Taxonomies for the masses: Is it really that easy?

000_2028.JPG, originally uploaded by Yake.

Today was the last day of the 2011 TRB Annual Meeting, which means my 7 day stretch of nothing but conferences is over. Praise be!

One topic that kept coming up over and over again was the need for more controlled vocabularies in transportation. I couldn’t tell if they were doing it because I, one of a handful of librarians at the meeting, was in the room or if they really wanted their own controlled vocabulary, but it all gave me hope.

But then it got to the group with people trying to reinvent the wheel, and tell us what should be done, because clearly the librarians and information managers have no idea how to do it. OK. That’s not entirely accurate. Really, I think these engineers and other folks think it’s easy. I mean, we make it seem easy, but they don’t see the work that goes into the vocabularies. I see a future where every program in every agency has its own vocabulary, with its own terms, and it will be an integration and retrieval nightmare.

This means we need to get out and educate people. Let them know the benefits of controlled vocabularies (and standard metadata), but also that you need to take some thought and care before plowing ahead. So it’s outreach and a discussion. Why do they want these thesauri? (Other than the obvious fact that thesauri rock.)

So there’s opportunity, and I think the road ahead will end up being good, but man we need to get out there and articulate what we can do, and then do it.

3 thoughts on “Taxonomies for the masses: Is it really that easy?

  1. i love taxonomy talk.
    for so long we wanted controlled vocabularies – to dictate to folks the “proper” terminology.
    then we were all agog about keywords and user tagging – let THEM describe it, they are the experts!
    and then we realized the problem with usre tagging is that : a) user very personalized tags (ex. “birthday present for jane”, “awesome”) , b) they may not know what they’re talking about, or c) really not care.
    i like the idea of a mediated taxonomy – where librarians kind of set out the foundations, but treat it as a living organism (Ranganathan in the hizzy) and adapt it as they see what users are doing with the words. user generated tags are crucial to finding things, but users shouldn’t have to worry about the finer parts of it. if they want a picture of cars, searching for cars should also pull up “automobiles” “coches” “autos” and any other term in any other language that was used to tag a car picture. (hint: this is where librarians come in again!)
    and i can only imagine how important this is in transportationland!

    1. oh, transportationland needs this. i mean, we have our thesaurus for transportation research but it’s not really appropriate to use to describe departmental websites, practical databases, etc.

      one of my dreams is to come up with a family of taxonomies, all based on the same terms (when possible), but made to fit the application. then any agency could use them, or map to them, which would save time and money for the agencies, and allow some (that have fewer resources in general) take advantage of these sorts of tools that wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

      updating and changing any thesauri is a must. this is where we, the librarians, can really add value. i say this as somebody who works on thesaurus maintenance. it’s tough, it’s frustrating, but it’s what we have to do to keep it relevant and working.

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