The Accidental Taxonomist: Foreword to the 3rd Edition

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

Foreword to the Third Edition
by Stephanie Lemieux

(President, Dovecot Studio & Program Chair for Taxonomy Boot Camp)

I am an accidental taxonomist.

As the story goes for so many of us, I fell into the world of taxonomy quite serendipitously after a zig zag path through university and a brief stint doing knowledge management work. I definitely didn’t set out to become an expert in the field: there was barely a field when I started! Anyone working in taxonomy at the time might have felt as I did, like a bit of an imposter.

It was hard to find much information about taxonomy best practices back then that wasn’t focused on traditional media and libraries. You had to rely on intuition, trial and error, and learnings from other fields. This book didn’t yet exist.

My taxonomy career started in the early 2000s as the internet was evolving rapidly: web sites were moving from being hand-coded to more complex CMS-driven experiences, e-commerce was really taking off, and people were experimenting with different forms of information organization like folksonomy. The discipline of information architecture (IA) was coalescing around best practices for things like navigation and search. We were taking things learned in library school and mashing them up with these IA and user experience learnings to create a new set of guidelines for the web and enterprise taxonomy.

The decade between 2005 and 2015 was a pivotal time for taxonomy and taxonomists, as interest skyrocketed, use cases for taxonomy expanded, and the community really came together. During this era, I became a consultant and was thrust head-first into global projects dealing with huge collections of products and content, working with systems that at the time had little support for taxonomies. We spent our days convincing executives that taxonomies were worth investing in before SEO and analytics were commonplace. I’ll always remember my first meeting with a VP at a retailer, presenting search evidence to prove that they might improve sales if they renamed their category from “notebook computers” to “laptops”. These were high-stakes taxonomy choices!

A real sign that a field is becoming mainstream is when it starts its own conference. I attended the 2nd edition of the Taxonomy Boot Camp conference in 2007, excited to be surrounded by my peers to exchange ideas and try to solidify my notion of what “good” enterprise taxonomy really was. Besides the learnings I got from the event, it was comforting to know I was part of a group of people learning on the job and excited to deepen the field. It was an easy choice to come back every year – a kind of taxonomy pilgrimage.

To illustrate how quickly things moved back then, by the 3rd edition I was a presenter and by the 10th I was the event’s new program chair. Chairing the Boot Camp has been a most exciting way to witness the evolution of both the discipline and the applications of taxonomy, but also to see the community of taxonomists expand and be enlivened by its extensions into adjacent fields such as content strategy, data science and artificial intelligence. I start every conference with the same question: “How many of you are attending for the first time and are new to taxonomies?” And every year I’m stunned to see over 50% of the audience raise their hands, proving that there is a constant flow of new people being asked to take charge of taxonomies for their organizations.

I remember getting the 1st edition of The Accidental Taxonomist at Taxonomy Boot Camp 2010. It was right in the middle of the halcyon days of taxonomy and we were all hungry for a book to help set the foundation for new practitioners. Heather has done a great service to the community by codifying all the best practices being formed in the community, and its unparalleled and enduring value is evidenced by the fact that we are now in a 3rd edition.

The field of taxonomy is much richer than it was 12 years ago: taxonomies are more complex and being used for more varied applications, including personalization and machine learning. This edition covers much of the new ground taxonomists need to be aware of for modern practice, from the SKOS standard to ontologies.

When Heather asked me to write this foreword, I was excited because I knew exactly what I wanted to say. As I hope I’ve managed to convey from my own personal “coming of age” in taxonomy, nothing captures the zeitgeist of the early days of the field better than the idea of the “accidental taxonomist”. As my yearly observations at the Boot Camp can attest, the label continues to resonate with so many people who jump (or are thrust) into the field sometimes unexpectedly from all walks of professional life.  Our discipline is not confined to a formal education or career path: we are librarians, designers, IAs, content managers, data scientists, or just people who like things organized. We have often felt like we don’t know what we’re doing, but are comforted to know that we aren’t the only ones.

Fortunately, new generations of taxonomists have this book as their guide. The Accidental Taxonomist is a pivotal bit of writing that gives today’s aspiring taxonomists common ground and something to identify with as they make their way into the discipline. It is full of detailed explanations of why and how you should build taxonomies, and what to do with them once you do. I have personally given or recommended this book to almost every newbie who has expressed interest in taxonomies and know they will be well accompanied on their journey.

I hope you enjoy reading this book and know that it comes with a membership. Welcome to the club.


Stephanie Lemieux is an information management consultant and taxonomy and metadata expert. She has more than 15 years’ experience helping organizations such as Coca-Cola, General Mills and the International Monetary Fund structure, manage, and organize their content and data. She has been Chair of Taxonomy Boot Camp since 2016 and is a regular speaker at information management conferences around the world. Stephanie is also a frequent guest lecturer at McGill University, where she earned a Master’s in Library and Information Studies with a specialization in knowledge management.