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Taxonomy overview

Taxonomy Overview

With permission of Findhelp Information Services, Toronto


The following content originated from a presentation provided by Mary Hogan of 211 Connecticut to 211 Ontario, which in turn was based on one created by Dick Manikowski of Detroit Public Library and on the model devised originally by Margaret Bruni for workshops offered at AIRS conferences in the late 1990’s, with input from Georgia Sales and others. Remember that because the Taxonomy constantly changes, some of the specific examples of terms and definitions may no longer be valid (although what they illustrate will still hold true). (July 2008)


  • Learn the purpose and structure of the Taxonomy

  • Learn the principles of indexing with the Taxonomy

  • Learn about customizing the Taxonomy for your local needs


  • Learn how to start indexing

  • Practice what you are learning and share observations from that practice

  • Help evaluate the workshop and raise questions that may be helpful to other data partners

What is a taxonomy
What is a taxonomy?

A thorough classification system, that distinguishes concepts, names those concepts, and puts those concepts into a hierarchical order.

The botanist Linnaeus (1707-1778) developed the original taxonomy, a system of grouping plants and animals into related families that is still more or less in use today.

But a taxonomy of services
But a taxonomy of services ??

  • Although it classifies “things done” rather than “things”, the idea has worked surprisingly well.

  • It provides a structure for your information, tells people what is in your information system and how to find it.

  • The Dewey Decimal System used by libraries throughout the world to catalogue books, is very similar to the Taxonomy.

The airs 211 l a county taxonomy
The AIRS/211 L.A. County Taxonomy

  • Work on the Taxonomy began at INFO LINE of Los Angeles (now 211 LA County) in 1982 and its first full printed version was completed in 1987. (The Taxonomy is now only available on-line)

  • Full name: “A Taxonomy of Human Services: A Conceptual Framework with Standardized Terminology and Definitions for the Field”

  • A full-time editor and researcher, Georgia Sales, continually develops the resource, currently encompassing 9,200 terms.

What are the benefits of the taxonomy
What are the benefits of the Taxonomy?

  • Structure is comprehensive in scope and has a logical and exclusive niche for every concept.

  • It’s compatible with the way services are actually delivered.

  • It incorporates terminology which is accepted in the human service field.

  • Terms are clearly defined and cross referenced.

What are the benefits of the taxonomy1
What are the benefits of the Taxonomy?

  • The language and structure are simple.

  • Its structure is flexible to permit change and growth.

  • Users can customize to meet their own needs.

  • Believe it or not - there is a $$ savings, versus maintaining your own system.

  • It was developed specifically for community information and referral, and for a computerized environment.

What are the benefits of the taxonomy2
What are the benefits of the Taxonomy?

The Taxonomy’s structure allows the user to either broaden a search or narrow a search, to whatever point services have been indexed.

Because all terms can be rolled up, statistics are easier to collect, as in this example.

Structure of the taxonomy
Structure of the Taxonomy

Divides all human and social services into ten Service Categories, with a separate 11th Target Group section:

  • B Basic Needs

  • D Consumer Services

  • F Criminal Justice and Legal Services

  • H Education

  • J Environmental Quality

  • L Health Care

  • N Income Support and Employment

  • P Individual and Family Life

  • R Mental Health Care and Counseling

  • T Organizational/Community/International Services

  • Y Target Populations

Structure of the taxonomy1
Structure of the Taxonomy

Each section branches into up tosix increasingly narrow classification levels:

Structure of the taxonomy a great example
Structure of the Taxonomy – a great example

BBasic Needs


BD-1800 Emergency Food

BD-1800.2000Food Banks

BD-1800.2000-620 Ongoing Emergency Food Assistance

Structure of the taxonomy2
Structure of the Taxonomy

  • Each term has a unique identification number – its Taxonomy code – that represents its exact placement in the hierarchy.

  • The codes exist to help computers and indexers understand the relationship between terms. In most packages, one doesn’t actually input codes while indexing. It is not necessary to memorize codes!

Structure of the taxonomy3
Structure of the Taxonomy

  • Each Term (also called a Preferred Term) has a code and a precise and concise definition.

  • Use References are non-preferred terms, which point to the preferred terms you should use.

  • See Also References point to other preferred terms of potential interest to your general search.

Types of taxonomy terms

  • Service terms

  • Named program terms

  • Facility terms

  • Modality terms

  • Target population terms

  • Orientation/philosophy terms

Types of taxonomy terms1
Types of Taxonomy Terms


The core of the Taxonomy, and by far the most common type of Term.

Specific activities organizations provide:

Home Delivered Meals

Job Training

Types of taxonomy terms2
Types of Taxonomy Terms


A small number of “shortcut” terms for nation-wide, widely known programs


Head Start

Types of taxonomy terms3
Types of Taxonomy Terms


Describe what an organization is (not what it does)


Senior Citizen Centers

Administrative Entities (TF-0500) is a facility/organizational type term that is particularly useful, for management offices that organize and control activities but do not offer direct services to the public.

Types of taxonomy terms4
Types of Taxonomy Terms


Reflect the way in which a service is delivered

Group Counseling


Should link to a service term:

Disability Insurance ~ Advocacy

Types of taxonomy terms5
Types of Taxonomy Terms


Groups to which a service is aimed

Accident Victims


Afghan Community

Should rarely or never be used on their own. Usually link to a service term, such as:

Crisis Intervention ~ Older Adults

Don’t overuse! They can quickly get way out of hand. If a service is generally for most people, don’t use a target term at all.

Types of taxonomy terms6
Types of Taxonomy Terms



A handful of terms that describe a particular philosophy accommodated by a service.

Usually use only when linked to a service term:

Individual Counseling ~ Feminist Organizational Perspective

Advocacy ~ Children’s Issues

Principles of indexing

  • Not all the services that an organization offers should be indexed. In fact, some types of services should never be indexed.

  • Choose the most specific term available which fully describes what is being indexed

Principles of indexing1
Principles of indexing

The most important guideline of all:

You should almost always avoid using a broader term where you’re already using a narrower term in your database, or vice versa.

You should pick the level that you want to use in that particular branch of the Taxonomy, and stick to it throughout your database.

Principles of indexing2
Principles of indexing

For example, to index services that help people with housing expenses, you should choose either the 3rd level term “Housing Expense Assistance” or choose to use only the individual 4th level terms below it:

BH-3800 Housing Expense Assistance


BH-3800.5000 Mortgage Payment Assistance

BH-3800.6500 Property Tax Payment Assistance

BH-3800.7000 Rent Payment Assistance

BH-3800.7250 Rental Deposit Assistance

Principles of indexing3
Principles of indexing

Similarly, you need to decide whether you will be using the general 4th level term “Homeless Shelter” (BH-180.850) throughout your database, OR only always use the more specific 5th level terms:

BH-1800.8500 Homeless Shelter


BH-1800.8500-100 Bad Weather Shelters

BH-1800.8500-150 Community Shelters

BH-1800.8500-170 Day Shelters

BH-1800.8500-180 Environmental Hazards Shelters

BH-1800.8500-500 Missions

BH-1800.8500-900 Urban Campsites

BH-1800.8500-950 Wet Shelters

Principles of indexing4
Principles of indexing

Linking terms together is an important feature for enhanced searching. Especially in large collections, this allows you to zero in on, for example, meals-on-wheels programs for Hispanic seniors, with no false hits:

Home delivered meals ~ Hispanic/Latino community

Basically, this becomes a sort of new term of its own.

Types of services

Primary Services – yes, index!

  • Secondary Services – no…

  • Ancillary Services – no…

  • Phantom Services – no…

  • Indirect Services – no…

Types of services1
Types of Services


Entry point services. These are the only services usually indexed.


Services only available to clients receiving primary services.

Do not index!

For example, a shelter that provides meals for its residents should only be indexed for the shelter, and not for meals.

Types of services2
Types of Services


Primary services that are likely not worth indexing.



Speakers/Speakers Bureaus

Types of services3
Types of Services


Services an agency claims to provide but really does not.

Agency may be over-confident about services they have available, and misrepresent themselves.

Beware of agencies that “do everything.”

Types of services4
Types of Services


Activities that facilitate the delivery of a service by another agency


United Way provides funding to agencies offering specific services.

But the United Way does not actually offer the service they’re funding.

Only code the agency providing the service.

Customizing the taxonomy

  • No center has a need for all 9,200 Taxonomy terms, and it is convenient to carve off (or “de-activate”) the hundreds or thousands of terms that are not relevant to an I&R’s focus.

Customizing the taxonomy1
Customizing the Taxonomy

  • Determine the sections that are relevant to the types of resources listed within your I&R.

  • Does your I&R offer resources for the services within every section?

  • Can you exclude certain sections?

Customizing the taxonomy2
Customizing the Taxonomy

  • Section by section, determine which sections and/or terms in the Taxonomy can be disregarded.

  • What are the inclusion/exclusion criteria for your I&R?

  • What types of resources are available within the community

  • What type of resources are currently in your databases?

Customizing the taxonomy3
Customizing the Taxonomy

  • Determine the appropriate level of detail.

  • How specific are referral requests?

  • How quickly does the information change?

  • What is the skill level of the staff?

  • How detailed is the index of your directory or other products?

Customizing the taxonomy4
Customizing the Taxonomy

But an even more important rule:

don’t change things just because youdiscover you can!

This is especially important if you are part of a regional or statewide data sharing system that all agencies stay synchronized – and make the same indexing decisions.

Summary of indexing steps

1) Identify primary service

2) Identify most appropriate term to characterize service

Summary of indexing steps1
Summary of Indexing Steps

3) Read the definition

4) Review your customized taxonomy to confirm that this is a term you are using

5) Does this level match the level selected during customization of the Taxonomy?

Summary of indexing steps2
Summary of Indexing Steps

6) Look at the see also references (Should any of them also be used to index the agency service?)

7) Do you need a modality, facility type term, orientation/philosophy, or target?

Getting help

  • Join the AIRS Taxonomy group(

  • Visit, and browse its many resources.

  • Online Introduction to AIRS Taxonomy course ( – excellent interactive 2-3 hour introduction to indexing with the Taxonomy ($30/person)