Tag Archives: hierarchies

controlled-vocabulary information-architecture intranets Papers pick-lists Taxonomies

Notes on “Vocabulary as a central concept in Information Science” and additional readings

Vocabulary as a Central Concept in Information Science, Michael Buckland (1999)

The role of classification in knowledge representation and discovery, BH Kwasnik – Library Trends, 1999


One good point in the Buckland article was that vocabulary can differ between those who are doing the cataloging, the authors and the searcher, even if everyone is within the same field. I’ve read some about these differences before, but they almost always seem to take the form of novice searcher vocabulary vs. expert author vocabulary or natural searcher vocabulary vs. structured system vocab. Those are probably the most clear ways to look at these distinctions—to tell you the truth looking at subtle differences between five different vocabularies does not seem like that much fun to me.

This article gets back to some of the same points we’ve already discussed in class when talking about synonym rings and taxnomies. Even through the author comes at it from a vocabulary point of view, he’s saying the same things everyone else is. If your users want to search for “Vietnam War” but your system uses “Vietnam Conflict,” without pointing the user in the right direction, no purpose has been served. You can be as correct and specific in your phrasing as you want but that’s no guarantee you’ll have a usable system.

The Kwasinik reading was really good at pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of hierarchies, trees and other organization schemes. In doing the AG assignment I ran into the “Lack of complete and comprehensive knowledge” barrier quite often. That’s one of the biggest problems with not just hierarchies, but any project like this where we have some knowledge of the domain—everyone has seen greeting cards—but not of the entire body of AG’s product line or even a representative subset. I wouldn’t want to construct a taxonomy of content object before people started entering data—I would have it be built as the database grew, with specific people in charge of keeping it consistent.

Notes on “Creating a Controlled Vocabulary”

Creating a Controlled Vocabulary

 Fast, Karl, Fred Leise and Mike Steckel (2003)


This was a good rundown of the general process of creating a controlled vocabulary, but a lot of this seems pretty apparent to me. I guess I shouldn’t assume that this stuff is obvious, though, given how many companies make web sites or intranets without really bothering to find out how their users use vocabulary for their domain, or even establishing a vocabulary, for that matter.

The two most important points, to me, are number 5, “Establish a record of the rules you are using if you are creating a large thesaurus” and number 8, “Go back and refine. What can be improved?” In fact I think the whole notion of controlled vocabulary is misguided if there’s no clear rationale for it and attempts to update and maintain the terms at all times. Language in any field is constantly changing, and the pace of change is always accelerating. Anyone who was building a directory of Internet services would have left off the World Wide Web in 1989, and any list about self-publishing on the web would probably have left off the term “blog” in 1998. How useful would those pick lists be today?

Controlled vocabulary can be damaging if there’s no mechanism for change, or that mechanism is left unused. I don’t know why, but humanity seems to have some undying urge to compile things around ourselves into grand lists and hierarchies that are supposed to encompass all of what is or ever has been, ignoring our complete ignorance of what the future will bring. It’s not that classification in and of itself is bad, it’s that there’s a tendency to get to the “end” and say, “there, it’s done, and set in stone forever.”