Do you need a Controlled Vocabulary?

I was just asked “what’s so important about controlled vocabularies?” The person I was speaking to explained that he felt that he didn’t need one for his organisation, as everyone knew “what things were called”, and he was sure that everyone used terms consistently.

I’m pretty sure that they don’t use terms consistently (he’s going to get data, and we’ll see), but it put me in mind of an issue I have with the metadata used by podcasters.

I love the monthly podcast published by the National Gallery in London. It’s short (about 15 minutes, typically), and in it they feature previews of exhibitions and displays, give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life in the Gallery, and provide information about upcoming special events.

It’s a neat podcast.

But it’s no fun to listen to in my car. Why? Because of the metadata.

The car display has to squash all of the information available on the iPhone screen onto a two line display. And it works fairly well as long as the metadata (artist, album, etc) are consistent.

Here’s where the National Gallery falls down. Rather than having a consistent name in the artist field, they have four:

  • The National Gallery, London
  • The National Gallery,London
  • The National Gallery
  • National Gallery
  • The National Gallery Podcast

And The National Gallery Podcast is also the name of the album, which can make it confusing when glancing at the dashboard.

The “The National Gallery, London” is the most prevalent “artist name” used, but its use is inconsistent, making it hard to sort and find the podcasts by artist. The first, second and fifth “artists” are close together in an alphabetical list, but the fourth one, “National Gallery” is out in left field.

Makes it hard to scroll through the list… and as I only do it at stoplights and such, I don’t have much time to waste working my way through the alphabet.

If the National Gallery can’t even keep their own name consistent, what chance does your organisation have of keeping many, many terms and names consistent without a little help from something like a controlled vocabulary?

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