Social Tags and Libraries

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee

 Question/Answer on cataloging issues – October, 2011

Question: What are social tags and how can they be useful in libraries?

By Carolyn J. McCallum

These days, catalogers are no longer the only individuals contributing information to online catalogs to describe library collections. With the development of next-generation library catalogs, users now have the ability to contribute keywords (i.e., tags) to cataloging records. Primarily used to categorize books, tags add richness to cataloging information, which in turn can make content discovery, retrieval, and sharing less challenging for library users.

Unlike a controlled vocabulary (e.g., Library of  Congress Subject Headings) in which words have specific meanings and consistencies in spelling, users can apply tags to cataloging records that aid in logically describing and categorizing content without regard to a specific set of classification rules. In other words, they create a collaborative folksonomy.

Clearly, there are benefits to social tagging in online catalogs. Not surprisingly, there are also some problems, including the fact that social tagging reduces authority control and virtually eliminates standardization. Because tags do not convey the same meaning for all users, tag differentiation can be problematic. For example, the word weed refers not only to an undesirable plant in a garden or lawn but is also a slang term for marijuana. Some taggers might consider teachers, faculty, instructors, professors, and educators to be synonyms or interchangeable terms, but the Library of Congress Authorities does not. Variant spellings and misspellings of tags can also hinder discovery and retrieval in online catalogs.

Despite its challenges and drawbacks, the academic community is embracing social tagging. As Dinah Sanders noted at the March 2008 National Information Standards Organization (NISO) sponsored forum entitled “Next Generation Discovery: New Tools, Aging Standards,” academic libraries that collect tags in their catalogs are essentially capturing part of an academic community’s dialogue. She added that tagging demonstrates the knowledge of community users and that embracing community reviews and ratings can enrich collections. For example, a library can ask faculty members who place books on reserve to contribute brief explanations of why these particular works are critical to their disciplines. Because these reviews are provided by faculty members, i.e., experts in their fields, rather than strangers on Amazon, they may be more meaningful to the community.

The academic community is also developing tools and strategies to improve the usefulness of social tagging. Michael Winkler, Director of Information Technologies & Digital Development at the University of Pennsylvania, also spoke at the March 2008 NISO forum and discussed the development of PennTags (http://tags.library.upenn.edu), a community tagging application. This application has enabled members of the university’s community to not only tag but also annotate resources in the library’s online catalog. Additionally, it has allowed the UPenn community to tag public web sites and online journal articles via a link resolver.

VuFind (http://vufind.org), an open source discovery layer for online catalogs developed by Villanova University’s Falvey Memorial Library, includes a tagging feature in its individual title-level view of search results. Over 50 libraries are currently running VuFind’s discovery layer on top of their online catalogs; several others are in the beta-testing process.  In an effort to manage spam or objectionable comments, library catalogs often require patrons to login to their patron record to leave tags, comments, etc.

Tagging applications have also been developed and applied outside the academic library world. Several web sites allow people to create personal catalogs, which describe their own personal collections using comments and tags. Through LibraryThing (http://www.librarything.com), a social networking site for book lovers, members catalog their personal libraries, classify individual titles using tags, and contribute book reviews. Flickr, a well-known photo-hosting site that lets people store, organize, tag, and share their personal photos, has partnered with several leading national and international libraries, archives, and museums in The Commons project (http://www.flickr.com/commons/institutions). Through this project, the general public can contribute tags to assist in the description of institutions’ photo collections. The Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the New York Public Library are three of the participating institutions.

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