Taxonomic Clarity

(Katherine presents the keynote address at Arizona SLA’s “Power of Taxonomy” program on Friday, January 20 in Tempe.)

As a taxonomist, my role is to help people organize their own information.  Part of that skill is explaining concepts with clarity.  As a writer and speaker, my goal is to help you understand the power of taxonomy for increased findability, subject knowledge, relation identification, and persuasion.  I use stories, humor and pictures to take you there.

Clarity comes from building taxonomies for non-librarians and from the dedication to service that infuses the library profession.  I built my first taxonomy decades before the Internet made taxonomy hot.  It was my first job after library school at the University of Chicago.  The recently founded California Institute for Rural Studies was developing something new.

Alternative agriculture was not covered in the standard classifications. LC or Dewey would require tearing apart the collection and rearranging the subject to fit the classification.  It seemed more logical to design the classification for the subject.  So I built my own.  At the time, I didn’t realize what a radical step I had taken.

I started looking for projects that would benefit from a taxonomic approach to classification.  I found some good ones, including a few years as Snoopy’s librarian.  In almost all of these projects, I was the only librarian on staff.  I knew the collections would eventually be maintained by non-librarians so I built intuitive systems they could easily understand.

By the time the Internet created interest in taxonomy, I already had decades of field experience.  This involved working closely with users and with the material being organized, so I gained insights into how people interact with information, developing techniques to enhance the power and persuasive capabilities of taxonomy.

As I matured in the profession, I began to see the importance of sharing these insights with the wider community.  I moved to Arizona in 2002 and started writing.  Early in this phase, it was announced that the names on New York’s World Trade Center memorial were to be listed at random.  Random is just about the worst organizing strategy for those names and I started writing about that in this blog.

The New York memorial committee eventually changed to a different arrangement structure, but it gave me the impetus to began an analysis of names on other memorials.  Like taxonomy, a memorial’s arrangement structure reflects a specific situation and a specific set of users.  It guides those users in their understanding of the event being memorialized and can therefore provide valuable insights into the nature of organized information.

The best example is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which arranges names in chronological order.  This allows survivors of the war to view the names of their fallen comrades on contiguous panels.   In effect, it gives an individual survivor his own personal space on The Wall.  I believe chronological order is the primary element of this memorial’s extraordinary power.

While writing my ongoing series, “Names on a Memorial,” I learned how to verbally express the details of an arrangement structure.  Clarity and precision are required to describe both the nuances of an arrangement and the consequences of decisions made by a designer to guide visitors toward the desired response.  Taxonomists make similar decisions when developing powerful organizational structures that promote findability, connect relational elements, or present a viewpoint.

When I give presentations, as I will on January 20 for the Arizona SLA Chapter, I bring the elements of clarity I have gained through experience and practice.  If you are new to taxonomy, you will understand the logic of the technique.  If you are an experienced taxonomist, you will learn new concepts about the power of arrangement structures and perhaps get some ideas for your own taxonomic clarity.

Register here for “The Power of Taxonomy.”

Many thanks to “The Power of Taxonomy” sponsors DowJones and Safari Books Online.


Jan 2012
POSTED IN Presentations