One thing that has become clear in the past few weeks’ study of metadata is that there is no corner of human knowledge too small to have a metadata schema or taxonomy associated with it. General schemas such as Dublin Core are a great starting point to the messy business of cataloguing and describing information or artefacts, and it was exactly these qualities which made it a very good introduction to the general concept on the course that I’m studying. Yet, sometimes you need to go deeper, which Dublin Core allows only to a limited degree. With the vast and diverse extent of knowledge which various institutions have available, all of which needs to be organised in some form or another, it’s no wonder that more specific schemas would be needed.
This means that there are lots of them, which I won’t list here because it would be boring and a little pointless since I’ve only just skimmed the surface of a handful of them and am therefore very far from being an expert. However, what really interested me was the concomitant need for increasingly specialised vocabularies to support these extended schemas, since each area of knowledge requires its own fairly narrow yet, crucially, deep set of terms which allow greater accuracy and specificity within that field. Step forward the Taxonomy Warehouse, an amazing resource which contains information on a huge range of vocabularies and thesauri, covering some unusual and surprising topics.
It includes such things as the Offshore Drilling Ontology Suite, which sounds like a very strange room in a hotel, or an equally strange selection of classical compositions. On the other side of the ecological equation, there’s the Classification of Environmental Protection Activities and Expenditure (CEPA) taxonomy. There’s also the Vertebrate Trait Ontology (sorry, invertebrates, there doesn’t seem to be one for you), the Cook’s Thesaurus, the Clocks & Watches Taxonomy and even the Gale Advertising Thesaurus. All these and many others can be recommended or stipulated as controlled vocabularies within any number of metadata schemas, allowing them to be adapted to the specific needs and lexicon of the information at hand.
When you think about this, it’s perfectly logical that very specialised industries or areas of activity would need their own ontologies and taxonomies related to classification systems, because of course they have specialised vocabularies in the linguistic sense already. The Getty Institute’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus was developed as a faceted classification scheme to very specifically categorise objects and terms in those fields. So, for example, under structural elements you can find terms such as colonnades, buttresses, plinths, cantilevers and lintels. The legal profession is another area renowned for having its own bespoke technical meanings for familiar words, making it somewhat impenetrable for the layman.
On the other hand, and to extend the linguistic theme further, the administration of the EU depends on working accurately and seamlessly across many different languages.* To this end, a taxonomy has been developed called the IATE (Inter-Active Terminology for Europe), which facilitates the management of terminology across the languages of all EU states. This not only helps to classify specific policy terminology but also prevents confusion or information collisions, in a sense stipulating ‘preferred terms’ for terminology across languages and linking them together. This is also true to some extent of the AAT, which contains some references to terms in other languages. I was thinking about taxonomies as simply narrowing down fields to very specific points, but these examples shows how they can also be used in certain circumstances to help broaden usability.
All this makes me keen to see a real life example of a metadata schema in action, and possibly to write my own, but I think I’ve got a long way to go before I get to that stage.
* There is an excellent book about translation called Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos, which has a fascinating section on exactly how much work goes into this. The title is a reference to the Babel Fish from the fantastic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a creature that allows you to understand anything said to you in any language if you stick it in your ear.