An information retrieval system implemented as a virtual data base management system which uses a knowledge base management system to provide a problem-oriented conceptual schema for one or more standard data base management systems. In the conceptual schema, a hierarchy of concepts is used to organize individual objects. A classifier determines which concepts an individual object is a representative of and determines the relationship of new concepts to existing concepts. The use of a knowledge base with a classifier permits conversion of queries into concepts and detection of changes in the relationships between individual objects and the concepts. A window-based user interface permits flexible and experimental access to the information. Special features of the user interface permit the user to specify conversion of a query into a concept, to establish monitors to detect such changes, and to define a query by specifying a portion of a graph.