Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mentoring Taxonomists: The Need

As explained in Chapter 2 of my book on an introduction to taxonomy creation, The Accidental Taxonomist, the majority of taxonomists did not intend to be taxonomists, and they come to the field by accident from various backgrounds. What this means is that most people who find they want to or need to do work as taxonomists are already into their careers and are no longer students with access to full courses. Workshops through conferences or continuing education programs (such as the workshop I teach) are certainly very helpful, but they are of limited duration and not always available. Thus, on-the-job training or mentoring is the most likely way that many people learn how to design and create taxonomies. Just look at the LinkedIn resumes of many practicing taxonomists, and you will see that the education of the majority of them was not in library and information science but in some other field, and that through a series of jobs somehow along the way they learned taxonomy skills on the job.

Another reason why on-the-job training or mentoring is important in the taxonomy field is that taxonomy work is often quite specialized for a particular application. Taxonomies for website navigation, for ecommerce, for supporting an auto-categorization tool, for supporting human indexers, for digital asset management metadata, or for content management systems are not the same and have nuanced differences in their design aside from any subject matter differences. Taxonomy “standards” are actually just guidelines which allow flexibility. Thus, on-the-job training can be more relevant than the theoretical study of taxonomies or than a continuing education workshop that must take a generic approach to accommodate diverse students.

Not everyone is fortunate to have on-the-job training or senior colleagues or supervisors who can act as mentors. I had this opportunity, though, and in retrospect, it was the defining point in my career: the period of about three years when I worked at what was then Information Access Company, first in collaboration with and then as new member of the vocabulary management department. I got the vocabulary manager (aka taxonomist) position, as an inside hire familiar with the controlled vocabularies as an indexer, but I subsequently learned best practices for taxonomy editing and management from my senior colleagues, my supervisor, and also from a visiting consultant.

Due to the nature of the field, though, it is not unusual for the new taxonomist be the sole person responsible for taxonomies in an organization and thus lack the support of coworkers with any experience in taxonomies. The new taxonomist must then look elsewhere for mentoring support. Online discussion groups can provide some support in answering simple questions, as long as the assistance does not require anyone else to actually look at the work. A hired taxonomy consultant can also serve as an excellent mentor if you structure the relationship in that way, although this may not be in your budget. Another place to turn for mentoring assistance could be professional associations.

Thus, I accepted when asked last year if I would volunteer to lead the new mentoring committee of the Taxonomy Division of SLA (Special Libraries Association), a professional membership association to which I belong.  Saying that I support mentoring and actually trying to create and foster a mentoring program, however, are quite different matters.  The Taxonomy Division chair at the time suggested creating a list of FAQs and answers on the member website as the primary means of mentoring members. While FAQs are a useful resource, this is not what I had in mind for mentoring. Connecting aspiring taxonomists (protégés) with experienced taxonomists who volunteer to be mentors would be ideal. Whether this is an achievable ideal or not still waits to be seen.  For now, I have set up the structure of the mentoring programs, as described on the SLA Taxonomy Division website. Now, we just need to encourage participation. My next blog post will describe the program in more detail.