Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich.

(From A Christmas Carol in Prose; Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, by Charles Dickens. Illustrations by John Leech.)


Wouldn’t it be splendid if, in the ‘spirit’ of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present, we could use taxonomies to accomplish the same things?

  • Cure and eradicate sickness
  • Promote international understanding
  • Promote justice and social harmony
  • Lessen and eradicate poverty

Admittedly, these are lofty goals. As it happens, taxonomies can help us accomplish these things. As taxonomist Alice Redmond-Neal has pointed out, “Verbalizing a concept identifies it, gives it substance, and makes it recognizable.” Taxonomies enable us to all agree on what we’re talking about, which can help us identify, quantify, and deal with problems.

Never underestimate the power of a taxonomy! Let’s take a short tour of taxonomies that reflect the spirit and intent of Dickens’ ghost.

“The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful”

The Public Library of Science (PLOS) has a large thesaurus reflecting the content of their digital library. (We at Access Innovations are very familiar with this thesaurus, as we helped develop it in its current form.)  Most of PLOS’s journals focus on biological topics. Several of these journals present research related to disease control methods and eradication efforts:

  • PLOS Medicine
  • PLOS Pathogens
  • PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases

The last-named journal is especially noteworthy in that it offers a publication platform for researchers in third world countries who may have no opportunity for publication elsewhere. PLOS is probably the main publisher of articles on neglected (or at least previously neglected) tropical diseases.

Since the PLOS thesaurus was constructed to reflect the scope and depth of PLOS articles, the thesaurus covers hundreds of terms relevant to disease control methods and eradication efforts. The thesaurus serves as a basis for indexing the articles. As such, it guides searchers to information that can be used in current research, as well as information for healthcare providers and government officials to apply in disease control and eradication efforts.

“The Spirit stood … on foreign lands, and they were close at home”

Probably the best-known organization concerned with international understanding and cooperation is the United Nations. It’s fitting that they have a thesaurus, and a multilingual one at that, in all the official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

The United Nations describes the UNBIS Thesaurus as follows:

“The multilingual UNBIS Thesaurus, created by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, United Nations Department of Public Information, contains the terminology used in subject analysis of documents and other materials relevant to United Nations programmes and activities. It is used as the subject authority of the United Nations Bibliographic Information System (UNBIS) and has been incorporated as the subject lexicon of the United Nations Official Document System. It is multidisciplinary in scope, reflecting the Organization’s wide-ranging concerns. The terms included are meant to reflect accurately, clearly, concisely and with a sufficient degree of specificity, matters of importance and interest to the United Nations.”

“The Spirit stood … by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope”

As HURIDOCS describes itself, it is “an international NGO [non-governmental organization] helping human rights organisations use information technologies and documentation methods to maximise the impact of their advocacy work.” Of potential interest to taxonomists, “HURIDOCS is also an informal, open and decentralised network of human rights organisations who wish to put together their experiences and creativity to develop common standards and tools for information management. “

One of those tools is a set of small thesauri, in a collection named “Micro-thesauri : a tool for documenting human rights violations”.

“This collection of 48 lists with terminology was developed by HURIDOCS or adapted from a variety of authoritative resources. The Micro-thesauri are intended for use in conjunction with HURIDOCS Standard Formats manuals, and in particular with the HURIDOCS Events Standard Formats: a tool for documenting human rights violations.

“The Micro-thesauri can be used as a starting point for developing one’s own index terms for libraries and documentation centres, as keywords for organising information on websites, or as controlled vocabularies for databases to record violations.

“They have been translated into the following languages, often by volunteers: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, and Bahasa Indonesia.”

“The Spirit stood … by poverty, and it was rich.”

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) is an economic research center of the Oxford Department of International Development, at the University of Oxford. The center’s goal is “to build and advance a more systematic methodological and economic framework for reducing multidimensional poverty, grounded in people’s experiences and values.” OPHI explains multidimensional poverty as follows:

“Most countries of the world define poverty by income. Yet poor people themselves define their poverty much more broadly, to include lack of education, health, housing, empowerment, humiliation, employment, personal security and more. No one indicator, such as income, is uniquely able to capture the multiple aspects that contribute to poverty.”

OPHI has identified various aspects of poverty, grouped into five “missing dimensions” of poverty “that deprived people cite as important in their experiences of poverty”:

  • Quality of work
  • Empowerment
  • Physical safety
  • Social connectedness
  • Psychological wellbeing

While OPHI does not call their dimensional framework a taxonomy, it can certainly serve as one.

The Moral of This Posting

Use the power of the taxonomy! And as Obi-Wan Kenobi said in the movie Star Wars, “Use your power for good, not evil.”

And make sure your taxonomy gets used. Call attention to it, or to the search platform that it’s integrated with.

Sometimes you have to…

SLAP them in the face just to get their attention.


Carol Kane as The Ghost of Christmas Present, with Bill Murray, in the movie Scrooged (1988), written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue

Barbara Gilles

Originally posted in December 2013.