Learning to Create Taxonomies

Knowledge of what taxonomies are, what they are for, and how they are used is quite widespread, even if there are uncertainties and disagreements around the definition of “taxonomy.” People who often look up digital information are familiar with various presentations of taxonomies for selecting terms linked to content. These include hierarchical trees of topic and subtopics to browse, scroll boxes of controlled terms, type-ahead or search-suggest terms that appear below a search box after the first few letters are typed into the box, and terms or named entities grouped by various aspect types (facets) in the left margin to select from in order to limit/refine/filter search results.

Why Learn Taxonomy Creation

There is a big difference, however, between being able to use taxonomies and being able to create taxonomies.

While it is usually best to leave taxonomy creation to the experts, taxonomists are not always available, or the needed taxonomy may be small or apparently “simple,” so it may not be economical to hire a contract taxonomist or a consultant. In other situations, the taxonomy subject may be quite technical, and it would seem preferable to have subject matter experts, rather than an external taxonomist, create the taxonomy. Thus, people who are not professional taxonomists often create taxonomies.

Generative AI now makes it easier for anyone to “generate” a taxonomy. However, the knowledge of taxonomy principles is needed to make necessary corrections and edit the taxonomy to achieve a decent level of quality. Generative AI should not be used to fully create a taxonomy (which could in fact be extracting published taxonomies violating their copyright), but rather it may be a used as a tool facilitate parts of the taxonomy creation process. (See my post “Taxonomies and ChatGPT.”) The technology thus makes it easier to create taxonomies for those who are not taxonomists and have limited time for taxonomy creation tasks.

There is also the matter of taxonomy maintenance. After a contract taxonomist or consultant creates a taxonomy and leaves, the taxonomy still needs to be kept up to date, with new concepts added and others changed, and over time expanded. While documentation and guidelines written by a taxonomy consultant are helpful, a good understanding of taxonomy creation principles is also needed by anyone responsible for expanding or maintaining a taxonomy.

Finally, taxonomy creation is a collaborative effort, involving stakeholders in various roles (project management, content management, digital asset management, information technology tagging, research, user experience, search, etc.) who are invited to contribute their perspectives. Stakeholders can provide better insights to a taxonomy if they have a better understanding of taxonomy principles. Taxonomy project managers in particular need to understand taxonomy creation even if they are not doing the actual taxonomy creation work.

How to Learn Taxonomy Creation

Fortunately, there are many resources to learn the principles and standards of taxonomy design and creation. There is, of course, my book, The Accidental Taxonomist, which, as the name implies, is intended for anyone who finds themselves, perhaps by “accident” in a position that requires them to create, edit, or manage taxonomies.

There are also various half-day and full-day workshops at conferences, virtual short courses through professional associations and other organizations, and asynchronous online training. These usually involve some exercises for practice and provide the appropriate amount of training for getting started with creating taxonomies.

I’ve offered various kinds of training, both independently and through other organizations, over the years. My current course offerings are on my website.

Upcoming Taxonomy Courses

The next live (virtual) course I will offer is a new course called “Controlled Vocabularies and Taxonomies”  offered through HS Events, on GoToWebinar over four weekly sessions from February 29 though March 27. I will teach this course live (with ample time for Q&A) just once, after which it will become available as a recording for purchase.

HS (Henry Stewart) Events are best known for their dominance in the field of digital asset management (DAM), but the course I will teach is not limited to DAM professionals. Actually, this course is most appropriate for the expanding scope of HS Events, which will introduce a Semantic Data conference event, which includes the subject of taxonomies, co-located with its DAM conferences in London and New York in 2024.

The first session is an introduction to the definitions, types, uses, benefits, and standards for taxonomies. The second deals with project management side of planning and researching for creating controlled vocabularies and taxonomies. The third session gets into the details of creating terms and relationships. Finally, the fourth session takes up design and implementation issues. After this course takes place, the recordings will be available for purchase for on-demand viewing.

Then in June, I will be teaching a three part, weekly, course “Taxonomy Creation for Content Tagging” through the Society for Technical Communication (STC), so the focus is taxonomies to make documents/documentation more findable, but it is also suitable for anyone interested in learning how to create taxonomies. It will be offered on Zoom on Thursday afternoons, 4:00 – 5:30 pm EDT, June 11, 18, and 25, and the Moodle learning management system is used for additional asynchronous discussion and access to resource. Interactive exercises and live Q&A are included. I had taught this course for the first time last year, but due to my increasingly busy consulting work schedule, I do not plan to teach this course again after this June. More details are on the Interactive Virtual Taxonomy Workshop page my website.

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