Taxonomies and classification. These two terminologies are frequently used interchangeably but they are not the same thing. It could be very confusing to understand the difference between taxonomy and classification, yet it is very important to do so. Understanding the similarities and the differences could help clear the confusion.

Taxonomy is the discipline of classifying something, most commonly organisms, by arranging them in a highly ordered manner. Taxonomy provides identification keys by studying the subjects.

Classification was first brought into practice with the enormous amount of work contributed by the great scientist Carolus Linnaeus. His classification of organisms was mainly based on the shared physical characteristics. However, the evolutionary approach was incorporated into biological classification after Charles Darwin’s common descent principle.

Most everyone is familiar with classification schemes used to catalog and locate books and other materials in libraries, such as the Dewy Decimal system. There are also classification systems for industries. Corporations with large volumes of documents may have their own internal document classification systems.

At its very basic explanations, classification is where to put things or where does this document or item go. Taxonomy is how to describe content or what is this text, image, or other media about.

Both classification and taxonomy are related and are within the realm of information science. Though they appear similar, they are really quite different and serve different purposes.

Taxonomists are often asked about the work they do. For those outside the world of information science and management, it can be hard to get their head around classification and the science of taxonomy. To put it at its simplest — taxonomy is a knowledge organization system, usually for a specific subject area.

There are many approaches to the building of a taxonomy. No absolutely right or absolutely wrong methods exist, but there are some that are not as efficient as others such as grouping red animals together. They may share the same color attribute, but that might end up being the only thing that they share. Consistency and clarity of meaning are vital benefits of taxonomies; they give taxonomies the power to do what they do for knowledge management.

With content management system vendors providing taxonomy functionality, users have unfortunately become tempted to consolidate and eliminate a very worthy part of their document management process.

Subject matter experts need to be used in creation of a good taxonomy – without their knowledge you will miss the important detailed knowledge of the users. Taxonomies aren’t complicated, or they don’t have to be.

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Data Harmony, a unit of Access Innovations, the world leader in indexing and making content findable.