A large part of what we work on in taxonomy development is vocabulary control. Our classification of knowledge involves designing controlled vocabularies and getting them into a form that we can use many, many times. We also have to do some linguistic analysis of the data to make sure that our terms are working correctly.

How specific should the terms be? Some people might think that there’s no harm in adding as much detail as possible. On the other hand, there may be advantages in maintaining a certain coarseness, especially since, in a sense, vocabulary control is all about limiting and simplifying terminology options. This coarseness, in moderation, can help with understandability of a taxonomy, of the topics it covers, and of the relationships among those topics.

According to information scientist Carl Lagoze of Cornell University:

Reality is chaotic. It consists of entities and objects of all types and forms. These entities change over time and sometimes morph into other distinct objects. As a result entities are interrelated in numerous and complex ways. Just limiting our domain to the document world we see relationships such as translations, derivations, editions, versions, and citations, just to name a few.

People try to understand and work with this chaotic reality by simplifying it. Using categorization and classification they create artificial ordered realities in which entities fit into convenient slots.

(Carl Lagoze, “Accommodating Simplicity and Complexity in Metadata: Lessons from the Dublin Core Experience.” Presented at Seminar on Metadata, organized by Archiefschool, Netherlands Institute for Archival Education and Research, June 8, 2000. Retrieved here on May 30, 2013.

Lagoze continues by singling out this observation by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star:

Humans are insatiable classifiers who deeply fixate on classification schemes and try to organize things into social, political, and scholarly structures and, because of that classification or categorization, they can ignore the idiosyncrasies of individual entities and manipulate them via their coarse granularity group characteristics.

(Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999)

That allows us to get on with our lives and ignore the stuff that is not important to us. You don’t have to pay attention to everything in the universe. We only need to pay attention to those things that will help us get through the day.

Marjorie M.K. Hlava President, Access Innovations

This posting is one of a series based on a workshop, “Thesaurus Creation and Management,” that Marjorie Hlava presented in December of 2012.