August 30, 2010 – I went to one of my favorite bookstores the other day. I have been awaiting the release of E. E. Knight’s Winter Duty. Looking at the overhead signs for sections, I realized that this is the beginning of a taxonomy.

I went to the Science Fiction section and was pleased to find the book. As I read the cover, I noticed that a quote praising Winter Duty described E. E. Knight as a Military Science Fiction writer. I knew that there are genres in Science Fiction. I have enjoyed S. M. Stirling’s The Change series and know that this falls into the Alternate History genre, which can be a subgenre of Science Fiction.

While pondering this, I realized that I am looking a taxonomy.

I have always thought of a taxonomy as being a formalized structure used for the categorization of information. My first exposure to a taxonomy was in high school biology. The final project was to create a taxonomy. This was well before the days of the Internet. One had to go to the library, and find out about the animal kingdom, plant kingdom, et al. My apologies to any biologists if I have that information wrong.

Since then I have always thought that one had to study to be a taxonomist. Creating a taxonomy must be difficult and complicated work. How did one determine what terms to include, and to exclude? How did one structure a taxonomy? Why would one want a taxonomy? Are taxonomies written in stone, or are they living? Who uses a taxonomy?

I wonder if there are other people confused with the same thoughts on the use of a taxonomy?

My realization that the bookstore is using a taxonomy made me realize that taxonomies are merely a way of grouping information together in a way that is relevant to the user.

When you think about it, books have always been divided into Fiction and Non-Fiction. Years ago, The New York Times had the Bestseller list categorized by the two main top terms for a literary taxonomy. Of course now the categorization has expanded to be Hardcover Fiction, Hardcover Nonfiction, Paperback Trade Fiction, Paperback Mass-Market Fiction, Paperback Nonfiction, Hardcover Advice, Paperback Advice, Children’s Books, and Graphic Books.

Science Fiction is a subgenre of Fiction. Science Fiction’s subgenres include Alternate History and Military Science Fiction. This is a taxonomy! There are broader terms and narrower terms. I have the beginnings of a Science Fiction taxonomy.

Now my mind is racing. Are there other places that I have seen a taxonomy? Grocery stores provide taxonomy services – bread is in the bread section; spices are in the spice section. Can you imagine going to a grocery store that did not use a taxonomy?  Trying to shop with no signs overhead to direct you to the appropriate aisle to find the bread? The rye bread is in the canned soup aisle, the sourdough bread in the frozen food aisle, the wheat bread in the dog food aisle. Let me tell you, there would be no shopping in that grocery store for me.

Taxonomies aren’t complicated. They are a simple means of organizing information.

This is so exciting. Taxonomies are here, there, and everywhere.

Annette Grant
Production Manager, Access Innovations