Peter J. Rolla: User Tags versus Subject Headings: Can User-Supplied Data Improve Subject Access to Library Collections?

Rolla, P. J. (2009). User Tags versus Subject Headings: Can User-Supplied Data Improve Subject Access to Library Collections? Library Resources & Technical Services, 53(3), 174-184.

Like Merliese, et al., Rolla only compares most popular titles, which limits the applicability of his findings to less popular library holdings.

Today’s library users, who are increasingly comfortable with searching on the Internet, have certain expectations about how to search for information and how it will be displayed. These expectations, however, do not match how information is contained, discovered, and presented in traditional library catalogs. A recent study, for example, found that students using the University of Oklahoma’s online public access catalog (OPAC) performed keyword searches fourteen times more often than subject searches.1 In addition to a reliance on keyword searching, today’s users increasingly use interactive websites that allow them to both upload their own data or content and to connect with other users of the site—the Web 2.0 phenomenon (174).

Providing subject access to collections, therefore, is an expensive part of cataloging work, since it is time-consuming and usually performed by professional staff (175).

User tags would also permit patrons to personalize the library’s website (175)

User tags do nothing to solve the problems of polysemy and synonymy, whereas one of the main purposes of controlled vocabularies is to disambiguate polysemous words and choose preferred terms from groups of synonyms (175).

. . .

Perhaps the most dramatic difference between the application of user tags and Library-assigned LCSH is that the website’s users assign many more tags to books than library catalogers assign subject headings. … In every LibraryThing record, the user tags contained at least one concept not covered by the subject headings in the catalog record. (177-178).

The fact that the users of LibraryThing assign tags to books representing concepts not brought out by LCSH does indicate that catalogers, by following the LC guidelines, may omit concepts that are important to users. For each of the forty-five titles in this sample, the LibraryThing tags contained subject terms or concepts that the subject headings did not express. That figure does not include the personal or individual terms, but words and phrases describing the subject of the book. Conversely, the librarian-assigned subject headings in twenty-five records (55.6 percent) brought out concepts and topics that the user tags did not. Finally, the subject headings and user tags assigned to thirty-five records (75.6 percent) brought out the same subject or concept, although often expressed in different terms.

First, user tags almost always include very general and broad subject terms. … Conversely, LibraryThing users often add terms that are more specific in nature than the subject headings supplied by catalogers (178-179).

Very significant.

LCSH advantages: better at defining amorphous or abstract concepts (“social conditions”).  Also established chronological divisions, though I see this as less of a strength, as LCSH time divisions are extremely unintuitive to users and perhaps too specific.

As the LibraryThing tags show, users do not necessarily think about historical events in neat chronological packages. The chronological subdivisions, however, like the free-floating subdivisions, do serve the purpose of bringing together materials about a given subject or, in this case, a given time period. … Controlled vocabularies, then, help catalogers choose the appropriate subject headings to use. LibraryThing’s users, however, have an advantage over catalogers when they assign tags—they have probably read the book before tagging it on the website (181).

Important point.

A comparison of LibraryThing’s user tags and LCSH suggests that while user tags can enhance subject access to library collections, they cannot replace the valuable functions of a controlled vocabulary like LCSH. … Public libraries, for example, would probably benefit more readily from user tags, since their collections are often primarily popular materials (182).

When library catalogs consisted of typed index cards, a conservative attitude toward changing subject headings made sense because all the cards had to be removed from the card catalog drawer and retyped. In a digital environment, however, updating bibliographic records is significantly easier, so subject headings using archaic language, such as “Cookery,” do not need to be retained simply because that is how they were established. If the unnatural language in subject headings impedes access, then the headings should be updated (182).

This study has shown that users assign tags that range from general to specific, whereas the subject headings assigned to bibliographic records do not cover the entire spectrum. LCSH, like most thesauri, has a hierarchical structure, with broader, narrower, and related terms indicated for most headings. This hierarchy, however, is not readily visible to most users. Libraries should consider redesigning the public display of catalogs to allow users better access to the different levels of specificity within the LC thesaurus. Some researchers have proposed enhancements to the public displays of subject headings, such as a faceted display, that would take greater advantage of the syndetic structure of LCSH.29 The LC Working Group, in addition to recommending that libraries allow user tags into their catalogs, also suggests improving LCSH by allowing for these hierarchical or faceted displays (182).

Tags for works of fiction, including genre fiction, also are of interest because currently LCSH are not consistently assigned to belles lettres works. Comparing tagging to cataloging in a multilingual environment or to a set of materials not in English could also be useful because controlled vocabularies like LCSH are very good at bringing together materials in different languages (183).

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