Taxonomy vs. Controlled Vocabulary

With the recent announcement of “DAM and the Tao of Taxonomy,” which is the next webinar I’ll be hosting, I’ve been getting questions about my take on the differences between taxonomies and controlled vocabularies. I’ll offer below the most basic distinction I can muster, but for much more detailed information from a true authority on this subject, please join me for “DAM and the Tao of Taxonomy” on August 29, 2012. My guest will be David Riecks of David has won a US Library of Congress “Pioneer of Digital Preservation” award and he’s also a judge for Createasphere’s annual DAMMY Awards.

I’ve been impressed by David’s knowledge and DAM common sense since the first time I spoke with him years ago. There’s no way you won’t come away from this webinar without learning. We love David.

Okay, let me put Taxonomy vs. Controlled Vocabulary in simple terms: When I think of taxonomy, I think of structure, organization and hierarchical “place.” In other words, if my digital asset was a physical object, my “taxonomy” would describe where I might store that object. Example:

  • Home
    • Kitchen
      • Pantry
      • Junk drawer (we all have one, right?)
      • Refrigerator
    • Bedroom
      • Closet
      • Under the bed
      • Secret location that’s none of your business and you’ll never find it
  • Work
    • My office
      • File cabinet
      • Bookshelf
    • Conference room
      • Storage cabinet
      • Center of the big shiny table

The taxonomy of my life’s structure would help me decide where the object belongs. For example, there is no entry in the hierarchy for “Airplane,” and that’s because DAM Survival Guide needs to sell a few more copies before that will be added.

Keep in mind that in the digital world, an “object” can fit in many different locations, so we assign it everywhere it fits. The point to our chosen taxonomy is that there is a pre-defined structure that we use consistently across our organizations or industries. After all, one person’s “secret location that’s none of your business and you’ll never find it,” might be another person’s “place I should have hid better from the kids.”

By this time you might have correctly guessed that my “controlled vocabulary” is the list of keywords I use to describe the objects of my life. (Taxonomy is where they go; keywords are what they are.) A “controlled vocabulary” is just some technological way of limiting your keyword choices to only those previously approved for use. This way, your metadata editors and users don’t have to guess whether you were thinking of an “airplane,” “aircraft,” “jet” or “big flying thing.”

When used together, taxonomies and controlled vocabularies enable you to design a killer, well-organized DAM that will be so much easier to use and maintain.

Keep in mind, this is how I see the differences. Others use taxonomy structure no differently than they do keywords.

Join David and me for the “DAM and the Tao of Taxonomy” webinar and find how why my explanation above only scratches the surface of possibilities for these methodologies and technologies.