June 14, 2010 – Until recent years there has been a dearth of books dedicated to the art of taxonomy or thesaurus construction. Apart from the excellent Thesaurus Construction and Use: A Practical Manual by Aitchison, Gilchrist, and Bawden in its most recent 4th edition of 2002, little has been published with a solid how-to approach to implementing thesaurus construction standards. The Accidental Taxonomist by Heather Hedden fills that gap admirably.

The Overview explains the book “aims to explain what you need to know to be a good taxonomist rather than explain how to create a taxonomy, step-by-step.” However, the chapters do get into welcome how-to details and addressing taxonomists’ backgrounds (from online survey HH did), job titles, and employment opportunities (this is probably very interesting to the curious prospective taxonomist, and the only real divergence from how-to),creating terms, creating relationships, software, “taxonomies for human indexing”, “taxonomies for automated indexing”, taxonomy structures, taxonomy displays, taxonomy planning/design/creation, taxonomy implementation and evolution, and professional taxonomy work.
The catchy title reflects the lack of a full-fledged, higher education focus on taxonomy work–it’s still relegated to part of the bigger information management — and that many of us are drawn into taxonomy work quite accidentally. Chapter 2 (Who Are Taxonomists) and Chapter 12 (Taxonomy Work and the Profession) detail valuable resources for education, networking, and support for that person.
Patrick Lambe’s introduction correctly sorts out previous taxonomy books by their altitude–pointing out this is 100 ft. level. The key, as Lambe points out, is that this book is real practical instruction for the practitioner, more than how a taxonomy fits into enterprise strategic planning. Lambe says “The field desperately needs a practical literature to bring together the key elements of taxonomy work…” He doesn’t mention Aitchison & Gilchrist, going back only as far as Bowker and Starr’s (very academic) Sorting Things Out 1999(curious, but this isn’t a commentary on P. Lambe).
This book squarely addresses the growing demand for, and interest in, taxonomy which propels the need for practical how-to guidance.
Heather brings a variety of background experience, including not only taxonomy construction but also abstracting and content categorization (not to confuse the word “indexing” with book indexing), and creating back-of-book indexes. These experiences serve her well by building a broad perspective on the similarities as well as real differences between often overlapping types of work.
The book addresses taxonomy software and categorization software (including nice pieces on our Data Harmony from both angles) Overall the software discussion is nicely balanced.
But I don’t remember from the early read or see anything (on quick scan) about integrating with CMSs and the need to plan taxonomy for that, being aware of limits, being proactive for CMS selection, etc. — an increasingly important factor than can realize the full value of the taxonomist’s work or suppress it. There is a section on “other software with taxonomy management components” starting on p. 165, but doesn’t address this aspect.
Overall it’s good, and fills a practical knowledge gap (assuming most people have no knowledge of Aitchison & Gilchrist’s book). Aitchison & Gilchrist is still my favorite book on the subject outside of the standards. I wonder if it will ever be updated.

Margie Hlava

Margie Hlava
President, Access Innovations