as·so·ci·a·tion  (ə-sō′sē-ā′shən)

We use taxonomies and ontologies to organize document collections. But controlled vocabularies (of a sort) are also used to organize the aisles in a grocery or hardware store, clothes in the closet, and your kitchen. In the last two cases, the subject matter expert (SME) is definitely you!


If you are more comfortable shopping in a Target instead of a Walmart, it is probably due to the way in which they’ve organized their collection of merchandise. Barnes & Noble and Borders books stores had significantly different ways to organize their books and other offerings. I loved one, but could not easily find my way around the other.

We frequently organize document collections for associations—organizations of learned and scholarly publishers. Occasionally, they ask us to organize the governance layer of the society as well. What they want us to do of course is take all the committees, special interest groups, divisions, chapters, and communities of interest or practice and add them to the taxonomy for use in navigation on their website. To do so, we look at the content to be indexed that’s relevant to that section of the society to ensure proper tagging.


Our philosophical bent at Access Innovations is to build a term record for every term in the taxonomy (or thesaurus or ontology). That means a small (usually) database of terms; their broader, narrower, and related terms; aliases (synonyms); and perhaps definitions, scope notes, or other links. The terms are used to tag the content, whether they are HTML pages, articles, book chapters, memorabilia, meetings, minutes, etc. We are often asked to provide a “full path” export showing exactly where in the taxonomic hierarchy the term itself resides, and we do. But we know that searchers do not ask for the full path; they ask for the term in that tiny little search box. Thus, we tag at the term level—and each term needs to stand on its own as a potential search term. The meaning of the term should not be inferred from its place in the hierarchy, since the searcher (1) usually has no idea where it resides taxonomically, and (2) doesn’t really care; what they want is the appropriate content.

Along the way, over the course of organizing content for many associations and societies, we are often able to shed an interesting sidelight of information: we learn the organization well, but only from its content. We are not experts in the field, nor are we active members of the organization. We can read the history of how it started, why it is different from other organizations, what is so special about it that made many people come together to form the society in the first place. However, by building the taxonomy we get a snapshot in time—we see the content and organization as it is today. This interesting perspective has led us to see where the society is and what it has become, not what it was. It gives a fresh perspective on how the organization is really organized, what it actually covers, and, based on recent activity, in which direction the association is going. This provides a solid foundation for future scopes and long range planning for organizations.

Visualization of the data provides the present communities of interest and links to the other communities within the organization. Add the time and date of the publication of each piece of content and it also shows the trending directions for each topical area.

As we build out the governance layer (how the organization fits together) we depend on people who know the organization and the published guides about how it works. If we did not, we might organize it in a very different way based on what they actually do today, which would be an uncomfortable experience for those who know and are active in the association. Just like going into a bookstore which is arranged differently than you think it should be, the arrangement of the taxonomy for an organization needs to reflect how the organization thinks of itself. The other way of looking at it (solely from the content data) often does not reflect how the organization wants to be seen; it could, however, be an excellent strategic planning asset to use the taxonomy for this purpose. Sometimes a taxonomy is used exactly that way for a look at the future. If you are a member of an association, how would you go about building a taxonomy for the organization, and then applying it to the governance layer in order to secure a bright future?


Marjorie Hlava, President
Access Innovations