Notes on “A Taxonomy Primer,” “Ten Taxonomy Myths,” and additional readings

A Taxonomy Primer, Warner, Amy J. (2002)

Ten Taxonomy Myths, Montague Institute (2002)

The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization By Elaine Svenonius (2002)


The Taxonomy Primer was pretty straightforward, but the Myths were more interesting. I especially liked myths 1 and 2, because I think when most people think taxonomy they think of a single, giant, all-encompassing tree that everything fits into exactly. It can be very useful to have a number of taxonomies for the same information, and there are some great examples on the web, where a site my be organized by product type but then also by region or customer group, allowing browsing from each perspective.

One image I found particularly enlightening was in the Svenonius article, where taxonomies were described as “elaborate Victorian edifices” and contrasted with “jerrybuilt systems [that] could meet the needs of most users most of the time.” This is an excellent description of where library people and web people seem to have a disconnect. Coming at thing more from the web side myself, I often think of grand schemes to classify everything and put everything into neatly labeled boxes—like Dewey or the Library of Congress Classification Schemes—as too big, too elaborate, and too old. I this is why many of the people who first started organizing information on web sites and the like don’t look to library science for inspiration, despite the wealth that is there. Most of the web people have only worked with systems that are small enough to be informal, personal enough to be ideosyncratic, or targeted enough to simply model how current users talk about the information already. In other words, jerrybuilt.

Later in the chapter, though, the writer states that organizing information is different from organizing anything else, and is in particular not to be done with “routine application of the database modeling techniques” used in business. While I agree that organizing information would be substantially different from organizing employees, the rationale given (something to do with works and differences in editions of them) lends itself really well to more-or-less common relational database structures. I think there are important issues, but too often the issues I see brought up are superficial.