An Explorer in Taxonomy

The Delphi Group’s Information Intelligence Summit (ii2006) came to Phoenix in early April.  We started with an Innovation Workshop offered by Destination Imagination (DI), which mostly does creativity events for children.  If your kid ever has a chance to participate in the DI program, jump at it!  This Delphi workshop was presented by DI’s corporate division, DIcor.  Prior to the Summit, the workshop attendees all took an assessment survey for problem solving styles.  On a continuum of degrees that range from Explorer to Developer, I tend toward exploration in my orientation to change.

I am mildly surprised because my work involves developing new information structures; however, my approach is definitely exploratory.  I was one of the founders of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) in Davis, which was also my first professional position.  Today the mission statement defines CIRS goals as working “toward a rural California that is socially just, economically viable, and environmentally balanced.”

When we started CIRS, I was a newly minted librarian.  As I organized our research collection, I discovered that the standard library classifications did not fit CIRS requirements.  This was 1978 and our work was cutting-edge.  “Organic farming” was not yet included in the Dewey classification.  Even if a pre-built system had contained our topics, our material would have been scattered around a structure that fit the classification rather than our research methods.  I wanted our material to be arranged as a reflection of our work.  My loyalty was to CIRS, not to the Library of Congress.

So I built my own system.  It was more accurate and more adventurous to start from scratch.  I knew our research requirements.  I knew how we were thinking about these new ideas.  My approach was validated almost every day as our researchers worked with the structure.  You might even call me an early tagging explorer.  Rather than relying on a standardized system, I defined classifications that had meaning to the CIRS researchers.  The difference, of course, is that I did all the tagging and I did it without the social Web.

By emphasizing CIRS research in a CIRS taxonomy, I demonstrated the value of our goals.  Standardized categories would have implied marginality by diffusing our ideas within a pre-designed system.  When the researchers interacted with the structure, they experienced it on their own terms, which made CIRS more productive.  Did we achieve our goals?  It’s been 28 years.  CIRS is a healthy non-profit and the organic produce sections in grocery stores just keep on growing.

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Apr 2006

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