Meeting on the ledge

(or why I don't get out much…..)

Tagging in the OPAC

We’ve got a trial of LibraryThing on our OPAC at the moment (sorry – its on the test system which isn’t available off campus so I can’t show it off – all credit to LibraryThing however as it was easy to implement).  I’ve not yet had chance to show it to my colleagues, but I suspect it won’t receive universal endorsement, particularly on the tagging.

I’m expecting the same mix of enthusiasm and scepticism I see whenever the concept of user tagging is mentioned. I can see both sides of the argument: the purists object to users being able to tag items using an uncontrolled vocabulary which makes the catalogue less searchable, and the Library2 fans say that users want this level of interactivity. From a personal point of view I love the idea of tag clouds – they add that graphical approach to subjects that works if you have the kind of brain that works with mind maps. And they add some graphical appeal to our rather dry textual catalogues – especially if there’s no cover art available from your chosen supplier.

However the concept of allowing users to subject tag items is more difficult. It reduces the importance of all those strict rules of cataloguing that we as librarians can get so precious about. Hence if you are a cataloguer I can appreciate that you might have different views than a subject librarian. But one of the ways in which we learn is by applying labels, and if the tags our students use are more meaningfull to them than the list of controlled terms we use who can blame them from wanting to make things more usable from their point of view? Libraries must above all be usable, and in an effort to make things more scientific by creating rigid vocabularies that are separated from the language our patrons use, maybe we are making them more difficult to use than they should be?

There are of course other problems we have to cope with: deciding what is a genuine user tag and what is abuse is one, and just finding the time to check all those tags. And maybe user tagging isn’t for all libraries. But I think in HE libraries we need to give it a try…..

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March 10, 2009 - Posted by | Libraries | , ,

2 Comments »

  1. In some of the discussions I’ve had about tagging, there also seems to be an assumption/belief that the tags become the *only* way of searching or that they’ll replace the formal subject headings, etc. It doesn’t reduce the importance of formal cataloguing, rather it adds extra value to it.

    You only need to spend 10 minutes playing with LibraryThing to realise that formal taxonomies and informal tagging strongly compliment each other. The inherent weaknesses of each are balanced by the strengths of the other.

    How many students would begin a search for “Wuthering Heights” by choosing the subject heading “England > Social life and customs > 19th century > Fiction”? Only a librarian would ever be that masochistic! 😉

    Comment by Dave Pattern | March 10, 2009

  2. You’re right. I wonder where the idea that tagging would replace formal subject headings came from? In the implementations I’ve seen on Horizon and Millenium libraries it has been an added bonus. No comments on the usefulness of the LoC heading you quote however!

    Comment by Ian | March 10, 2009


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