Taxonomy and metadata skills are now much more important library skills. A lot of information being created today does not fit into the Dewey Decimal Classification, the Library of Congress Subject Headings or many other classification systems. Companies struggle with how to organize digital information to ensure everyone can find it and many companies are starting to move away from file servers and into content management systems where taxonomy and metadata are crucial to categorizing and retrieving information. However, most people don’t have the instinctual skills to create information organization structures that are useful or the practical knowledge and experience to be confident in the structures they create.
Librarians and information scientists (and you can probably lump in technical writers, content strategists, other writers, business analysts, requirements analysts, hereafter referred to only as information scientists) are trained to organize knowledge and are perfectly positioned to help people build new, non-traditional knowledge structures.
As an information architect, I work with companies who are struggling with information organization. They recognize the need to put their information into a content management system (CMS) to ensure digital information or digital surrogates for physical objects can be found. As a consultant, companies hire me to help build metadata and taxonomy structures.
Not only am I hired for a third-party, outside view, but also because these skills have not been kept in-house. Historically, companies have seen information structures grow organically according to idiosyncratic tastes. Employees create structures that are useful to themselves, but they don’t have an understanding or the research to make a structure that fits for a larger population. These structures are not ecumenical or scalable.
I’ve also observed that people who do have a naturally good grasp on information organization rarely have confidence in their ideas. I’ve been thinking lately about how people in North America may often be taught how to use classification structures, the prime example being the Dewey Decimal Classification while in grade school, but aren’t taught about the fundamentals of information organization. We know how to use the system, but we don’t know why the system is structured and organized the way it is.
Just like different library classification systems, each CMS needs a different information organization system because it is based on the company’s domain and the users in that company. The technology the company is using is different too, so the way the taxonomy and metadata are implemented can vary. Information science consultants can create taxonomies, but companies need to be educated on how to use a taxonomy and metadata, how to build a user interface that allows employees to find information, and how to manage the taxonomy and metadata over time.
The article “Metadata Everywhere” confirmed a lot of the points I have noticed while doing my consulting work: metadata and taxonomy will be key areas where librarians and information scientists can lead the way.
For hundreds of years, metadata was kept in a box. Literally. A wooden box, filled with paper cards. Libraries cataloged for one reason: to be able to find resources on a shelf. Today, though, we’re seeing a growing importance placed on metadata management activities. In an increasingly information-driven world, good metadata is the key to more than finding the right item. (Havens & Storey, 2010, p. 4)
It is metadata that makes digital material findable. As well as creating information organization structures, we have the opportunity to address interoperability between standards by using crosswalks.
“As more and more industries and organizations rely on quality metadata, opportunities for libraries to leverage their catalog data will increase. Being able to ‘crosswalk’ metadata from one system to another is one key to libraries’ success in these endeavors” (Havens & Storey, 2010, p. 8).
With so many different systems to find information, it will be important for systems to talk to each other. In terms of taxonomies, information scientists can even get into building ontologies and using these to build relationships between different taxonomies.
Ultimately, this work will help the user find information. Like any classification system, taxonomies and metadata exist to allow people to find information.
” ‘The role of library and other information scientists is crucial to the success of this effort,’ Dr. Michon says. “Physicians, allied health workers and researchers are generally naive when it comes to classification and categorization issues. We’re too busy with our primary duties. Creating, implementing and testing knowledge models for the large and diverse number of biomedical domains will be a cooperative process between librarians and domain experts.” (Havens & Storey, 2010, p. 5).
As I noted in my observations, many people who need to use taxonomies and metadata don’t know how to create them and don’t have the confidence to recognize if they have created a good structure. As Havens and Storey point out, the role of the information scientist is to create this structure while allowing others to focus on their main duties.
While we can create taxonomy structures and tag digital content with metadata, all this classification doesn’t help if users can’t find the information. Findability is part of the taxonomy and metadata arena where information scientists will be able to use their understanding of information seeking and retrieval. Morville defines “findability” as,
“The quality of being locatable or navigable, b. The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate. c. The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval” (2005, p. 4)
To increase findability, we can advise on and design interfaces for digital environments. Lately I’ve started realizing how important it is to recognize that users of these interfaces will not be familiar with or understand Boolean searching and will most likely be more familiar with full text search (or Google or Bing). While Google and Bing might be easy to use, Boolean searching can be more powerful.
It is extremely important to bridge the gap between a single search box and complex search parameters to allow inexperienced users to find precise, appropriate information. We can consult on how users expect to find information and run well-designed user research to ensure our findings are accurate. With this research and knowledge of information seeking, information scientists can design interfaces that bridge the gap between users and computer-centric input. We can also design and manage metadata and taxonomies to ensure users can continue to find information and that systems support navigation and retrieval.
As digital libraries become more useful and used, and as people start to understand that retrieving information from a digital library require taxonomy and metadata work, the focus will shift to finding information within these environments. As information scientists, we are well-poised to shift into creating new information organization structures using taxonomies and metadata.
From my own observations while consulting, people struggle with creating universal information structures or lack the confidence to recognize a good, scalable structure. Havens and Storey describe the rise of metadata and the position of information scientists to work within this growing field. This skill set helps create appropriate structures while allowing non-information scientists to focus on their work. Finally, well-structured information needs to be findable. Information scientists can advise on user interface designs and digital information management so users can find information. Taxonomy and metadata are key areas where traditional library skills can be repurposed in the digital environment.
Borgman, C. L. (1999). What are digital libraries? Competing visions. Information Processing & Management, 35: 227-243.
Havens, A. and Storey, T. (2010) Metadata everywhere. NextSpace, 15: 4-9.
Morville, P. (2005) Ambient findability. Sebastopol: O’Reilly.
Faceted Taxonomy Resources blog post