An Introduction to Hierarchical Taxonomies for Modern Librarians

Modern librarians need a variety of tools, including hierarchical taxonomies. Information is arranged into hierarchies using this taxonomy structure, with more general terms at the top and more specific terms at the bottom. Librarians can easily organize, index, and aid retrieval by mastering the use of hierarchical taxonomies, enabling users to retrieve information resources more quickly and effectively. In this blog post, we’ll look at the foundations of hierarchical taxonomies and the best working methods for contemporary librarians.


A hierarchical taxonomy: What is it?

An organized system of categories, labels, and descriptors known as a hierarchical taxonomy enables the effective indexing of content in a library collection. They are also referred to as controlled vocabularies, preferred vocabularies, and hierarchical indexing. By giving items meta-data descriptors, hierarchical taxonomies can be used to build a structure for storing and retrieving data. This facilitates faster user navigation and information discovery within your collection. In a hierarchical taxonomy, terms are arranged in a multi-layered structure with a top-level parent term and child terms below it. Each term can be further categorized thanks to the hierarchy, which facilitates searching for and retrieving particular content.

Every time you add index terms to a catalogue record for your collection while indexing it, you must adhere to a set of guidelines regarding the terms you should use and how they relate to one another. Because there is only one preferred term to describe each concept, taxonomies are known as controlled vocabularies because the library indexer must select terms to describe the item from the hierarchy.
Legal jurisdictions that contain broad areas of law may serve as the root terms in a taxonomy of legal terms, which may then have child terms for specific legal concepts, such as English Law>Company Law>Shareholders>Minority Shareholders. A school library will need a taxonomy with the broad curriculum topics at the top of the list: Science, History, Mathematics, Fiction, etc. and then the different subjects within each topic, e.g., Science>Physics>Gravity.

While classification is about grouping information in a collection, typically according to a subject area, indexing is about offering multiple ways to locate the item regardless of the classification number it has. These two concepts are related but distinct from one another. Classification facilitates shelf browsing, whereas indexing facilitates catalog search. A book on cultivating and using herbs, for instance, might fall under the categories of horticulture, beauty, or cooking. Depending on the focus of the collection, the librarian can only choose one classification number for its location on the shelf. To make it easier for users to find it, the librarian will add several terms from the hierarchical taxonomy, such as herbs, perennials, gardening, aromatherapy, and cooking.

Why do library users benefit from hierarchical taxonomies?

As we established above, hierarchical taxonomies give both librarians and users a way to consistently describe library resources. The information required at any level can be quickly found and accessed by developing a hierarchical indexing system. To increase the accuracy of the discovery process, librarians can make use of external ontologies, controlled vocabularies, and preferred vocabularies. Without a controlled vocabulary, just imagine how long it would take users to come up with every possible synonym for each item in order to be certain they had located them all. 

In essence, it offers library users a method for quickly browsing and retrieving items that is well-structured. In general, hierarchical taxonomies are crucial for contemporary librarians and aid in ensuring that library users have a successful and satisfying experience when using the library’s resources.

The benefits and drawbacks of hierarchical taxonomies

Librarians can confidently add meta-data descriptors to each item in the collection because they have a highly organized and structured taxonomy, which will also aid library users in their discovery. When users are unsure of what they want, they occasionally begin a search for “Company Law” in general. Based on these findings, a good library system should have tools that make it easier for users to find what is available by providing filters for more precise terms and additional terms added by the librarian. A user can quickly locate the term “minority shareholders” in the taxonomy and review all items that are indexed with it when they are looking for a specific piece of information, such as a book on “minority shareholders.”

A library management system with hierarchical taxonomy functionality can also save librarians’ time by automatically adding the higher terms when a librarian selects terms at the most specific level. For instance, adding “Gravity” would also include the terms “Physics” and “Science,” which are more academic. This is not feasible in a flat or non-hierarchical taxonomy due to the absence of layers and relationships between terms.

However, using hierarchical taxonomies has some drawbacks as well. The main drawback is that building a hierarchy that accurately represents all the data in a collection can be challenging. A hierarchical taxonomy can also be time-consuming to maintain and update, necessitating extra care to make sure everything is properly organized. Consider using a published taxonomy appropriate for your subject discipline rather than developing your own. One can be used as is or, if necessary, revised by adding more sections to reflect your specialty collection.

Overall, hierarchical taxonomies are a great way to index library collections, but to ensure accuracy and effectiveness, they should be carefully planned and put into place. 

Why you might require multiple hierarchical taxonomies

Although subject terms are where hierarchical taxonomies are most commonly used in libraries, they can be helpful in other situations where you need a structured and controlled set of meta-data descriptors. To index items that are helpful or pertinent to members of those groups, you might want to create separate taxonomies for your organization’s academic departments, work teams, and practice groups. You might want to develop additional taxonomies for types of work, legal entities, industries, regions, places, etc. in a professional library. 

The benefit of doing this is that it gives the user a variety of ways to access the information resources and allows for quick filtering to find the one they need for their task. Therefore, a student can quickly locate any titles they need for their course. Without having to sift through hundreds of items under Contract Law, a lawyer acting for the Seller who needs a Conveyancing Contract for the Aircraft industry can find one quickly. 



At the end of the day, hierarchical taxonomies ensure consistent retrieval of items indexed by a single descriptor, while multiple hierarchical taxonomies take searching and discovery to a more advanced level. Multiple hierarchical taxonomies make space for unforeseen and multi-dimensional searches to meet specific information requirements of the user, saving them time and giving them confidence that they can find the things they need. Before you choose a library system stop and think if you need functionality for single or multi-hierarchical taxonomies, but at the very least make sure the taxonomy is hierarchical and not simply flat for all but the smallest of library collections.


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