Taxonomy and Records Management « Not Otherwise Categorized… is a blog post I wish I’d read a year ago when studying a records management module for my Masters. A lot of people seemed to think it was strange that I had chosen the RM option and I couldn’t understand why the records managers didn’t talk more about taxonomy. Of course, taxonomists often work on records management systems in one form or another, and are happy to discuss the differences between taxonomy as file plan, taxonomy for RM, taxonomy as classification, taxonomy for navigation, and so on.

I think it shows that there is really very little widespread understanding of what a taxonomy is. People assume it is something mysterious and technical in the heart of whichever system they encountered one in first and don’t realise that taxonomies crop up all over the place. It’s not even very easy to find an “official” definition.

Alan Gilchrist and Barry Mahon in Information Architecture: Designing Information Environments for Purpose say “TFPL takes the view that a ‘corporate taxonomy’ can be viewed as an enterprise-wide master file of the vocabularies and their structures, used or for use, across the enterprise, and from which specific tools may be derived for various purposes, of which navigation and search support are the most prominent.”

Patrick Lambe in Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness describes taxonomies as taking many forms, including “lists, trees, hierarchies, polyhierarchies, matrices, facets, system maps” and Vanda Broughton in Essential Classification points out that taxonomy is now often taken to mean “any vaguely structured set of terms in a subject area”.

Settling on a single, popular definition of taxonomy might help promote taxonomists and taxonomy work, but as taxonomies need to do so much in so many different contexts, there just might not be a simple definition that works. Perhaps we need a taxonomy of taxonomies!