General notes on LCSH and tags

Lots of research on tagging focuses on the most popular items in various catalogs and websites (especially LibraryThing).  In addition, other research shows that tags begin to "stabilize" and become more useful when they reach a critical mass of around 100 times tagged.  It’s clear that tags can be of great value to the popular collections of public libraries but less so that it will prove useful to research libraries. BUT no one knows what will happen if support for tagging becomes widespread in academic catalogs, especially if the tags flow through a global system (like the equivalent of LibraryThing).  We can hypothesize but the truth is that no one knows how researchers will take to tags and what new uses they may find for them.  Researchers might tag just as much as LibraryThing users, they may tag much more, they mag tag differently.  Of course, opponents can argue that tags aren’t useful for deep or wide research strategies and that the majority of items will never gather a significant number of tags.

My instinct is that tagging, foksonomies, and the like will take off and open new avenues to researchers but it’s just that, an instinct.  I don’t really know and neither do the critics.  In the past few years we’re starting to see some catalogs, including academic ones, that support tagging, and these provide something of a test case. But none that I’ve seen gives users the full range of freedom that Gene Smith identifies as essential:

Gene Smith (2008), in his book Tagging, People-Powered Metadata for the Social Web, defines four characteristics of a folksonomy. First, the tagging is done independently. The users must be allowed to create their own tags, and not forced to choose from a selection. While the system can offer suggestions, the option to add their own still must exist. Second, once these tags are created, they must be aggregated – that is, they are all pulled together via automation. If the tags are selected instead of taken en masse to create a taxonomy, it is not a folksonomy. The third characteristic is an inferred relationship. Relationships do not rely on strictly defined terms, but instead on their use. It is up to the user to decide the meaning of the tag, so the use reflects actual behavior. The last characteristic is that any inference method is valid. While these methods have been used to form a controlled vocabulary, what makes it a folksonomy is the users themselves determine these methods. (Steele, p. 69)

Even the best socially-enabled catalogs are either silo-ed or dependent on the external resource of LibraryThing.  It’s not until we see tags shared on at least a consortial or better yet a national or international level, that network effects can produce unexpected results.

For me, the discussion of tagging keeps coming back to this point: will tags be shared globally (via LC, OCLC, or some other institution/mechanism), like other bibliographic information?  Even in the presence of such a global system some libraries will opt to constrain their local catalogs to only local tags, or may continue to ignore tags altogether, but libraries as a whole (and therefor library users and society as a whole) will benefit from a shared namespace for tags.  Or I should say, given my statements above, that’s my hypothesis, based on parallels in other technologies and networks.


It’s clear that LCSH are superior to tags and keyword searches in a number of important ways.  But applying LCSH is incredibly resource intensive and relying solely on them carries downsides for catalogers and users.  It comes down, as usual, to cost versus benefit.  Mann, citing figures presented by two LC administrators, makes a convincing case that the cataloging done by LC saves hundreds of millions of dollars in local library costs.  However Mann does not provide evidence to support his belief that cataloging using LCSH provides benefits to taxpayers equal to its costs.  Even if one accepts the premise that cataloging using LCSH is ideally suited to scholarly research,  the costs and benefits of that system must be estimated and compared to the costs and benefits of cataloging in another, cheaper fashion.  Even if moving away from LCSH hinders scholarship in some fashion, it may still prove to be more efficient for the country as a whole to go with a simpler system of cataloging.


Tags are especially well suited fiction and popular nonfiction (or at least those types of books are most frequently tagged in current systems).  This has clear implications for public libraries, and also for literary scholars.  And, as subject cataloging is rarely applied to works of fiction in LC cataloging, clearly tags could complement LCSH in these genres.


There are four strategies libraries can pursue with respect to the relationship of tags and folksonomies to subject headings, in order of most conservative to most radical: Dismiss, Coexist, Cooperate, Replace.

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