ISKO UK Conference 2015

Suzanne Barbalet

The recent ISKO UK Conference 2015 was titled ‘Making a Difference’ and while the keynote addresses did not disappoint the paper that especially appeared to capture the theme and focus of the conference for all participants carried the unlikely title “From Cataloguers to Designers: Paul Otlet, Social Impact and a More Proactive Role for KO Professionals”.

In this paper Patrick Lambe, a consultant with Straits Knowledge, Singapore, recounted a comment made to him once by a structural engineer. The engineer said to him that if structural engineers make a mistake people die but if knowledge organization (KO) professionals make a mistake who notices? Patrick Lambe said this was a provoking proposition for him and after some considerable reflection he found the test case he was looking for. KO, he argued, had let down Victoria Climbie in 2000. Records management had failed to link four sets of records that, if viewed together, would have rung alarm bells in time to save her life.

In a keynote address Drahomira Cupar from the University of Croatia also took up the theme of KO in the public arena. Her example of the difficulties the topic of ‘same-sex marriage’ had proved to be for subject classification, especially in a country whose laws do not permit it, provoked considerable discussion. Classification, she argued, had to be politically neutral when dealing with such sensitive issues. It was a timely discussion for us as the need to update thesauri terms relating to ‘same-sex marriage’ has been a priority. Prompted by her comments the conference discussion that followed reached the consensus that subject treatment of these politically sensitive concepts should be as neutral as possible.

Dagobert Soergel’s presentation was also particularly relevant to our work with its focus on the importance of structure and the representation of data. He highlighted the usefulness of ‘concept maps’ in structural work.

In their paper “The Politics of Taxonomies” the Australian team of Joy Siller and Taline Babikian drew our attention to the challenges term selection may pose corporate record managers when the structure of the taxonomy inevitably reflects the structure of the organization. When discussed at greater depth in the panel discussion that followed some of the issues raised proved to have application beyond the corporate environment.

Panellists and presenters returned to Patrick Lambe’s arguments throughout the two day conference affirming his proposition that KO provides access to information and research that informs policy makers and academics providing them with information that may well prove, in the final analysis, to be life-saving. How many terms we use to provide access to data, or whether we fail to add a term to our thesaurus that will bring to light important variables and/or studies, does matter according to his argument.

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