Social Tagging in the Catalogue: You allow that?!

If you’ve been reading the latest American Libraries Direct, you’ve seen the article about the “hate speech” tag that has been assigned to a significant amount of works by Ann Coulter at Mount Prospect Public Library.

A patron, scrolling through a list of books by Ms. Coulter, discovered the books and complained:

“I don’t understand why the library is letting people make political statements on their site,” said Alaimo, a political conservative. “By not taking it off, the library is agreeing with it.”

Fortunately, as the article goes on to state, the library officials disagree with Mike Alaimo, the library patron who made the complaint.  Unfortunately, many other library officials reading this are nodding their heads in affirmation that it was only a matter of time a patron complained – after all, how can we “control” our catalogue and what goes in it if we allow users to generate their own tags and contribute to our catalogues. 

This is a heated discussion that often comes across AUTOCAT, with the most recent occurring over Sarah Palin’s new book and the tags “I can see Russia” and, if memory serves, “Sea of Pee”.

I’ve had a look at Mount Prospect’s catalogue and records.  Mount Prospect Public Library is using the discovery layer AquaBrowser. I am very familiar with this product because our library is just finishing the AB implementation process.  AB uses LibraryThing tags to populate the user tags in bib records.  This is a perk, because many libraries don’t have the population or patron usage to make tagging successful without an underlying foundation.

However, as tags are added by users, just like in LibraryThing, they are weighted by the amount of times they are used.  Absurd, ridiculous or inaccurate tags as considered by the general user (or us) will become buried as more and more users tag with similar or “better” tags.  In the end, those tags that aren’t useful will fall to the very bottom of the retrieval list as newer, more useful tags are added or reaffirmed.  This system only fails when there are very few tags, or the library makes the decision to display all tags associated with an item, rather than the top 5 – 10 – 15, and so on.  Is there a need to display more than 10 or 15 terms?  Usually, those terms in the top 10 are the most useful and most frequently used. 

AB also has an option for a “black list” that allows a library to build an index of terms that are not allowed.  There is an existing, standard list by many libraries using AB and each individual library can build upon or remove from that list as needed or desired.  As a result, socially unacceptable terms (as determined by each library) are barred from appearing in user tags and reviews.  However, tags that reflect public opinion, emotions, ideas or views should not.  After all, these are user tags, not access points created by the library – by professionals.  And, despite many professionals’ concerns, user tags are not inserted into our records, they merely sit “on top” like another layer of icing on cake.

Studies have shown that user tags result in a consensus of acceptable vocabulary created by users.  The masses outweigh the handful of individuals that tend to fall into the extremes – whether it is through individual point of views or a creative use of language to get around the black-listed words.

Steven Arakawa, Catalogue Librarian for Training and Documentation at Yale University made a good point on AUTOCAT when speaking about the controversial tags assigned to Sarah Palin’s new book:

“It’s to be expected that political and cultural friction works will generate tags that push the envelope of decorum and often do more harm than good for the position being advocated. And the official “tags” provided by catalogers can introduce objectivity and neutrality which is a positive contribution if sometimes bland, like network news.

But no one seems to have put in a good word for taggers’ specialist knowledge–as opposed to emotional connection–regarding many niche subjects, knowledge that might very well go beyond the general knowledge of the average cataloger.”

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9 Comments

Filed under Access Issues, Discovery tool platforms, Social catalogue

9 responses to “Social Tagging in the Catalogue: You allow that?!

  1. It’s inevitable with the expansion of social tagging on library catalogs that we’ll hear more and more of these stories. I think it’s still a worthwhile experiment – users (already becoming accustomed to social book tagging via LibraryThing or Goodreads) might respond enthusiastically and feel more ownership towards their libraries. That’s a good thing. Plus, it gets librarians, librarians and patrons talking about books again, too (not *just* computers) — also a good thing!

    And the occasional complainer can always add their own counterpoint tags, if they feel they must…

  2. I think one conflict here is that librarians and patrons have different intentions when it comes to tags. Librarians think of tags as access points, because library “tags” are things like LCSH. Users think of tags in many different ways, but they don’t always think of them as access points. Sometimes user tags are a type of commentary, as in the news story above. Sometimes they’re a means of finding information that is relevant only to the user, such as tagging recipes in Delicious “Mary’s Party 2009.” One thing is almost certain — user tags don’t aspire to capture the “aboutness” of an item that librarian-created tags do. That’s not a value judgment against user-created tags, but simply an awareness that most users think about tags differently than librarians do.

  3. Fran

    I’m a student of Library and Information Science.

    I have read your post thoroughly and it really interested me. Social tagging is a controversial topic amongst librarians. A while ago I attended several days on web 2.0 conference and one of the lecturers commented that folksonomies will replace the professional classifications that can be done by a librarian using UDC or DDC in a library or documentation centre. I disputed this and listed the disadvantages that could arise from relying solely on social tagging:

    Inaccurate tags (lack of professionalism and judgement)
    Ambiguous or imprecise tags (there is no vocabulary control)
    Subjective tags (different points of view)

    Through all this, I explained that social tagging should be seen as a complement to the professional description of resources, never as a substitute to it. The case you describe in your post is a clear example of one of the disadvantages of free tagging. However much you weight the number of occurrences like in the case of LibraryTags, a problem will always occur like those that I described above and more often in sensitive topics such as politics. If you want to incorporate social tagging in libraries, it will have to be severely monitored, with professionals doing a filtering of information.

    In my opinion, more than tagging, the users should make suggestions and the professionals should make the ultimate decision if the tag is correct or not and if it should or should not be incorporated into the catalogue’s record.

    Many thanks!

  4. Laurel Tarulli

    Thank you all for your thoughtful responses.

    Daniel and Michelene – I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. Giving patrons the ability to generate their own information gives them a feeling of community and ownership within the catalogue that hasn’t existed before – but does exist in other online “catalogues” such as LibraryThing, Amazon, GoodReads, etc. As a result, there is a level of user expectation that we need to meet, and if we can’t, they will go elsewhere.

    A user’s reason for tagging may differ from ours but are no less important. As professionals, we know how slow to change some of our outdated LCSH’s are or, how slow the creation of a new heading can be. “Buzz” words that do not yet exist in our controlled vocabularies are supplemented by user tags – and take the immediate pressure off of us for creating a local authorized heading that may have to be altered when LCSH creates one. User tags also capture a readers’ advisory aspect of a book that our “aboutness” doesn’t. However, users aren’t trained professionals and their intentions when cataloguing can’t be expected to meet our standards of description as Michelene points out.

    Fran – you, too, make some very good points. However, I do have to question the aspect of heavily monitoring the tags (or user-generation reviews for that matter). The creation of some type of black list provides an opportunity for libraries to block inappropriate words without having to invest significant staff resources into monitoring terms or reviews. Many libraries will never adopt a system that allows user-generated tagging if significant staff time is required to monitor this.

    While your idea of user suggestions being submitted to staff is interesting, it is also extremely time-consuming. Does the library hire another staff member just to deal with screening the tags and then implementing them into records? Is it the cataloguer’s responsibility to review each tag and decide if it should become an authorized heading? What if it is similar to another word? Should a “see” reference be added instead?

    Just thoughts, Fran – and nothing more. All of this needs to be considered when discussing tags and your point of view is certainly one shared by others.

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