Tom Steele: The new cooperative cataloging

Steele, T. (2009). The new cooperative cataloging. Library Hi Tech, 27(1), 68-77.

Thomas Mann argues that we need the LCSH now more than ever. He gives the subject browse feature available on most OPACs as one reason. With other search methods, one is limited by the terms they can think of. While tagging assists in providing more terms, browsing subject headings will give the most complete list of materials a library owns in that particular subject. Also, because of free floating subdivisions, browsing the LCSH itself will not give the user the search terms (Mann, 2003). Free floating subdivisions are like tags in this respect, as there is no “master list” of tag combinations. (72)

This is a matter of perspective; if LC had been using some systematic application of tagging for the past one hundred years, and the brand new innovation under discussion was adding subject headings to LC records, undoubtedly there would be traditionalists vociferously defending tagging and decrying subject headings for just the opposite reasons.  Turn Mann’s reasoning on its head and LCSH’s weaknesses are revealed:  One often cannot find the results they seek by using “the terms they can think of;” “browsing subject headings will give the most complete list of materials a library owns in that particular subject” as identified as the primary focus of the materials by LC catalogers, thereby excluding the (likely) broader set of materials tagged by catalogers and users as relevant to a topic; and while LCSH can be browsed to find the extent of subheadings under a given heading, tags can be flexibly combined (including negative combinations, or exclusions) to allow the user to quickly and easily broaden or narrow their browsing results.  In other words, browsing LCSH occurs through a static display of headings, while tags are dynamic, allowing for a remixable display.  The strengths of LCSH Mann highlights are strengths, but he glosses over the weaknesses of LCSH and ignores the complementary strengths of tags.

While plural and single terms may cause problems in tagging, LibraryThing does not combine these tags because some words change their intended meaning in the plural form. For example, LibraryThing explains “prayer” may mean the concept of prayer, while “prayers” may be a set of prayers. (75)

This single/plural distinction is overlooked by other authors.

Not directly related to the above, but this is the margin where I scribbled the following: that’s the nature of the net—it puts the world at your fingertips but it’s going to be a bit messy.  You take the bad with the good, because the good is about three leaps ahead of the world without the internet.  Ditto for tags: yep, on an individual basis they’re messy, inconsistent, and full of problems, but you have to look at the great value they can provide in the aggregate.

Another alternative to libraries making accounts on public tagging sites is to host their own tagging system. One library doing this is the University of Pennsylvania. PennTags allows members of the Penn community to tag web sites, articles in the library’s database, and records in both the video catalog and Franklin, the library’s OPAC.

Besides the “Add to PennTags” link, the tags are not on Penn Libraries’ OPAC itself. Users can not search Franklin by tags. Those more comfortable with the traditional search experience are not distracted by cloud tags or other unfamiliar features of tagging sites. This way, the library caters to both those seeking a new way to interact with the catalog, and the traditional user. (75)

This is an example of Mann’s proposed solution for tagging at LC, more or less: allow tagging but push it to external, linked sites.

The library has to make sure the tagging system helps people manage their information well; otherwise it could become just another “information closet” like bookmarks.

I prefer the term “silo” to “information closet.”  To avoid this problem, libraries should not only develop a standard/infrastructure/system to share tags globally, they should also create an API, or at least a standard, for sharing tags outside the library ecosystem so that users’ and libraries’ information is not siloed.  Let sites like LibraryThing and Amazon at least harvest, and and best integrate with, the tags of library catalogs.

Today’s consumer of information is expecting new interactive ways to obtain this information. With social bookmarking and tags, these users can see the library as more than just a building full of books. People are also enjoying the democratic nature of Web 2.0 and are no longer expecting to follow the rules of the experts to find the information they want. Therefore, the traditional metadata creator like the catalog librarian should play the role of helper, not authoritarian. But tagging is not the best way to find this information. Controlled vocabularies like the LCSH have been around a long time, and will continue to play a major role in the library catalog. Authority files help users find information by reducing the problems of synonymy, polysemy, and single versus plural terms.

Sometimes a user needs a hierarchical system to let them know they have found all information the library has on a particular subject. Other times, they just need to find the solution to their problem quickly. It all comes down to access points. By adding a tagging system to their OPAC, a library creates more access points, and more ways to get users to find what their library has to offer. Meanwhile, the catalogers can continue to add the traditional access points to aid in information retrieval where the new methods fail. No system is perfect, but by offering as many tools possible, libraries can continue to be information providers in the Web 2.0 environment.

Excellent conclusion.  I don’t agree with characterizing tagging as appropriate only for quick access versus hierarchies for extensive searches but the notion of cataloger “as helper, not authoritarian” is well put.  And placing tags in the context of adding more access points is the most succinct and persuasive argument I’ve come across for adding them to catalogs.

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