Learn More: Tags and Tag Clouds

December 3, 2007

[This is one in a series of self-paced discovery exercises for library staff venturing into the social web.]

We explored social bookmarking last week and briefly mentioned tags. Let’s look at tags — or folksonomies — a bit more closely now.

Formal cataloging involves experts who assign subject headings based on approved lists and hierarchical taxonomies. It’s an organized and presumably consistent way of storing and retrieving materials and information. But there are many ways of classifying things. I might look at a photograph of a lake in winter and think of the words lake, frozen, and cold. You might prefer lake, winter, and ice. We often rely on experts to iron out our differences. Unless we think like the expert who cataloged the item, however, we still might not find what we’re looking for.

Now suppose everyone participated in cataloging. You might imagine people attaching notes to everything (much like the two girls in a delightful video from Harris County Public Library). With folksonomies, you tag things the way you want, and I tag them the way I want. If enough people participate, we might collectively describe any content with greater depth, color, and nuance than formal subject headings.

Consider J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The book’s formal cataloging in WorldCat shows:

Caulfield, Holden (Fictitious character), Runaway teenagers – Fiction, New York (N.Y.) – Fiction

The collective input of 1000+ people tagging the book in LibraryThing offers all these words:

Because content creators and users generate the tags, folksonomies often present information that the average person finds most relevant. Visual representations of tags (like the one from LibraryThing shown above) are called tag clouds and may give us even more information because they display frequently-tagged words in larger fonts. More people thought those words were important.

Visitors to social networking sites tag content for their own reasons. Each person adds words relevant to him/her, and the aggregation has a powerful organizing effect. If you’d like to know more about tagging and organizing digital information, I recommend Everything is Miscellaneous [LibraryThing/WorldCat], a very readable book by David Weinberger.

Meaning for libraries

Libraries cannot possibly classify everything. Even the enormous Library of Congress (with several hundred catalogers sorting through about 7,000 new books each day) could not handle the volume of Flickr, the photo-sharing website we discussed a few weeks ago. Flickr receives a few thousand photographs every minute. Tagging makes possible the organization of all those pictures.

YouTube members tag videos; Delicious users tag websites; LibraryThing members tag books; bloggers tag their posts. Tagging is everywhere on the social web.

It’s vital for library staff to understand tags. They should know the strengths: that tags accumulate quickly and offer a wide range of keywords. They should be aware of the weaknesses, too: tags can be ineffective when very few people are involved and offer inconsistent word choices (examples: Should we search car, cars, or auto?; Which meaning of the word spring was intended?).

Libraries might also explore ways to incorporate tags into software where appropriate. Some libraries have or soon will have tags and tag clouds in their catalogs. My own library has tags on its staff intranet site.

Learn more by participating

You’ve read enough by now, so this week’s activity can be done in short exploratory sessions of mouse clicking.

  • Explore your Flickr tag cloud. Assuming you created an account for an earlier lesson, log into your Flickr account and go to the “Your Tags” option in the “You” menu. This cloud was assembled with the tags you added to your own photographs. Common themes among photos shine through. Click any word to find all photographs marked with that tag.
  • Look at Flickr’s communal tag cloud. This will call up other Flickr members’ photos. It’s great for browsing, but there’s a search box, too, in case the word you’re looking for isn’t there.
  • Explore tags in your Delicious account. (That was a previous lesson, too.) Your tags appear in a clickable list or cloud on the right side of the screen. You may also click the “saved by X other people” link shown for any particular bookmark and see the collected tags from everyone else who saved that bookmark. Click one that interests you and see what other sites come up.
  • Add more tags to your Flickr photos and Delicious bookmarks. It will make them easier to find and others to stumble upon.
  • Explore Dave Pattern’s biblioblogosphere tag cloud. Pattern’s software regularly scans library blogs and updates the communal tag cloud. A glance at the cloud can give you a sense of the topics librarians around the world are currently chattering about. Clicking any word in the cloud takes you to those blogs doing the chattering.
  • Create a text cloud. Just for fun, copy the text of a long memo or email into TagCrowd and see the cloud it produces. The longer the text, the more likely the prominent words will be meaningful.
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