The Accidental Taxonomist: Foreword to the First Edition

Book Overview
Table of Contents
Foreword to the 3rd Edition by Stephanie Lemieux
Foreword the the 2nd Edition by Joseph Busch
Foreword to the 1st Edition by Patrick Lambe
Websites from the Book
Index (PDF)
Book Signing Events
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Foreword to the First Edition
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 results.

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 preparation.

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.

—Patrick Lambe

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