Business Law

The Rise of Taxonomies and Where You Can Learn More

Ashley K. Marty | |

Ashley will receive her Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from the Pratt Institute’s School of Library Science (SILS) in Brooklyn this December. In addition to being a student, she is an ontologist at AOL. After graduation, Ashley hopes to continue working with ontologies and is vaguely obsessed with the semantic web and linked data.

In her recent New York Times Magazine article, "Prize Descriptions" about Wikipedia as a medium, Virginia Heffernan writes, “Every new symbolic order requires a taxonomist to make sense of it.” Be it strictly hierarchical structures that classify the animal kingdom or more ontological structures that classify and relate products on, taxonomies and taxonomists have make sense of things for users. Due to the growth of both content and commerce on the internet in recent years, the role of taxonomists as sense-makers seems to be becoming more prominent.

In the past year or so, the term "taxonomy" has gained popularity. This time last year when I told people I was a "taxonomist," many jumped to the conclusion that I stuffed dead animals for a living. Lately, though, it seems that people not only have an idea of what the term means, but also want to know more about it. It has certainly come up a lot more in the discussions I’ve had with other library and information sciences (LIS) students and professionals. I’ve also spoken with some non-LIS and non-tech people about the topic. To top it off, many of the blogs and publications, such as Slate and New York Magazine, I read have been using “taxonomies” (in quotations because the term is used quite loosely) in their content on a semi-regular basis. Admittedly, most of these are simple tongue-in-cheek classifications, but they get the basic gist.

As an almost-graduate of an LIS program and a working taxonomist/ontologist/content strategist/information architect/maker-of-sense, I can’t help but be excited that classification is becoming cool (not that it was ever uncool in my eyes or probably the eyes of anyone reading this). There is nothing more exciting than being able to organize things in groups and creating relationships that help end-users find related content. In the course of any given day at work, I get to work (read: play) with words; research how end-users classify; and search for content and try to create the best possible scenario for navigating, classifying and relating it. Occasionally, when I’m in meetings with non-taxonomist, non-librarian, non-tech businesspeople and I explain the benefits of classification, they get as excited (sometimes more excited) as I am about it.

That said, as a student and taxonomist I’ve found a lot of great resources and groups to help me out on the theory and practice of creating, managing, testing and editing taxonomies. So if you’re interested, here are some books, blogs and groups worth checking out:


"The Accidental Taxonomist" by Heather Hedden
This is a fantastic book for new taxonomists. It provides basic, practical information and resources without over simplifying things. Hedden also teaches an online course at Williams that I haven’t yet taken, but have heard great things about.

"Semantic Web for the Working Ontologist by Dean Allemang and James Hendler
This book provides an in-depth look at how ontologists can model data to work with the semantic web. While it is not a basic introduction to taxonomy, it’s a must-have if you’re interested in both taxonomies and the semantic web.

ANSI/NISO 239.19-2005 Guidelines for the Construction, Format, and Management of Monolingual Controlled Vocabularies
This is a structured thesauri bible of sorts. It provides guidelines and rules for everything from term selection to testing.


The Taxonomy Blog
This blog focuses on practical skills and resources for taxonomists, as well as information aboutnew tools on the web.

Fran Alexander is the taxonomy manager at the BBC. She writes about such topics as taxonomy and content on her blog. It’s slightly more theoretical than The Taxonomy Blog above, but definitely one of my favorites.


Taxonomy Community of Practice
I love the daily digest e-mail I get from this group. For starters, I’ve yet to see anyone fail to get a reply for inquiries they’ve posted. Additionally, it keeps me abreast of questions and issues people have. It’s an incredibly informative andsupportive group.

Taxonomy Meetup NY
Admittedly, I’ve yet to attend one of these meetups. But they’ve just been restarted and look like a great place to catch up with local taxonomists, discuss taxonomy issues and network.

These are just a few basic resources and there is definitely more information out there to be found. It’s worth noting that every person I’ve interacted with in this field has been more than willing to answer questions, share information and generally provide guidance to aspiring or new taxonomists such as myself.


Anonymous said...

A nice introductory overview

Anonymous said...

Great tips on where to get started. Thanks