Hedden Information Management
The Accidental Taxonomist
Indexing Specialties: Web Sites
About Heather Hedden
by Patrick Lambe
In one sense, taxonomy work, as the practice of naming
and organizing things, is an ancient art. In another sense, it is a thoroughly
modern one, taking on new and more challenging characteristics as organizations
and human societies have become more information intensive.
With the arrival of affordable computing in the 1980s,
simple economics pushed information into digital formats. The economic
opportunities for distributing information on much larger scales also
required the development of new tools and more specialized skills for
organizing and retrieving digital content collections. This activity was
still fairly localized within the holders of large content collections:
libraries, publishers, and content aggregators such as online databases.
We can trace the first generation of modern taxonomists
to this new activity in the digital domain in the 1980s.
The blossoming of the internet in the 1990s began
a much more universal information availability cascade, and this made
problems of information navigation and retrieval both more widespread
and more acute.
This problem has largely been addressed on the internet
through increasingly sophisticated search. Search can satisfy this need
on the internet because it can exploit two unique features of the internet:
• Super availability of information means that useful content can
be found for almost any purpose.
• Social clues about useful content such as links and references
can lift content that has been recognized as useful to the top of search
So the internet in itself had little direct impact
on the nature or importance of taxonomy work and taxonomy professionals,
except to illustrate that there are other mechanisms than the use of taxonomies
and taxonomists to support navigation and retrieval.
The internet has had an indirect impact and a much
more far reaching one for taxonomists than that first affair with digital
information in the 1980s. The public world of the internet and the technology
it represents has put incredible pressure on enterprises and governments
to become faster, better, and cheaper at what they do—and the ability
to manipulate data and information has become a key competitive driver.
Organizational information, whether exposed to the
world through ecommerce websites or databases, or whether transferred
and accessed within firewalls, cannot easily leverage the two features
of the internet, super-abundance of information and social clues:
• They have abundance (which drives the need to organize and navigate)
but not super-abundance.
• They are typically organized into functional or market silos,
and so social clues about value are not readily available, because there
is little linking activity across silos to leverage.
Taxonomists and taxonomies have therefore become major
instruments for analyzing content, purposes, and needs, and designing
taxonomies to help people find content whatever their need. Technology-driven
tools have not yet demonstrated that they can reliably substitute for
the skills of taxonomists for helping information systems meet the diverse
and specialized purposes and needs of knowledge workers within enterprises.
The past decade has therefore seen a much larger demand
for taxonomy work and a greater variety of types of taxonomy work. An
ancient art has become a thoroughly modern practice, with quite new and
quite challenging characteristics. One of those is that taxonomy work
is now very diverse. It no longer has the clearly defined boundaries it
used to have.
Taxonomy professionals need to know about the technology
environments they are designing for; they need to be able to analyze the
business needs of their clients; they need to understand the information
and knowledge requirements of their users, the characteristics of the
content they are covering; they need consulting, project management, and
communication skills; they need to know about the use of standards and
the current developments and trends in both technology and standards,
because they are constantly changing. This is all over and above the traditional
theory and specialized skills that go into the creation and application
of effective taxonomies.
There are no taxonomy schools out there to supply
this need, as Heather Hedden points out in this book. The need for information
organization has drawn practitioners from several loosely related disciplines:
librarianship, publishing, information architecture, indexing, data, and
information and knowledge management, among others. So we have a loose
coalition of taxonomy professionals of varying levels of experience, many
of them teleported into taxonomy work from elsewhere (or “accidental”
taxonomists, as Hedden puts it), many of them combining taxonomy responsibilities
with other duties, and bringing different backgrounds, skills, and approaches
to their work.
The field desperately needs a practical literature
to bring together the key elements of taxonomy work for this diverse range
of practitioners, particularly for those who have found themselves with
taxonomy responsibilities without much prior theoretical or technical
This is slowly starting to change. When I published
my book Organising Knowledge (2007), there was no other comparable
book in the field of taxonomy work. Bowker and Star’s Sorting
Things Out (1999) provided a brilliant theoretical underpinning for
modern taxonomy work, but there was little guidance on how to bring this
theory to meet the problems of organizational information and knowledge
management. If we use an aerial metaphor, Bowker and Star provided a perspective
at 30,000 feet.
My goal in Organising Knowledge was to give
a perspective closer to the ground, but because it focuses on the value
of taxonomy work as a strategic intervention, it still works at a fairly
high level—let’s say 1,000 feet. Darin Stewart’s book,
Building Enterprise Taxonomies (2008), functions as a useful
primer for approaching taxonomy work, but it is also still at a fairly
high level. David Weinberger’s book Everything Is Miscellaneous
(2007) gives an engaging account of the history of taxonomy work but fails
to deliver any actionable insights for the practitioner.
Hedden’s book, The Accidental Taxonomist,
provides that critical link at the 100 feet “how do I do this?”
level, and rather than focusing on the enterprise as Stewart and I have
done, she has focused on what a taxonomy practitioner—especially
the “accidental” taxonomist—needs to know, in all its
nitty gritty, technical glory. She has done this in an accessible, systematic,
clear and organized way, covering the pathways into taxonomy work, what
it means to build and manage taxonomies, how to work with taxonomy software,
how to make a living as a taxonomist, where to network and build knowledge
and skills, and how to plan and run taxonomy projects.
The best use of this book, I am sure, will be as a
practical field guide to taxonomy work. Every taxonomist, accidental or
not, should have a copy close by. This is a formidable piece of work,
whose success will be measured by the well-grounded confidence it inspires,
and the consistency and quality of the taxonomy work that it enables.
Bowker, Geoffrey and Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. Sorting Things Out:
Classification and its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lambe, Patrick. 2007. Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge
and Organisational Effectiveness. Oxford, U.K.: Chandos.
Stewart, Darin L. 2008. Building Enterprise Taxonomies. Portland,
OR: Mokita Press.
Weinberger, David. 2007. Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of
the New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books.
Patrick Lambe is the author of Organising Knowledge
(Chandos, 2007), which was the first book to place taxonomy work firmly
in the mainstream of knowledge and information management issues. He is
the founder of Straits
Knowledge, a Singapore-based consulting and research firm focused
on knowledge management and taxonomy work, two-term former President of
the Information and Knowledge Management
Society, and an Adjunct Professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
He speaks regularly at international conferences, and his weblog is at