Everything in its Right Place: Collection Taxonomy vs. Classification

May 21, 2015 9:25:24 AM

by Jen Bort

I was writing a job description yesterday to better describe one of the positions here at Virtucom Group—taxonomist—when I came across a blog called The Accidental Taxonomist. The author, Heather Hedden, also wrote a book by the same name. In it, and in her blog, she explores and explains this specialized field that many of us find ourselves working in somewhat, well, accidentally.

Though my background is in communications/journalism, I’ve worked in the collection taxonomy profession for about four years now and learn more with each project. Every client’s needs are different; every taxonomy is different. Some taxonomies are for display (think retail websites and the menus you select from to navigate to, say, Furniture or Electronics), some are for collection purposes (think back-end, where attributes are assigned to each product type and are used to feed product display pages), and some are both.

You’ll hear taxonomy talked about in terms of classification, and although there are similarities between the two, there’s also a major difference. Hedden uses a simple dichotomy to make that difference crystal clear: classification systems describe where a physical item can be found, while taxonomies describe what an item is/what it’s about.

So for instance, the Dewey Decimal System is an example of a classification system; it tells you where books, periodicals, and other media can be found in a library. In comparison, Library of Congress subject headings are an example of taxonomy; they tell you what the book, periodical, etc. is about.

In the world of e-commerce, taxonomies are used to categorize and describe product types; for instance, nightstands as furniture, specifically bedroom furniture: Furniture > Bedroom Furniture > Nightstands.

The work is oddly satisfying. A well-constructed taxonomy makes me think of the Radiohead song “Everything in its Right Place”—everything is organized, sorted, neatly tucked away where it belongs. According to best practices, of course.

Interested in learning more about taxonomy? Check back for future blog posts and follow us on LinkedIn.

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