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Subject: Re: Define Taxonomy
From: "Carol E.B. Choksy, Ph.D., CRM, PMP" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Carol E.B. Choksy, Ph.D., CRM, PMP
Date:Fri, 1 Dec 2006 09:59:40 -0500

text/plain (26 lines)

This is an excellent question and one that would require a book to answer. I shall not expose you to a book, but I will explain why we use the term at all.

Nearly a decade ago when Knowledge Management was all the rage, the term "taxonomy" was used to describe a method of creating metadata for an organization's information so that it could be classified and then found again or recombined to create new knowledge. Knowledge Managers found Librarians who then created subject indices for corporate documents, particularly collections of articles in special libraries so the information could be found by researchers. When you see a "content management professional" like the folks at CMSPros you are essentially looking at librarians who are creating subject indices. They used the term "taxonomy" frankly, because it sounded sexy and different.

The world of IT then adopted the term to describe a way of organizing content or documents. They did so because they discovered they had these content management systems full of stuff that no one could ever find again because, essentially, there was no filing system. The IT world knew that we records managers know how to organize information because that is one of our primary tasks, so they came to us and asked us to create taxonomies for them. What they wanted was some way to connect the retention schedule with the file plan, i.e., to put retention on a folder belonging to a larger class called a records series. They used the term "taxonomy" because that was the only term they knew. 

The word taxonomy means something different depending upon what discipline you are in. If you are in a biologist's office a taxonomy is basically the Linnean system of kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, and species for identifying plants and animals and their relationships. A group of similar plants or animals is calle a "taxa." Hence, a taxonomy is "naming taxa." If you are in the office of a social scientist a taxonomy is a table of data sorted by statistics rather than one sorted by eyeballing it. When librarians use the term taxonomy they are doing what the social scientist is doing (but not with statistics). What we are doing is actually more like what the biologist does.

What we create is actually not a taxonomy because it is not meant to last for all time. What we create is a typology, a classification of things that go together to serves a specific purpose and help us either do something or explain something. The individual elements are called "tokens." Typology is actually what IT is currently calling a taxonomy. 

So, you see, what we do is actually amazingly complicated and intellectual! The literature for this does not exist among the librarians because they don't really create taxonomies, they mostly classify knowledge. The knowledge for this is actually best found among people who study stereotypes (art history) and racism (history, anthropology, sociology, etc.).

Best wishes,

Carol E.B. Choksy, Ph.D., CRM, PMP
IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc.

Adjunct Professor
School of Library and Information Science
Indiana University, Bloomington

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