To tag, or not to tag?

My final research paper for my final class in the SLIS program explored  the use of folksonomies–namely tagging–in libraries. Can tags be used to facilitate online searching by increasing the findability of online resources, and if so, how can this best be accomplished?

Folksonomies started out as a scheme for organizing content on the internet; they allow user groups to collaboratively classify and describe content as they see fit. The practice of tagging functions similarly to that of assigning subject headings in bibliographic records, but instead of a set of predefined, standardized terms (controlled vocabulary) from which to chose, users tag items making use of natural language (uncontrolled vocabulary), with an unlimited number of ways to classify content. Tags are created by users because they want to make it easier for themselves and others to find content, without the need to know formal library methods. Tagging has now become prevalent on interactive Web sites such as blogs, social bookmarks, Flickr, and YouTube. In response to user expectations, and recognizing that the needs of users and librarians are different, some libraries now emphasize keyword searching and have integrated built-in social tools into their OPACs.

The literature shows that folksonomies and controlled vocabularies have their strengths and drawbacks, and that one method is not necessarily the best approach. Controlled vocabularies such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) offer precision in terminology and therefore retrieval. However, subject headings can be limited and content can be interpreted differently.  Determining concepts in a resource can be a tricky business and findability is compounded by the fact that most library users are not familiar with controlled vocabularies such as LCSH. Folksonomies can help bridge this gap. The addition of social tagging in OPACs broadens the findability of resources by attaching more vocabulary to a bibliographic record, vocabulary that also happens to reflect the natural language of library users, not catalogers. For users accustomed to search engines, the ability to search by keywords or tags will make OPACs more relevant and intuitive. Integrating folksonomies into OPACs  can complement and supplement traditional library OPACs and follows the current trend of focusing on users and adapting library services to their needs.

However, the addition of folksonomies in OPACs can create new issues. The chaotic nature of folksonomies begs the question: should librarians be allowed to at least manipulate tags created by users? If misspellings or redundancies exist, correcting or eliminating these lapses would seem to right thing to do. However, what does that tell the tag creators whose tags were eliminated–that their tags were less valuable? Librarians can also chose to limit the freedom to choose a tag by guiding and restricting users to certain choices (e.g., text boxes for main character, drop down menu). Can this truly be called social tagging, then? Moreover, should users be able to manipulate tags created by themselves or others? Any plans to restrict the complete freedom of tagging must carefully consider the possibility that someone or something can be excluded.

The timing of this research paper could not be more opportune for me. The adult services department at YLPL have begun a tagging project in VuFind, our OPAC, to create booklists such as readalike and genre lists that can be searched by the staff. I think tagging is a fantastic tool that, when used by the reference staff, enables them to find relevant material quickly and more precisely. At this time, tags are not searchable by patrons but if a tag exists in a record, they can click on it to access the corresponding booklist. Patrons can create still tags, though, and some have already made use of the function. Our staff has created tags for categories such as Hunger Games readalike, French language films, culinary mystery, and gentle read. Check out the booklist that I compiled for an Asian literature tag. It’s possible to break this list down even further into Chinese, Korean, Indian, and so forth, literature…but that will be for another day!