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Synaptica talks with recognized taxonomist, blogger and author of The Accidental Taxonomist (Information Today) Heather Hedden. Heather works with Gale/Cengage Learning as a Senior Vocabulary editor and lives in Carlisle, Massachusetts. As a taxonomy consultant she has designed and developed taxonomies and metadata strategies for web and internal content management. She also teaches online workshops in taxonomy creation and will be leading a workshop at Taxonomy Boot Camp London 2018.

Would you give me a quick overview of your current roles?

HH: Currently I work with Gale, which is part of Cengage Learning, as a Senior Vocabulary editor. I manage controlled vocabularies, taxonomies and thesauri. I edit the subject thesaurus used for library databases in addition to working on developing academic discipline taxonomies for the Cengage higher education learning products. Outside of Gale, I provide consultancy services for several small taxonomy projects and teach an online course on how to create taxonomies and controlled vocabularies.

Spring and fall can be busy, speaking at events including Taxonomy Boot Camp London (TBCL18) and KMWorld. Recently, I stepped down from the board of the American Society of Indexing where I had been involved for several years. I have also been involved with SLA (Special Libraries Association) and its Taxonomy Division Speaking and running workshops helps me learn as well as share my knowledge. Managing multiple roles and commitments does mean long hours but I am always learning something new.

The consulting projects I tend to get involved with are small-scale. Taxonomies really vary; they can be small or large. The enterprise taxonomies in knowledge management are quite involved and that really takes full time engagement. I tend to work on the smaller scale where the scope is reduced. Each project is different but the learning is always there.

Tell us about your background?

HH: Initially I started in editorial, alongside journalism and freelance writing, including some freelance work for Gale. Then I worked as an abstractor for a company that was later acquired by Gale which published library research databases. Abstractors also index, so after some intensive training I indexed journal articles using controlled vocabularies. I worked alongside many other in-house indexers and with a variety of groups before I began the position of managing controlled vocabularies. In 2004, I left the company for what turned out to be 10 years. I started doing a combination of freelance indexing, taxonomy editing, and then taxonomy consulting.

I worked on several projects and was then employed by additional organizations: a wind energy company for their internal contact management using SharePoint, an enterprise search start-up which wanted a taxonomy integrated into the search software, and as a staff consultant for a knowledge management consultancy.

How did your book Accidental Taxonomist come about?

HH: I had written a short book on creating indexes for websites published by Information Today for the American Society for Indexing. The publisher indicated they would be interested if I wanted to write another book. I started with content from the course I was teaching. Then I added material I had from conference presentations and undertook additional research, based on my own experiences. This was over the course of 2008 and 2009, and the first edition was published in 2010.

It was successful enough for a revised second edition in 2016. In the second edition I updated information on software vendors. I supplemented other areas including SKOS. This standard was emerging at the same time as the first edition. SharePoint (integration) was added as there was an improvement in its metadata management in the meantime. I also included additional information about Linked Data, and I included a new survey of taxonomists.

Taxonomies vary so much with implementation, the types of organizations and content. My previous work as a consultant gave me a broad base of experience to help write the book. I also write my monthly blog, The Accidental Taxonomist. I’m not sure if I will write another book but possibly I will create a new advanced course.

Which parts of your work do you enjoy the most?

HH: I do like creating and designing taxonomies. It involves problem-solving and some creativity. At Gale I have been able to start from scratch creating higher education discipline taxonomies. It’s interesting to look at a new situation and design a taxonomy to meet the requirements, making sure it serves the content. A new taxonomy should work for the particular audience and cover the content which it’s designed for.

Where do you start when you are designing a new taxonomy?

HH: You begin by looking where the content is, what will be included, and indexing. Talk with people–the stakeholders–to find out who the users are and how they will use it. Some of the users could be currently within their organizations, but some are future customers who we don’t know, and we can’t always talk to them. You will often find some work has been initiated: the beginning of a taxonomy, a legacy of a project, term lists or existing metadata. Investigate, observe, find the starting point.

How important is it to work in collaboration with others?

HH: There are different forms of collaboration: collaboration with other taxonomists and collaboration with other stakeholders. It’s good to be able to collaborate with other taxonomists when challenges and questions of taxonomy best practices come up. Even experts sometimes confront challenging questions. This type of collaboration is not always possible when working as an independent consultant. When I have subcontracted to another independent consultant, it’s important that we both collaborate well. At Gale, I am one of several vocabulary editors, so I have colleagues for asking questions, but usually we each work quite independently.

Collaborating with the taxonomy owner and other key stakeholders is very important in order to create the desired and most suitable taxonomy. These stakeholders may include the project manager, user interface designers, and those involved with technical systems implementation. Taxonomists should not make assumptions and then forget to ask questions. It can be challenging if the taxonomy owner or client does not know what they want. A taxonomy consultant not only can build and design a taxonomy, they will advise on how it should be done.

Have you seen any major changes in the sector over the years?  

HH: The wider adoption of taxonomies has definitely changed. Originally it was more limited to areas of publishing, content and digital asset management but now it’s everywhere across so many sectors.

Tell us more about the training and workshops you run?

HH: Originally, I developed the course – as part of the continuing education programme of Simmons College based in Boston. When Simmons ended its continuing education offerings, I continued to offer an online course through my own business Students can start any time, an the course runs for 2 months.  I tend to have about 10 students at one time. I offer support, answer individual questions by email and offer feedback.

Some of the students are information professionals interested in getting into the field. Many have some experience and are employed by various companies, organizations, or government agencies plus I have some international students. Assignments can be adjusted to reflect their own taxonomy work cases.

At conferences and events, I have also provided taxonomy training workshops for 10 years now. For the October Taxonomy Boot Camp London I will be running a “Taxonomy Fundamentals” pre-conference workshop. This started with the first event in 2016. It has attendees from the UK and Europe and some of North America as there isn’t a similar workshop opportunity at KMWorld.

Tell us about the software you use in training?

HH: Synaptica offered KMS for me to provide to my students from the start. Each student has their own temporary account, which I create, so they can create a taxonomy and I offer feedback. I have worked with other software vendors, and the student access might be shared or more limited. Providing students with exposure to a variety of software is important. Often, they can end up working with tools that aren’t their first choice as they may not be the decision maker or involved in the selection.

What advice to others developing their own taxonomy project?

HH: Talk to a lot of people, users, stakeholders those who have asked for the taxonomy, to get an idea of what they want. Don’t make assumptions. If you have had experience with a taxonomy before, this new project or its implementation may not be the same. Questions need to be answered from the start. Will terms be displayed to the users? Or will you use a search option? If it is displayed how will it look? Will it be a faceted taxonomy or use hierarchy levels? Who will see them and who will be tagging?

What do you think are the biggest challenges in the future?

HH: Growing interest in AI and machine learning and its impact on indexing and tagging. I feel there are limits in automatic technology and taxonomy creation. You can have suggested terms but relying fully on technology could result in problems. There is a role still for the human to polish, edit taxonomies which incorporate automated suggestions.

The other area is sharing and linking information. There are ways on the Semantic Web with linked open data to exchange information, however, you need to find the right balance to maintain proprietary content. There are also shared open controlled vocabularies available for reuse. You can start with an existing taxonomy and revise it, but taxonomies must be customized for their purpose. Linking to other content while also being customized for your needs is the challenge. It can be done but you must look closely at any automated term matches, which may not be completely equivalent.

Synaptica Insights is our regular series of case studies sharing stories, news and learning from our customers, partners, influencers and colleagues. Synaptica LLC are Diamond Sponsors of Taxonomy Boot Camp London 2018. Heather will be running a pre-Conference Workshop on Taxonomy Fundamentals.

Author Vivs Long-Ferguson

Marketing Manager at Synaptica LLC. Joined in 2017, leads on marketing, social media and executive operations.

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