Sunday, July 31, 2022

Taxonomy Challenges Discussed at SLA Conference

When it comes to conferences dealing with the subject of taxonomy creation, implementation, and maintenance, without a doubt Taxonomy Boot Camp and Taxonomy Boot Camp London are by far the best conferences for their content, speakers, and networking opportunities. However, there are other conferences that have sessions on taxonomies. 

The annual conference of the Special Libraries Association (SLA) usually has multiple taxonomy-related sessions. This year, July 31 - August 2 in Charlotte, NC, the first in-person conference in three years, was no exception.

Thanks to the volunteer programming efforts of SLA’s Taxonomy Community (one of over 20 specialized topic groups, formerly called “Divisions"), the annual conference is able to include multiple taxonomy sessions, some of which bring together multiple speakers, either co-presenting a single talk or coming together. Even sessions not organized by the Taxonomy Community may include taxonomy topics, such as those dealing with knowledge management, information architecture, or research that uses a taxonomy. A Taxonomy Community networking event is also regularly part of the SLA conference.

This year’s conference is hybrid, so some of the taxonomy sessions are in-person, and some are pre-recorded and available on-demand.  Live-streaming was also done for keynotes and some sessions. The following are the in-person taxonomy sessions at the SLA 2022 conference:

  • “The Role of DEI in Taxonomy Development, Maintenance, Search, and Retrieval,” presented by Marisa Hughes. (This presentation on a popular topic was additionally live-streamed and pre-recorded for on-demand viewing.)
  • “Current Challenges and Advanced Taxonomy Topics” panel comprising Marisa Hughes, Heather Kotula, John Bertland, and myself.
  • “Research Sources and Methodologies for Taxonomy Development,” jointly presented by Marisa Hughes and myself.
The following are pre-recorded, on-demand only taxonomy sessions:
  • “There ain’t no Sanity Clause: Taxonomy and Data Analysis” presented by Michele Lamorte
  • “Metadata Governance” presented by John Horodyski

Conference session on diversity, equity, and inclusion in taxonomies

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) is a growing area of interest in information management/sharing and content creation.  Marisa Hughes, the taxonomist who edits the APA Thesaurus of Psychology Index Terms explained the challenges of revising the thesaurus terms to reflect DEI, for which she gave the following definitions:

  • Diversity: “The vast range of differences among individuals and groups.”
  • Equity: “The contain of being fair and impartial”
  • Inclusion: “Welcoming and respecting diverse individuals and Groups. Diversity in practice. 

She has been reviewing thousands of terms for accuracy, currency, inclusivity, avoidance of bias, stereotypes, or discrimination. Areas that this DEI review has focused on are:

  • Racial, ethnic, and cultural identity
  • Gender diversity and sexual orientation
  • Age, disability status, and socioeconomic class bias

In the area of disability status, for example, the term should focus on the disability and not the person. Thus, “Hearing impaired” is changed to “Person with hearing loss”; and “Mentally ill” is changed to “Individual with a mental illness.”

Marisa Hughes presenting “The Role of DEI in Taxonomy

Additional challenges include taking the hierarchical relationships, term usage, and change management. If users can see hierarchical relationships, even if not the full hierarchy, these relationships need to be appropriate. For example, certain personal conditions and behaviors should not be narrower to the term “Disorders.” Term frequency of usage (also called “literary warrant”) is important, but the larger goal is to have respectful terms. Change management involves care that the term changes to not impact search and retrieval. Marissa oversees the large job of reindexing content with new terms, and adding change notes or history notes to changes terms. 

Conference panel on current taxonomy challenges

In this session, the four panelists each gave brief opening talks, then were asked questions by the moderator, Judith Theodori, and then it was opened up for general Q&A and discussion with the audience.

I presented on the themes of challenges which came from 138 taxonomist survey responses to the question "What are the pain points or challenges in your taxonomy work?" The leading trends in the responses were:

  1. Achieving stakeholder understanding and buy-in
  2. Competing interests, expectations, and requests
  3. Organizational challenges
  4. Tools and technology inadequacies or not integrated

John Bertland, Digital Librarian and Content Specialist at the Presidio Trust spoke of the taxonomy challenges in his organization including governance at the time organizational change and funding. A specific challenge is expanding and adapting a taxonomy that was originally just for digital asset management to include the content of the intranet.

Current Taxonomy Challenges” panelists Marisa Hughes, 
John Bertland, Heather Kotula, and Heather Hedden

Marisa Hughes, Taxonomist at the American Psychological Association, related the challenge of having to quickly come up with all the COVID related taxonomy in time for the usual thesaurus update scheduled in April 2020. This involved a lot of research on literature that was still rather lacking on the subject. 

Another challenging project was to determine the role of historical data in the vocabulary of 3500 terms for the period of 1967 to 1973, which involved removing offensive terms. It was a judgement call of whether to continue to use a potentially offensive term as a non preferred term (alternative label) or not.  Heather Kotula, VP, Marketing and Communications of Access Innovations, Inc., the fourth panelist, also discussed the same subject of excluding pejorative terms, referred to “semantic censorship.” In the end it was concluded that often pejorative terms are actually not that much in use in the documents being tagged.