On Taxonomies, Mapping, and Loss

The world of books represents the world of human thought. Concepts articulated, written down, codified, published. But of course, our understanding of these concepts can vary – by nationality, cultural background, experience, philosophy of life. The word “alienation,” for example, can mean different things to different people. It can be expressed differently in different languages – by a single word, or by a phrase rather than a word. And, in fact, in cultures all over the world, many words can be used to describe phenomena like “snow”, “walking” – think of how we describe colors in the Crayola box, for example, or the Pantone chart.

Words carry nuance that’s not always immediately apparent, which is why non-native speakers of languages tend to struggle, and why translations nearly always lose meaning. And it’s way our systems of categorization are the most subjective and argued-about forms of metadata.

Taxonomies, in particular, are inherently political and authoritarian. They are hierarchical. Taxonomies are, essentially, what we call “controlled vocabularies”. Which begs the question: Who controls them? Do we trust those people to express what we mean? What if we disagree?

As in politics, taxonomies evolve as society evolves. What used to be “Negro history” became “Afro-American history”, which became “African-American history”. What used to be “Occult” became “New Age”, which became “Body/Mind/Spirit”.

Taxonomies reflect our understanding of phenomena. And that understanding is deeply colored by our culture, our experience, our politics, and our vision of the world. It varies from person to person. Taxonomies are a compromise, a consensus.

They’re the result of committee work. Taxonomies are rarely finalized. They shift and change depending on cultural mood, society’s evolution, and market trends. They are living things.

I just want to go over some of the issues that we see in book commerce – where Amazon, B&N, and other booksellers have their own proprietary codes. How are those created? And how do BISACs influence them?

When a publisher communicates information about a book to a distributor or retailer, that publisher will assign a series of BISAC codes. Online retailers, as we know, have their own proprietary codes, based on how their users search and browse for books. Retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com tend to look at BISACs as useful suggestions. They map BISAC codes to their own codes, and they each make separate decisions about which BISACs map to which proprietary code. A code like SOCIAL SCIENCE - Media Studies might map to a scholarly sociology code at B&N, and a commercial code (such as "media training") on Amazon.

Mapping data points always results in the loss of some meaning or context. Some categories don’t cleanly line up to others. So mapping one taxonomy to another is yet another compromise – one we have to live with in a taxonomic, hierarchical world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *