Heather Hedden, author of the excellent and very practical The Accidental Taxonomist(Information Today, 2010), has developed her career as a respected taxonomist by being willing to take on new challenges, move fluidly between employment and self-employment, and constantly learn more about the issues and technologies that drive this discipline. In Heather’s words:
What is your current position or professional role?
I’m the taxonomy manager at First Wind, a wind energy company in Boston.
How long have you been doing this work?
I’ve been at First Wind only a couple of weeks, but I have been working in the field of taxonomies, controlled vocabularies, and thesauri for about 14 years.
What career path (in terms of previous jobs, education, volunteer work, etc.) led you to this work?
My career path into this field started as a database indexer of periodical articles at a library vendor, what was then Information Access Company (which then became Gale Group, then Thomson Gale, then Thomson Learning, now Cengage Learning).
I sort of fell into indexing, because the job title was posted as “abstractor,” and I had a writing/editorial background. They had a 6-week in-house training program for new-hire indexer-abstractors to learn how to use the controlled vocabularies and follow the in-house editorial policies. I indexed (and abstracted some) trade journals for the Trade & Industry database, and then for a change of pace switched to index Predicasts Overview of Markets and Technology (PROMT) before moving into the vocabulary group.
I really liked the work in controlled vocabulary: researching and adding new terms, suggesting terms to indexers to index current events, writing indexing policies, mapping our terms to those of third party vendors, and then restructuring large sections of the vocabularies when it was decided to put them into a true thesaurus form. One of the leading consultant experts in the field, Jessica Milstead, came in to train us vocabulary editors on correct thesaurus standards.
When I got laid off, I then started my own freelance business of indexing and taxonomy work and eventually training services as well. I also dabbled in website design and information architecture, learning more about how taxonomies fit into web site navigation and design. Freelance taxonomy projects included various information services and directory-type websites and designing some internal (enterprise) taxonomies.
For the latter I did some subcontracting for a taxonomy consultancy, Earley & Associates. It was quite a different experience to work as a consultant, coming into a company knowing rather little and having to ask the right people all the right questions in order to provide a taxonomy plan.
Preferring a steady paycheck, I left freelancing to work as the taxonomist at an enterprise search engine software start-up company. I developed standard taxonomies from scratch to integrate with the auto-classification and search engine to classify documents. I learned about the field of search engines and auto-classification and how to create taxonomies for automatic indexing instead of human indexing. The startup didn’t make it, though, so after a year and half I was back to freelancing, consulting, and writing a book on taxonomy work.
Last month I started in my most recent position. As the taxonomy manager at First Wind, I am responsible for both the design of classification of content in the intranet (SharePoint-based), the metadata fields for documents, and a new taxonomy to support the auto-classification system the company is starting to use. This position requires skills in all areas of taxonomy work I have had previously: web site navigation, hierarchical taxonomies, faceted taxonomies based on metadata, and working with information technology people, and interviewing users in different departments as I did when I was a consultant.
What do you like most about your work?
Taxonomists do not have to specialize in one subject area, and I’ve been fortunate to work with terms and content in all kinds of subject areas, learning about different things. I also appreciate that with this one career I’ve been able to work in different industries and with different kinds of professionals. Taxonomy work, especially for enterprise taxonomies, is also very much an analytical problem-solving type of work which makes it quite intellectually stimulating and challenging.
There are challenges in communication and understandings in this field. There are different perspectives and opinions on what a taxonomy is and what it should do, and how it should be designed. Sometimes people with less experience think they know better, because they know the customers or the technology better. Sometimes, especially in consulting with a new client, it can be difficult to determine what exactly the task at hand is and what the scope should be. It’s difficult to estimate how long it will take to build a taxonomy.
What do you see as the various career paths LIS professionals could follow with this type of skill set?
The career opportunities for taxonomies are really quite varied. There are the library vendors, which index vast numbers of periodical and reference content with taxonomies, which includes both the traditional, large vendors and newer niche specialty vendors. There are search engines and other software companies that may make use of taxonomies. There is consulting, whether on your own or as a subcontractor or employee of a consulting firm. Finally, increasingly, medium to large companies, nonprofits, and government agencies realize that they need a taxonomist on staff to design, create, and maintain internal custom taxonomies to manage internal content.
Career paths may be from a general corporate librarian, a subject matter expert, an indexer or cataloger, a web information architect, a database designer. It’s really quite varied.
What personal characteristics do you feel are important for someone doing this work?
I mention some of these in my book, The Accidental Taxonomist:
•Language skills (dealing with words, concepts, and their meanings)
•Attention to detail
•Attention to user needs (as your goal is always to help users find information)
•Ability to work independently (often you will be the sole taxonomist)
•Ability to work with diverse people
•Communication skills (often to explain what taxonomies are and/or how they are to be used)
What type of education would best prepare someone for this type of work?
MLIS program courses in taxonomies, thesauri or controlled vocabularies are most applicable, although not all degree programs even have them. Other relevant courses would be in knowledge organization, classification, subject analysis, or organization of information.
Continuing education workshops, such as the one I teach (“Taxonomies & Controlled Vocabularies” through Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science), are another good option.
There are also conference full-day and half-day workshops on taxonomies offered at ALA, SLA, ASIS&T, the American Society for Indexing, and the IA Summit, in addition to commercial conferences, such as Taxonomy Boot Camp.
What advice do you have for someone contemplating a career doing the type of work you do?
Jobs that are strictly taxonomists are still relatively rare, but jobs that include taxonomy work are numerous. If you already have a job, see if you can start a taxonomy project as part of that job. You’ll gain invaluable experience just doing it. You may be able to design your own taxonomy job, or keep your eyes open for taxonomy job openings.
Join the Taxonomy Jobs list to see occasional job postings, and join the Taxonomy Community of Practice discussion group to learn more about the field. And read my book! It’s The Accidental Taxonomist (Information Today, 2010).
Anything that, looking back, you wish you’d learned in grad school that you didn’t?
Well, I didn’t study the right field in grad school, so I took an extra couple of years to get on track with my career, but that was 20 years ago, and after many years of experience, what I studied then doesn’t matter as much as the practical experience I gained.
Technology has also changed a lot in the meantime, and technology has a big impact on taxonomies. I do think that a course or training in metadata management would be very useful.
Where can we follow your career?
You can check out the website for The Accidental Tourist, which is a sub-site of my Heather Hedden website. Although I’m no longer freelancing, I maintain that site with lists of articles I have written and presentations I’ve given or plan to give.
Lastly, you can check out my LinkedIn profile.