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InfoIssues: Folksonomies

6 March 2007 by InfoIssues

Issue of the Month: March 2007

Folksonomies and Libraries

Kate Zoellner, Assistant Professor
School of Education Librarian & Assessment Coordinator

What do, Flickr, Furl, librarything, StumbleUpon, and tabblo have in common? Besides funky names, these are all online services that allow people to save and tag, or assign keywords to, online information. This ability to use one’s own words to describe, share, and discover information is appealing, as evidenced by the rapid growth of these services: Flickr, an “online photo management and sharing application,” went from 245,000 members in 2005 to over 20 million today (Web 2006) and the social bookmarking management site registered its one millionth user at its third year anniversary in September 2006. According to the Pew Internet & American Life report Tagging, 28% of online Americans have tagged content on the internet (2007).

Similar to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, users must first sign up for an individual account, and can then save content (i.e., bookmarks, photos, book titles, etc.). Users then assign any words they wish to the content they select to save; tags that will help them remember the item, that they associate with the item, that signify the meaning the information holds for them. If a site has already been saved by someone else, the user will see popular tags already assigned to that site: these tags provide insight into the meaning and associations others have with the site content, may influence the keywords that are chosen, and may lead the user to browse or search for other items labeled with a popular or seemingly relevant tag.

In contrast to hierarchical, top-down categories created by experts for use in specific fields (e.g., the scientific classification of living things – kingdom, phylum, etc.), some believe that the collective tags/keywords created on these services are resulting in bottom-up or grassroots folksonomies. According to Tom Vander Wal, who coined the term in 2004, a folksonomy is “the result of personal free tagging of information and objects (anything with a URL) for one’s own retrieval” (2007). Vander Wal believes that in tagging information “people are not so much categorizing, as providing a means to connect items (placing hooks) to provide their meaning in their own understanding” (2007).

Recognizing the interest in these services, the potential benefits of discovery through community-developed folksonomies (i.e., applications for research), as well as library users’ preference for online resources, some libraries are working with these services and fostering the development of local folksonomies. Librarians are teaching researchers about social bookmarking services to help them find, save, and organize web content of interest to them. Some libraries are adding tagging tools to library resources, enabling library users to express and describe resources in terms relevant to their work.

Most librarians recognize that library users have difficulty finding information using the library catalog, because the catalog is based on complex cataloging standards (i.e., Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules) that categorize items under Library of Congress Subject Headings. While librarians are familiar with these subject headings, and how to use them to find resources, most other people today are not. Before online catalogs, library users who wanted to access a library’s materials saw value in learning the subject headings. With online catalogs, it became possible to search for items using keywords; the need to learn LC subject headings diminished, and the subject terms within the catalog lost value for most library users. And yet, the keywords that people think to use for a search often do not translate into terms within the catalog. For example, a student may search for plays and retrieve no results, because the catalog describes plays with the (subject) term drama.

Some libraries are utilizing tagging technologies to address this situation, allowing library users to define how items are described. The aim is to allow a local folksonomy to develop (collectively, over time) that makes discovering resources easier for library users. Library users’ tags are currently a supplement to traditional cataloging rules that libraries use to describe items, not a replacement for the standards (which continue to hold value for libraries). Two examples follow:

  • The Ann Arbor District Library enables library users to tag items in its catalog; people can also browse/discover items by tags through the Top 10 Tags and 10 Most Recent Tags lists provided.
  • The University of Pennsylvania’s PennTags is a system that allows members of the Penn community to save and tag online content, including items in the library’s catalog. The PennTags website states, “When you add tags to a post using PennTags, you gain a lot of flexibility in how you can organize and use your favorites. You decide what word or phrase is meaningful and should be used as a tag. You can search for a specific tag or tags and see the posts that have been described by that tag. You can also find tags and posts related to your favorites. Think of PennTags as a discovery tool!”

The other main way that libraries are working with online tagging services is by teaching researchers about them. Librarians realize, and research confirms, that people prefer the convenience of online information to paper resources for their research, even if quality has to be compromised, and that the disorganization and amount of information on the Web can be overwhelming (De Rosa et al 2005). Social bookmarking tools can be valuable for researchers as they address these needs, to manage, save, share, and access information online. As a result, some libraries are teaching researchers how to use social bookmarking tools, and others are using the tools to tag resources for library users. Some examples follow:

  • Oregon State University provides education on social bookmarking as a means for scholars to keep current with their research.
  • Ohio University Libraries offer workshops on social software tools, including discussion on the use of these tools in the classroom.
  • The Thomas Ford Memorial Library has a account, which they use to tag items of interest to their patrons.

In these ways, libraries are facilitating library users’ knowledge and use of tagging tools for the online research environment. In addition, by adding tagging abilities to library resources, libraries are enabling library users to more actively participate in how resources are described, in terms that hold meaning for the academic library community. This process will ideally lead to localized folksonomies that better meet the needs of specific communities, fostering resource discovery in new ways. Importantly, tagging, social bookmarking, and folksonomies are part of the larger online social world. These practices and services will likely continue to be enhanced and grow, and libraries will evolve with the development of these new information technologies. It behooves librarians and teaching faculty to utilize these new tools to the extent that they support efficient research processes and aid student researchers in finding and valuing information.

Resources Consulted

Arch, X. (2007, February) “Creating the academic library folksonomy: Put social tagging to work at your institution.” C & RL News, 68, 80-81. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

De Rosa, C., Cantrell, J., Cellentani, D., Hawk, J., Jenkins, L., & Wilson, A. (2005) Perceptions of libraries and information resources: A report to the OCLC membership. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. (2005, May) 7 things you should know about… Social Bookmarking. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

Mieszkowski, K. (2005, Feb. 8 ) “Steal this bookmark! Tagging, the Web’s newest game, lets you see what other people are reading and thinking. Welcome to the key-worded universe.” Retrieved February 24, 2007.

Porter, J. (2005, Apr. 26) “Folksonomies: A user-driven approach to organizing content.” User Interface Engineering. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

Rosenfeld, L. (2005, Jan. 6) Folksonomies? How about metadata ecologies? Retrieved February 24, 2007.

Vander Wal, T. (2004, February 7) Folksonomy.Retrieved February 24, 2007.

Webb, L. (2006) mapping flickrs growth. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

Weinberger, D. (2005, May 15) Tagging and why it matters. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

Wikipedia. (2007) Folksonomy. Retrieved February 24, 2007.

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