First Aid for the Accidental Taxonomy

Many successful information systems utilized taxomies and metadata, but finding taxonomists to support this work usually happens by accident. Taxonomy design and development is a specialized skill – maybe even a talent. A large organization may employ information architects, SharePoint architects, content managers, and corporate librarians, but these people most likely lack strong taxonomy experience. Although the closest matching formal education for taxonomy work is a masters in library and information science, many corporate librarians specialize in research (such as in business intelligence) and may only know about classification and organization of information based on a past library school course taken. Information architects’ experience with taxonomies may be limited to small taxonomies that fit within the limits of menu labels.

When an organization decides it needs an enterprise taxonomy or needs to leverage and redesign existing taxonomies, then any of these aforementioned types of employees are often pressed into working as taxonomists, without prior experience.   This is what I refer to as the “accidental taxonomist,” as in the title of my recent book (see Heather Hedden, The Accidental Taxonomist, Information Today Inc., 2010 ).

While reading my book is a good idea for anyone who becomes an accidental taxonomist, a book alone cannot teach all the needed skills. Designing and building taxonomies is a process that is fraught with decision-making. If a taxonomist or taxonomy manager is not a defined position within an organization, the “accidental taxonomists” who temporarily assume this role, no matter how skilled, still have their regular jobs to do and may not be able to devote the needed time for the taxonomy.

Starting with a good taxonomy foundation will make it easier to maintain the taxonomy. It will save money, time and resources to get some outside help, especially during the initial stage of taxonomy development, which requires the greatest investment of hours.

How can a taxonomy consultant help?

  • How should terms be assigned to facets
  • Should hierarchies be more deep or more broad
  • Is a complex hierarchy needed or will simpler arrangements work
  • Should taxonomy term labels be complex or simple
  • What governance is needed for longterm management of the taxonomy
  • Who should be on the governance team, and what training is needed

Related to different levels of experience there is also a distinction between explicit knowledge, which may be explained in a book, and tacit knowledge, which is gained through expertise and is more difficult to explain or document. Taxonomists are trained to follow the industry standard guidelines, such as ANSI/NISO Z39.19-2005 Guidelines for the Construction, Format, and Management of Monolingual Controlled Vocabularies. But these are just “guidelines,” and in practical applications the guidelines may need to be modified slightly, such as when there are significant restraints on the taxonomy design. Knowing where and when it is appropriate to bend the rules and when it is not, is a part of tacit knowledge. Having the right knowledge, however, does not necessarily mean the taxonomy work gets done.

Even within the narrower area of taxonomy expertise, it often helps to discuss and work out issues among multiple people who have an understanding of taxonomies Taxonomy work in a large organization can be a team effort. It requires different skills and perspectives to serve all its goals. In addition to the lead taxonomist with an information science background, other people needed include information architects and user experience professionals to ensure that the taxonomy fits well into the user interface and is easy to use, subject matter experts as authorities on the terminology, and IT professionals for the technical implementation of the taxonomy.

If you are the sole taxonomist in your organization, you may want to consult with other, outside taxonomists, such as through online discussion groups, to bounce your ideas off them and get additional feedback based on their varied expertise. It’s hard to work alone without support.

If you are at SLA Annual Conference in New Orleans on June 16, come hear my talk : “Taxonomy Made Easy: An Introduction to Taxonomies for the Accidental Taxonomist.” SLA members are mostly corporate librarians, who are likely candidates to become accidental taxonomists. I’ll help you develop your own taxonomy skills and also identify where you might need to talk to your management about consulting with others skilled in taxonomies. First aid for the accidental taxonomist is always available!

~ Submitted by Heather Hedden

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