Are taxonomies sexy?

May 28, 2007 at 3:00 am 2 comments

Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa photo by KimSweden has ABBA and Carl von Linne aka Carolus Linnaeus, the naturalist who can be considered the father of modern taxonomy. Perhaps, the Swedes should also consider adopting Patrick Lambe. May 23 was the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus’ birth in 1707 and Sweden’s illustrious son is remembered for establishing conventions for the naming of living organisms. We probably all remember from school biology classes the Linnaean system, which classified nature according to a hierarchy of kingdoms, classes, orders and so on.

Prior to Linnaeus coming long and giving order to things, cabinets of curiosity allowed gentlemen and scholars to expand their knowledge of the natural world. But usually the cabinets were displays of disorder – higgledly-piggledly arrangements of shells, stuffed animals, gems and other exotica – which really couldn’t be arranged according to a single scheme of order. In rushed Linnaeus to help simplify the task of classifying things and the branching ‘tree structure’ became synonymous with scientific taxonomy. Every former library student can recall lectures on classification where “from the general to the specific” or “from whole to part” was constantly muttered.

Since Linnaeus’ time, we have used taxonomies to organise knowledge. The humble shopping list helps us to arrange our thoughts about shopping items and usually groups related things; the visual representation of the human body, showing arteries and organs, is a system map or taxonomy representation; the organisational chart, showing the CEO at the top and branching out to cascading levels of management is a hierarchical tree structure. These examples are taxonomies in many forms and they help us organise and manage things in our daily lives; they bring order to chaos; they can help organisations find a shared vocabulary; and they can help us make sense of a knowledge domain.

When I was studying librarianship, I became fascinated by taxonomies. Friends and relatives took pity. If you mentioned the word “taxonomy”, people would look at you suspiciously – they couldn’t seem to decide whether you had a secretive job like some CIA agent or whether you were more like a taxidermist, stuffing birds for a display. Although the letter ‘x’ is in the word taxonomy, somehow taxonomies didn’t quite equate to that other word with an ‘x’ in it -sexy. Taxonomists were usually associated with some arcane branch of library science, working away in the dusty back rooms of libraries assigning books to obscure categories.

So when Thinkingshift old friend, Patrick Lambe, told me he was busy scribbling away in Ireland on a book about taxonomies, I had my doubts. And I don’t mean Patrick is old, just that I’ve known him for many years :)- You might be thinking that with Google and digitised information that we don’t need taxonomies because you might consider they’re more about rigidity than allowing for emergence or serendipity. This is where Patrick’s book, Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness, allows us to understand that taxonomies are in fact deeply embedded in our digital world as, for example, folksonomies or social/democratic tagging and they allow for rich serendipidity, fossicking and foraging.

Patrick has brought sexy back to taxonomies! through a series of lively case studies (including the appalling Victoria Climbie incident) Patrick shows how taxonomies are used in the real world as decision-making frameworks; to help discover risk and opportunity; and to bring a shared vocabularly to an organisation. The very clear point to Patrick’s book is that taxonomies articulate knowledge and far from being the tree structures we perhaps associate with the concept, taxonomies are dynamic, fluid and ultimately can contribute to organisational effectiveness.

So Happy Birthday Linnaeus and congratulations to Patrick on the publication of his new book. And whilst it’s traditional to give people flowers on special occasions, to Patrick, ThinkingShift gives him a flower clock, fittingly invented by Carolus Linnaeus.

Entry filed under: Books, Information management, Taxonomies, Useful resources.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Patrick Lambe  |  May 28, 2007 at 8:47 am

    Many thanks for this review Kim, much appreciated. For those who’d like to take a peek inside the book, I have a webpage with some extracts at, where readers can also leave their comments and feedback on the book (plus the occasional taxonomy blog post). Thanks again from your young friend!

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  May 28, 2007 at 9:38 am

    My pleasure Patrick :)- I hope people rush out and buy your book; it’s a great read from a gentleman and a scholar; and brings a new perspective to taxonomy work. I’ll drop by the website and leave a comment,


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