Episode 40 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Heather Hedden, an information management consultant specialized in taxonomies, controlled vocabularies, metadata, and indexing. Heather wrote The Accidental Taxonomist, a guide to the discipline of taxonomy creation and management. In this conversation, we discuss what taxonomies are and why they’re important for organizations.
So what is a taxonomy? As Heather succinctly put it, it’s “a set of terms, words, or phrases that describe concepts that are used to tag or index documents or content.” These sets can be organized in various ways. Creating such structures is a specialized field, but one that few people train for specifically. (Hence the “accidental” part of the book’s title.)
Heather is one of these people; her background is in journalism. I asked her what drew her to taxonomy work, and this was her reply:
Well, it’s analytical and it’s a little bit creative too. I mean, how are you going to describe a concept? What words will you use? What synonyms should you use? What else will you need to relate that concept to? Should we include it or should we not? And then at the same time, we learn about all different kinds of subject areas.
Among the things we learn when doing taxonomy work is the difference between concepts and the labels that describe them. In the interview, we delved into how to deal with this key distinction:
Yeah, well, the concept is an idea, and you first have to agree what… and you can give it a temporary name, and decide, “yeah, we need this in the taxonomy. There’s content about it. And people want to look it up.” And then, once you’ve done that, you go a little further with it and you were suddenly realize, “Oh, there two different names,” or, “we could call it this, or you could call it that…” Well, especially since we’re talking about terms that are usually not one word, there is a noun and an adjective or maybe two adjectives. I mean, there’s more that can be rearranged. And sometimes you can take up a little bit of time to look into that. I’ve even just gone searching on the web and seeing by usage counts, which is more common. And then of course talking… if you have access to the users or stakeholders, those involved seeing what they think, or looking up in the content itself, the content that will be tagged or indexed, what’s more prevalent. I would say those are, those are the kind of three methods that I most often use to try to decide how something’s going to be worded. And then what makes sense to be kind of consistent in style with the rest of the taxonomy.
I learned a lot from reading The Accidental Taxonomist, and from talking about it with Heather. I hope you get as much value from the conversation as I did.