colortreeSource: Dreamstime

Nowadays, taxonomies and thesauri are used largely for web navigation and for information search and retrieval. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, it’s largely the digital information revolution that has made their use for information search and retrieval a vital necessity in research, business, and numerous other types of activities.

Taxonomies and thesauri are sometimes referred to as domain models. However, the term is often limited to graphic constructs specifically designed as visual tools for problem solving. As explained in the relevant Wikipedia article:

A domain model in problem solving and software engineering is a conceptual model of all the topics related to a specific problem. It describes the various entities, their attributes, roles, and relationships, plus the constraints that govern the problem domain. … The domain model is created in order to represent the vocabulary and key concepts of the problem domain. The domain model also identifies the relationships among all the entities within the scope of the problem domain, and commonly identifies their attributes.

Before the proliferation of thesauri and taxonomies for search, most taxonomies served, in effect, as domain models. As such, they reflected and furthered our understanding of the relationships of things and creatures and areas of knowledge. Even today, by their nature, most or perhaps all taxonomies and hierarchical thesauri are domain models. We just don’t use them that way, for the most part. The main exception is in the world of classification of biological organisms.

The history of taxonomies is replete with the names of naturalists and other scientists who strove to categorize the natural world through the use of hierarchical schemes. Even today, mention “taxonomy” to a biologist, and he or she is likely to think of one or more taxonomies that serve to categorize the members of some family or genus (or whatever) of plants and/or animals and/or other types of organisms. In such taxonomies, the focus of the categorization isn’t on reports or articles or books or videos about the organisms (although those taxonomies could certainly be used for that kind of categorization, and often are). Rather, the focus is on how the organisms themselves, as represented by one form or another of their names, are categorized within the taxonomy.

Much of this work was done in the 1700s and subsequent centuries. The earliest of these taxonomies were based on the work of the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. The aim of all these naturalists and philosophers was to better understand the world around them by modeling the domains of nature, using semantic methods of representing the individual concepts. We still use this semantic approach! It has stood the test of time, as has the hierarchical design.

These taxonomies helped people to understand their world. Might we not also use taxonomies, or better yet, their more complex version, hierarchical thesauri, as graphical tools to understand our world and perhaps to gain insight into and solve our problems?

Barbara Gilles, Taxonomist
Access Innovations, Inc.