Taxonomy: the key of Monstropedia structure
More than two centuries after the death of Carl Linnaeus (the ‘father of taxonomies’), it is hard to consider taxonomies a fad. However, most people are unfamiliar with taxonomy development and management.
What is a taxonomy
A simple definition of a taxonomy is that it is a hierarchy of categories used to classify documents and other information. A corporate taxonomy is a way of representing the information (knowledge base) available within an organisation.
Such a simple definition hides the many challenges to be faced in building and maintaining an effective and usable taxonomy for Monstropedia.
According to the writer Jorge Luis Borges a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ classified animals as:
belonging to the Emperor; embalmed; trained; sloppy; sirens; fabulous; stray dogs; included in this classification; trembling like crazy; innumerable; drawn with a very fine camelhair brush; et cetera; having just broken the vase; from a distance look like flies.
The wonderous inconsistencies that this brings to mind are a useful reminder to anyone trying to implement a creatures taxonomy that the world does not fit easily into neatly labelled boxes. That said, it is increasingly important for those in charge of content management, creature definitions, field research or e-commerce projects to have an understanding of why taxonomies matter and how they can be used to improve information retrieval and navigation.
In some areas, such as botany or medical research, taxonomies have long been important tools for organising information. Today, many more organisations are looking to build taxonomies as part of their information management strategies. Taxonomies are an important tool in balancing the contradictory forces of information overload and the need for instant access to the right information.
The recognition that we need to organise information if we are to make sense of the world can be traced back to Aristotle. Each advance in the scale of human knowledge has presented new challenges in classification and new responses to those challenges: for example, Linnaeus’s system for categorising the natural world in the 18th century, the creation of the Dewey Decimal System for library classification in the 19th century and 20th century medical and scientific taxonomies. The rise of information technology, particularly the Internet and the Web, presents a further series of challenges that are extending the requirement for taxonomies into a far wider sphere.
Together these improvements can reduce the time that experts and visitors spend looking for information and increase the likelihood that they will find what they are looking for. A well-considered taxonomy also increases the opportunities for the serendipitous discovery of information (for example, information on similar artefacts or additional works by the same artist).
It can also reduce the amount of time spent on duplication and reinvention, by making the existing intellectual capital resources more visible and accessible.
A good taxonomy not only provides the basis for an effectively organised site, but it also increases the maintainability and adaptability of the site. Instead of a gradual build-up of haphazard links and degradation of the navigational structures, changes and improvements to the site can be done within a common, shared and managed information architecture.
A classical taxonomy assumes that each element can only belong to one branch of the hierarchical tree. However, in th realm of monsters, such formal ordering is neither feasible nor desirable. For example, a well-documented sighting of a siren may be of interest to different departments in Monstropedia for different reasons: cryptozoologists, mythologists, podcast speakers, ....
Forcing a creature into a single predefined category may be neater, but also reduces its usefulness. Our taxonomy needs to be flexible and pragmatic as well as consistent.
A significant challenge when defining a taxonomy is to create a balance between the breadth and the depth of categories. If categories are too specific in their description and classification there is a danger that they will be too transient, and need changing as their contents change. On the other hand, if a category is too broad it will hinder navigation as the precise nature of its contents will be difficult for the user to determine. A taxonomy can theoretically have an unlimited number of levels; however, too many will mean that the user becomes lost navigating down to the bottom level. A narrow taxonomy also forces uses to make a navigation decision with too little information and to have to work through too many layers before knowing if they are following the right path. The general consensus is that breadth is better than depth as far as usability is concerned.
Once the project team has created a taxonomy structure that represents the corporate knowledge it is important to test it. This means that it is necessary to classify a sample selection of documents from the knowledge base to determine whether they fit well into the structure, and whether all of their possible purposes are covered by the taxonomy. It is also necessary for users to test the structure with those documents in place, to see whether the user’s expectations of what should fall into that category match the taxonomy, and to see how easily the user can navigate through the layers of the hierarchy.
Once this testing has been done the project team can refine the structure; renaming any categories to ensure they are meaningful and consistent.
Even the best taxonomy will need updating regularly in order to ensure that documents are still being categorised in a logical and comprehensible manner, and that the categories are still useful and current. Taxonomy building is an ongoing and iterative process.