Taxonomy (a.k.a. controlled vocabulary) in DAM systems – what, how & why?

What are taxonomies? How do they work? Why are taxonomies important in digital asset management?

Taxonomy in a structured filing system.
Taxonomy in a structured filing system.

In my quest to answer these questions I took a trip down to my local city library. I never realised what an abstract, intellectual exercise building a controlled vocabulary is. However, the librarian that I spoke to was extremely helpful. I left with handy tips and background information.

Origins of “taxonomy.”

Taxonomy invented by ancient Greeks.
Taxonomy invented by ancient Greeks.

The first recorded use of the word “taxonomy” dates to ancient Greece. It is attributed to none other than Aristotle. Aristotle developed this methodology to classify animals. Most importantly, this later evolved into what we know as “scientific classification.” In that system, each species of organism fits in a set of categorisations. Each category is unique to only one species. As a result, each plant or animal has many things that identify it, but it belongs to just one group. We express this in the nested hierarchy starting with a domain. Then working further down through the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family and genus.

Modern taxonomy in DAM systems use same concept.

For example, as our local librarian explained, in the library, ten main classes branch out into another division (the hundred divisions or following summary.) That, consequently, branches out into a third set (thousand sections or third summary.) I was quite surprised to learn that a system developed in 1876 by Melville Dewey, an American librarian, is still the standard 140 years later! A well-designed, comprehensive taxonomy can serve your digital assets well into the future.

Libraries use a taxonomy just like DAM systems do.
Libraries use a taxonomy just like DAM systems do.

Where is my map? I’m lost!

The main purpose of a taxonomy is to ease navigation. A controlled vocabulary is not the only tool for navigation, but it is one that you will use most often. Also, think of your taxonomy as a map book or a map application on your smartphone. A taxonomy is the instructions that guide you to your destination from point A to point B.

On the map, there are many roads to take and still reach your destination. However, there also might only be one road. You can approach your taxonomy in one of two ways.

Hierarchical taxonomy.

This approach is useful when there is only one way to get to a specific keyword, tag or category. If we use our map navigation analogy, these will be the backroads. For example, in Daminion server if you navigate through the Place tags group, you will notice that each asset falls under a specific place. Similarly, tags like Author, Media Format and Creation Datetime presents as a hierarchy. You cannot classify an asset with both Los Angeles and New York.

Hierarchical taxonomy in place tags.

Use a hierarchical controlled vocabulary for simpler, clearly defined aspects of your asset library. Hierarchies work best in metadata groups like Authors, Places, Categories where there is not much ambiguity. However, what if you need a more complicated way of describing? You will need a more robust, flexible approach to your controlled vocabulary.

Distributed taxonomy.

Distributed taxonomy. Many to many tags.
Distributed taxonomy. Many to many tags.

Another approach to taxonomy is to distribute aspects or facets into small organisational units. As a result, this type of taxonomy can direct you to the same destination using different starting points. In our map analogy, these would be inner-city streets, where you can take any number of routes from one city block to the other. Unlike the hierarchical classification that Aristotle used, a distributed taxonomy does not follow these hierarchies.

For example, think of the asset library of a department store containing product shots. Certainly, there will be broad categories that are hierarchical (shoes, shirts, pants, dresses). In addition, some classes apply across branches of that hierarchy (style, size, colour, materials.)

Functional taxonomies = discoverable digital assets.

Functional taxonomies add a useful user interface to your asset library. Controlled vocabularies lead users to find what they are looking for with digital signposts. Without a well-structured vocabulary, your asset library can be difficult to navigate. A system that is difficult to use leads to low user adoption.

Daminion makes managing tags and keywords a breeze! Whatever system you choose to adopt, asset cataloguing is quick and easy.

Without a content model and taxonomy, content editors will not understand the importance of metadata. Content editors will create and use their own ad hoc vocabularies. When you use assets outside your company, you will see why this is problematic.

There is no right or wrong way to go about this. However, keep the following in mind when you sit down to design your taxonomy.

Use relevant language.

Customers, employees and asset admins may use different language to describe digital assets. Let your customers or end users drive the process, and the terms used. Your users need to find content in a way that makes sense to them. Talk to your users and run tests. If you don’t get who is using your system, then you will not create a taxonomy that meets their needs.

Keywords on a diet.

There is a balance between being a complex authority, and being accessible yet informative. If your taxonomy is too complicated, it won’t be useful. Try to keep your taxonomy broad and shallow, not narrow and deep. A controlled vocabulary with nested level upon nested level is challenging to navigate.

Growing pains.

A taxonomy changes over time, new products and services will require new categories and tags. Plan regular revisions. Look at the existing structure and modify as needed.

Aint nobody got time for that!

If all of this sounds too academic and complex for you. Do not worry! There are ready to use lists available (free and commercial) that you can import and tweak to fit your scenario. Search for “controlled vocabulary” online.

Getting started with Daminion

Are your corporate digital assets still disorganized or you want to check this? Request a demo and get all your questions answered with one of our resident customer champions.

or  visit Daminion website

Dean Kruger

Digital Asset Manager and Head of Research Department at Gatehouse Commercials. Daminion Administrator and User Training expert since 2011.

I love street photography and find every excuse I can to go out and shoot unsuspecting strangers in the urban jungle.