When you go to a big store to find something, which would you rather be given: their inventory, or their catalog?
One the one hand, the inventory will tell if something is there, regardless of any particular reason. On the other hand, the catalog will tell you whether something should be there, regardless of whether it actually is there or not.
The advantage of the catalog approach is that it overtly organizes and communicates what the repository intends to contain and offer. This naturally makes it more likely to be a mindset that the collector and the retriever of content can share.
But since we have powerful search tools at our disposal these days, why is organization a problem, anyway?
That depends on what your own need is. If you are responsible for providing content, anything that keeps you from offering the right thing at the right time to the requester is an undesirable issue.
To avoid problems, knowing what the requester should receive is a good starting point, and knowing whether you have something that matches the need is the next key step towards success. Getting in your way will be:
– requests that are too unclear
– content that is too unrelated
– any burden in matching the content to the user.
As a strategic move, organizing the content collection can be designed to prevent all of those issues. The prevention will address each issue in two ways: cases where the issue only appears to be at hand, and cases where it really is at hand.
– Unclear requests include situations where the requester is not remembering enough details for doing a precise search, or is not very particular about what will be good enough
– Unrelated content includes items that are referring to subject areas out of context of the user’s interest in the subject
– Mismatches of content and users can include content items that are the wrong version, format, or level of familiarity for the user’s purpose
Those same issues represent the variation that can occur in the usefulness of what content is delivered when ordered. Sometimes the difference can be pretty big between what is asked for and what is really needed. Things that first appear to be appropriate can still fall short if they prove to be mistaken or irrelevant. The “right” thing to deliver should be something that meets both challenges. We can see the gap in the way that provided content actually stacks up against the ideal result. Some qualities that seem good are still less than effective.
The ideal result is that actual need is served well, and that the gap is minimized between actual need and what is apparently requested.
To minimize the gap, requestors need to be successful in asking for things the right way.
The best thing about saving content is knowing that we won’t have to hunt down that “right item” again the next time we want it.
For that to work, a lot of things have to “go” right.
– The particular item needs to be hard to mistake as some other different item.
– The form that the item is in should be convenient for the way that it needs to be used.
– The reason for keeping it should be obvious when it is brought up for use again.
The main reason why these requirements escape our notice is simple: we are so familiar with what we’re thinking about when we save something, that we forget to call any extra attention to how that familiarity represents a decision. For someone other than ourselves, not knowing how the decisions are made can leave the decisions looking confusing, unconvincing, or simply unexplained.
The risk is that, to the person other than ourselves, all three things that need to go right don’t seem to have done so. These are very familiar frustrations of dealing with other people’s filing systems.
Notably, this problem exists just as well when the “other person” is ourself at some time in the future… Anyone who goes on working with new ideas and new forms of content can arrive at perspectives and priorities that are significantly different from earlier sensitivities. In effect, the old can become unfamiliar as the new becomes more “normal”.
Most digital content collections that expect to grow larger or to have more frequent updates or replacements are able to look at Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for an interesting advantage. SEO allows content to advertise itself in terms that include the context and usage data reflecting the “orders” that request them. With the approach of SEO, discovery tools can act as brokers on the lookout for the ways that content represents its own relevance.
Bigger or unfamiliar content collections become more useful when the content items themselves are distinguished by the context that they projectinstead of just by their identity.
This again might seem to say that smart search and SEO make other organizational efforts unnecessary. What is the scenario in which they would not be enough?
Well, the more we look at discoverable context, the more we realize that very dissimilar items can belong together.
But the value of their being together is mainly when they all address the same purpose.
To make that value more recognizable, the requirement is to clearly promote intended context, not just discoverable context. This is exactly the purpose of “organization”.
Moving from an Inventory to a Catalog
A single inventory can include anything worth tracking for any reason. Because of that, we know that the essential purpose of the inventory is not to represent the reasons why things are being collected. Also, the inventory is not responsible for deciding whether additional future items will be kept and tracked or not.
But most collections created of content that is meant to be reused will already have been shaped into some kind of Inventory. In the inventory, itemizing the collection includes recording certain attributes that detail the “identity” of each included piece. As a result, there is visibility of which items among other items in the collection are unique, are somewhat or somehow similar, or are exactly matching.
The purpose of inventory is fulfilled when we are “placing an order” for content that matches our specifications. We can determine whether the supply can fulfill our demand. In effect, our inventory facilitates “re-discovery”.
Assuming that automation is making the inventory convenient to sustain, we can focus on whether rediscovery has enough value as the result.
But specifying demand effectively relies on the level of interest we have in being specific.
We know that an item of content may appear in multiple contexts, but each context is in essence a definition of a reason for it to be in a certain place.
If we want to organize our collection for the purpose of making content rediscovery valuable, the question at hand is about which details are necessary to include for future searchers, such that the most valuable context is driving the discovery.
The purpose of a catalog is to prescribe the contexts in which discoverable items are intended to have value.
Making context the first criterion for selecting content is also the opportunity to be strategic about saving content.
Most collectors in most fields will rely on taxonomy to guide the identification of incoming additions to their inventory. With a catalog, we use taxonomy to identify the mindset of the incoming content requester.
By showing the collection in the perspective of the requester, that taxonomy of intention communicates that the decision to make the content available was already focused on the actual need of the content user. This prescribes the value of the content, which simplifies the requester’s selection process, and stages more helpful feedback from users about what is worth including and keeping in the collection.
Content collections mainly exist to retain ideas for future reference. Putting the ideas into context can always start with subject matter, but a user of an idea will normally have one of several generic needs, such as:
Content refers to those needs by presenting descriptions of:
– what, who, which
– how, why, where, when
A predictable formula underlying content is that the descriptions will include points of view (POV) about general Types of things. Each pairing of a POV and a Type is a context that a user can recognize and compare to their current interest or need. In this approach, a context can be a Where about Who, a Why about What, a When about Which, and so on.
When content is assigned to those contexts, the assignment represents the prescribed use of the content as support of the needed way of representing the ideas being pursued by the user.
Although a catalog can be defined with other specific terms than these, the approach of specifying contexts is basic to the organization that it provides. Whether the context is “Men’s Shoes”, “Classic Rock”, the “Ethics of Science” or something else, most catalogs will present Types of things and qualifiers (certain characteristics) of those types.
Models of content organization
To cover a necessary range of specificity, a catalog aimed at practical reference to ideas can start as a set of information within a “domain” ( a highly general category), and identify levels of specificity within the domain:
– subjects in the domain (such as Types)
– topics about the subjects (such as POVs)
– elements or properties of the topics (such as choices, arguments or sources)
That should already be recognizable as the basics of a library.
Another model that might be pursued is a registry. This is another form of cataloging an inventory or collection. The high-level group of a registry is a class of items. The class then has several qualifiers determining membership in the class. Members of a class have attributes that identify them by type according to the qualifiers. Distinguishing the types allows the right type to be found and presented according to the interest of a requester.
– These qualifiers may include status and roles, and the rules associated with them.
-Status itself may be further detailed in terms of the differences between rank, activity, permissions, or other factors.
Taxonomies such as used in life sciences, social institutions, or functional workgroups can prescribe the organization of related ideas about membership in a way that registries will use and display.
Because the two models have a different target usage, it is not a good idea to blend them into a hybrid. However, they can be linked to each other by an index of topics that they share in common. Users of search tools working with undefined repositories often find that search results compile an index. The index may also trace associations of topics to their sources, but the source may or may not be an existing catalog. Another precaution is that an index is not necessarily sensitive to any context; often it is basically a map.