Mar 14 2010
This post is based on the notes I made for the talk I gave at the LIKE dinner on February 25th. It covers a lot of themes I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, but I hope it will be useful as an overview.
Taxonomies have been around for ages
Pretty much the oldest form of recorded human writing is the list, back in ancient Sumeria, the Sumerian King list for example is about 4,000 years old. By the time of the ancient Greeks, taxonomies were familiar. We understand that something is a part of something else, and the notion of zooming in or narrowing down on the information we want is instinctive.
I am frequently frustrated by the limitations of free text search (see my earlier post Google is not perfect). The main limitation is to knowledge discovery - you can’t browse sensibly around a topic area and get any sense of overview of the field. Following link trails can be fun, but they leave out the obscure but important, the non-commercial, the unexpected.
The very brilliant Google staff are working on refining their algorithms all the time, but Google is a big commercial organisation and they are going to follow the money, which isn’t always where we need to be going. Other free text search issues include disambiguation/misspellings – so you need hefty synonym control, “aboutness” – you can’t find something with free text search if it doesn’t mention the word you’ve searched for, and audio-visual retrieval. The killer for heritage archives (and for highly regulated companies like pharmaceutical and law firms) is comprehensiveness – we don’t just want something on the subject, we want to know that we have retrieved everything on a particular subject.
Another myth is that search engines don’t use classification – they do, they use all sorts of classifications, it’s just that you don’t tend to notice them, partly because they are constantly being updated in response to user behaviour, giving the illusion that they don’t really exist. What is Google doing when it serves you up its best guesses, if not classifying the possible search results and serving you the categories it calculates are closest to what you want?
I’m a big fan of Google, it’s a true modern cathedral of intellectual power and I use Google all the time, but I seem to be unusual in that I don’t expect it to solve all my problems.
I also am aware of the fact that we can’t get to look at Google’s taxonomic processes arguably makes Google more political, more manipulable, and more big brother-ish than traditional open library classifications. We may not totally agree with the library classifications nor the viewpoints of their creators, but at least we know what those viewpoints are!
There was a lot of fuss about the rise of folksonomies and free tagging as being able to supersede traditional information management – and in an information overloaded world we need all the help we can get – the trouble is that folksonomies expand, coalesce, and collapse into taxonomies in the end. If they are to be effective – rather than just cheap – they need to do this – and either become self-policing or very frustrating. They are a great way of gathering information, but then you need to do something with it.
Folksonomies, just as much as taxonomies, represent a process of understanding what everyone else is talking about and negotiating some common ground. It may not be easy, but it is a necessary and indispensable part of human communication - not something we can simply outsource or computerise – algorithms just won’t do that for us. Once everything has been tagged with every term associated with every viewpoint, nothing might as well have been tagged at all. Folksonomies, just as much as taxonomies, collapse into giving a single viewpoint – it’s just that it is a viewpoint that is some obscure algorithmic calculation of popularity.
So, despite free text search and folksonomies, structured classification remains a very powerful and necessary part of your information strategy.
It’s an open world
Any information system - whatever retrieval methods it offers - has to meet the needs of its users. Current users can be approached, surveyed, talked to, but how do you meet the needs of future users? The business environment is not a closed, knowable constrained domain, but is an “open world”1 where change is the only certainty. (Open world is an expression from logic. It presumes that you can never have complete knowledge of truth or falsity. It is the opposite of the closed world, which works for constrained domains or tasks where rules can be applied - e.g. rules within a database).
So, how do you find the balance between stability, so your knowledge workers can learn and build on experience over time, while being able to react rapidly to changes?
Once upon a time, not much happened
The early library scientists such as Cutter, Kelley, Ranganathan, and Bliss, argued about which classification methods were the best, but they essentially presumed that it was possible to devise a system that maximised “user friendliness” and that once established, it would remain usable well into the future. By and large, that turned out to be the case, as it took many years for their assumptions about users to be seriously challenged.
Physical constraints tended to dictate the amount of updating that a system could handle. The time and labour required to re-mark books and update a card catalogue meant that it was worth making a huge effort to simply select or devise a classification and stick to it. It was easier to train staff to cope with the clunky technology of the time than adapt the technology to suit users. No doubt in the future, people will say exactly the same things about the clunky Internet and how awful it must have been to have to use keyboards to enter information.
So, it was sensible to plan your information project as one big chunk of upfront effort that would then be left largely alone. It is much easier to build systems based on the assumption that you can know everything in advance - you can have a simple linear project plan and fixed costs. However, it is very rare for this assumption to hold for very long, and the bigger the project, the messier it all gets.
Change now, change more
Everything is changing far more rapidly than it used to – from the development of new technologies to the rapid spread of ideas promoted by the emergence of social media and an “always on” culture. It’s harder than ever to stay cutting edge!
We all like to speak our own language and use our own names for things, and specialists and niche workers as well as fashionistas and trendsetters expect to be able to describe and discuss information in ways that make sense to them. The open philosophy of the Web 2.0 world means that they increasingly take this to be their right, but this is where folksonomic approaches can really help us.
What you need to do is to create a system that can include different pace layers so that you get the benefits of a stable taxonomy, with the rapid reactiveness of folksonomy as well as quick and easy free text search. You can think of your taxonomy as the centre of a coral reef, but coral is alive and grows following the currents and the behaviour of all the crazy fish and other organisms that dart about around it. It’s hard to pin down the crazy fish and other creatures, but they feed the central coral and keep it strong. In practice, this means incorporating multiple taxonomies and folksonomies and mapping them to one another, so that everyone can use the taxonomy and the terminology that they prefer. Taxonomy mapping tools require human training and human supervision, but they can lighten the load of the labour intensive process of mapping one taxonomy to another.
This means that taxonomy strategy does not have to be determined at a fixed point, but taxonomy creation is dynamic and organic. Folksonomies and new taxonomies can be harvested to feed back updates into the central taxonomy, breaking the traditional cycle of expensive major revision, gradual decline until the point of collapse, followed by subsequent expensive major revision…
There is a convergence between semi-automated mapping (we’ll be needing human editorial oversight for some time) and the semantic web project. This is the realisation of the “many perspectives, one repository” approach that should get round many problems of the subjective/objective divide. If you can’t agree on which viewpoint to adopt, why not have them all? Any arguments then become part of the mapping process – which is a bit of a fudge, but within organisations has the major benefit of removing a lot of politicking that surrounds information and knowledge management. It all becomes “something technical” to do with mapping that nobody other than information professionals is very interested in. Despite this, there is huge cultural potential when it comes to opening up public repositories and making them interoperate. The Europeana project is a good example.
Modern users demand that content is presented to them in a way that they feel comfortable with. The average search is a couple of words typed into Google, but they are willing to browse if they feel that they are closing in on what they want. To increase openness and usage means providing rich search and navigation experiences in a user-friendly way. If your repository is to be promoted to a wider audience future, the classification that will enable the creation of a rich navigation experience needs to be put in place now.
Your users should be able to wander about through the archive collections horizontally and vertically and to leave and delve into other collections, or to arrive at and move through the archive using their own organisation’s taxonomy and to tag where they want to tag, using whatever terms they like. The link points in the mappings provide crossroads in the navigation system for the users.
In this way the taxonomies are leveraged to become “hypertextual taxonomies” that provide rich links both horizontally and vertically.
Taxonomy as a spine
A core taxonomy that acts as an indexing language is the central spine to which other taxonomies can be attached and crucially - detached - as necessary. The automation of the bulk of the mapping process means that incorporating a new taxonomic view
becomes a task of checking the machine output for errors. Automated mapping processes can provide statistical calculations of likelihood of accuracy and so humans only need to examine those with a low likelihood of being correct.
Mapping software has the same problems as autoclassification software, so a mapping methodology, including workflow and approval processes, has to be defined and supported. The more important it is to get a fine-grained mapping, the more effort you will need to make, but a broad level mapping is easier to achieve.
If you start thinking of the taxonomy as an organic system in its own right – more like an open application that you can interact with – bolting on and removing elements as you choose, you do not need to attempt to account for every user viewpoint in the creation of the taxonomy, and that omission of a viewpoint at one stage does not preclude that collection from being incorporated later. Conversely, the mapping process allows “outsiders” to view your assets through their own taxonomies.
Our taxonomies represent huge edifices of intellectual effort. However, we can’t preserve them in aspic – hide them away as locked silos or like grand stately homes that won’t open their doors to the public. If we want them to thrive and grow we need to open them up to the light to let them expand, change and interact with other taxonomies and take in ideas from the outside.
Once you open up your taxonomy, share it and map it to other taxonomies, it becomes stronger. Rather than an isolated knowledge system that seems like a drain on resources, it becomes an embedded part of the information infrastructure, powering interactions between multiple systems. It ceases to be a part of document management, and becomes the way that the organisation interacts with knowledge globally. This means that the taxonomy gains strength from its associations but also gains prestige.
So our taxonomies can remain our friends for a little while longer. We won’t be hand cataloguing as we did in the past because all the wonders of the Google and automated world can be harnessed to help us.