, in general, no devices for extending or combining subject descriptors. The only exception to this rule is the descriptor Elections, which may be subdivided by the names of countries, Australian States or Territories and Australian capital cities which have been established as geographic descriptors. Appendix 2.2 outlines the reference structure associated with the subdivision of the descriptor Elections.

Geographic descriptors

Geographic descriptors include names of countries, Australian States and Territories, Australian capital cities and certain geographic regions. The specificity of geographic descriptors depends, as with subject descriptors, on the amount of material indexed in APAIS. Regions which have been established as descriptors are listed in Appendix 1.

Geographic descriptors may be used in conjunction with certain defined subdivisions. Only one level of subdivision is used, e.g.

Australia: Defences  and  Australia: History

Australia: Defences: History

The subdivisions which may be applied to various types of geographic descriptors are shown in Appendix 2.3, which also indicates the reference structures associated with these subdivisions.

Subject access in APAIS

Subject access in APAIS is achieved using a mixture of controlled and uncontrolled language. The paragraphs that provide thesaurus-controlled access are the major and minor descriptors, while the name and identifier fields allow subject access not controlled by the Thesaurus.

Major descriptors

All APAIS records contain at least one major descriptor. Major descriptors are selected to represent the subject of an item considered as a whole. The most specific appropriate descriptor is chosen from the Thesaurus. Most articles may be adequately described by one or two major descriptors. The use of more than four is generally avoided.

An article about a named person or corporate body would receive a name heading and a major descriptor. This ensures that every item in APAIS is accessible through descriptors from the Thesaurus. For example, an article about a named actor would also be accessible through the descriptor Actors.

Minor descriptors

Minor descriptors are allocated as necessary and perform two functions:

  • they are used for important but secondary aspects of the document being indexed. The minor descriptor field can be searched by online users seeking additional access points.
  • they are also used to help refine searches for users seeking certain categories of material. Minor descriptors which fall into this category include: Attitudes, Biography, Costs, Evaluation, History, Law, Prices, Statistics, Surveys. Geographic terms used in the minor descriptor field help to refine searches within a geographic area. Online users can use these terms to limit search results.


Terms recorded in the name field perform the same functions as those recorded in the major descriptors field. Name headings are selected so that they represent the subject of the document as a whole. They fall into two main categories: personal names and corporate bodies. Names are established according to the Anglo–American Cataloguing Rules and its revisions and Kinetica authorities (i.e. direct order for corporate names, inverted order for personal names).

Names not eligible for inclusion in the name field may be included in either the title or identifier fields.


Identifiers may include the following category of terms:

  • subjects not able to be expressed through Thesaurus terms in the major and minor descriptor fields. Such terms tend to be catchwords or new terminology not yet sufficiently established in usage for entry into the Thesaurus or specialised terms not represented in the Thesaurus;
  • geographic terms not in the Thesaurus;
  • personal and corporate body names which form important but secondary aspects to the article being indexed, and are therefore not eligible in the name field. Names entered in the identifier field, although not subject to the full authority control of the name field, are nevertheless entered in forms that comply with the Anglo–American Cataloguing Rules and its revisions, and Kinetica authorities;
  • terms that were formerly in the Broadly Used For (BUF) field;
  • a term is not entered in the identifier field if the same word or combination of words can be found in the title field, as it is assumed that free-text searching is used to retrieve words in the identifier field.

Dead descriptors

These are terms that have been used as descriptors at some time but have since been withdrawn from use. Appendix 3 lists the descriptors that have been withdrawn since 1978. Many Broadly Used For terms are listed in this Appendix (see also Appendix 4).

About the APAIS thesaurus web service

Data in the APAIS thesaurus is stored in a DB/TextWorks database. Data was extracted from the database in tab-delimited format and converted into a series of XML files using Perl. HTML pages for viewing and browsing on the web, including the alphabetic lists of terms, were created from the XML files using XSL stylesheets and the Xalan XSLT processor. Searching of the thesaurus pages is provided using the Inktomi search engine. The thesaurus is available for download in both the tab-delimited and XML format.

The XML format used for the APAIS thesaurus conforms to the XML DTD defined in Zthes: a Z39.50 Profile for Thesaurus Navigation maintained by the Library of Congress. This Z39.50 profile supports the semantic hierarchies of thesaurus terms as described in ISO 2788: Guidelines for the establishment and development of monolingual thesauri, 2nd ed. Geneva: ISO, 1986. The XML DTD used in this project is available here.