August 9, 2010 — Standards were not popular with would-be railroad tycoons in the 1880s. A standard set of railroad tracks eliminated some profitable loading and unloading work. Incompatible tracks kept the other guys’ rolling stock on another guy’s tracks.

Eventually standards emerged because a couple of tycoons figured out how to make even more money by standardizing.

Many industries go through this wide open approach only to find that over time certain methods or designs become part of the furniture of living.

There are standards for controlled vocabularies. You can learn about these by navigating to the ANSI pages that touch upon tagging, ontologies, and related subjects. One example is the Content and Collection Management Topic Committee. You may have your own favorite standards body, or you may have an effort underway to create your own standard. Google achieved this with its approach to sitemaps. Most organizations don’t have the clout to define a standard.

In the professional indexing world, there’s a lot of talk about standards. However, in actual practice, there is some casualness in creating and enforcing controlled term lists and their usage. Indexing has been chugging along for millennia, and if a cataloger from Ephesus happened to review the indexing methods used for some enterprise information systems, that cataloger would feel right at home. Not much has changed in 2000 years. Exceptions abound. Eclectic indexing is more common than ANSI-standard methods.


In my opinion, there are four reasons:

First, developing an ANSI-compliant controlled term list is intellectually hard work. Even with a narrow scientific, technical, or medical domain, the work is mentally challenging and almost always in need of constant care and feeding. Such vocabularies need to be reviewed every five years or so to keep them current with the technology and business they were designed for.

Second, compliant term lists are time consuming. In our fast-paced business environments, the appetite for time-consuming work like term list development is frequently suppressed. I call this “knowledge fasting” and unlike the food fasting, knowledge fasting often does more harm than good.

Third, existing lists and users who want to create their own indexing terms are becoming more common. End users don’t have the time to use controlled term lists. So what is the solution suggested by many? Just let end users pluck indexing terms out of the air. A lack of intellectual rigor permeates some organizations, unfortunately. Folksonomies and social tagging are the instant answers. But they do not work and are not sustainable.

Fourth, I think that some “experts” don’t know what they don’t know. Making a term list seems trivial. A poorly crafted term list is easy to whip up. Much of the moaning about poor indexing can be traced back to “experts” who are surprisingly, not. A search system can be hobbled by poor indexing, careless controlled term lists, and weird classification of information objects.

Is there a fix?

Yes. If you need to develop a controlled term list that meets a rigorous standard, you will want to work with a firm who has expertise and a track record.

Standards are not a straightjacket. Standards make the process faster and consistent. Standards can facilitate smoother information retrieval.

There is no fix when controlled term lists are developed by those who are self-appointed specialists. Perhaps in the future, there will be a certification program for those in the professional indexing field. Smart software has not yet thwarted the subject matter expert or the professionals who can develop high value, ISO/ANSI/NISO-compliant term lists.

If these lists are created in a method that allows change and upkeep, it is an even easier and more flexible approach.  Building a “taxonomy”, the broader and narrower term relationship driven hierarchy,  based on term records, allows speed, accuracy, easy changes and applications of the term lists.

Access Innovations has this expertise and a track record to back up our assertions. Visit us at

Margie Hlava

Margie Hlava
President, Access Innovations