Monthly Archives: April 2011

Authority Control vs. User-Generated Tagging

Lazy blogger that I am, I’m cutting and pasting a section from a homework assignment from my Cataloging and Classification homework.

This one’s for Nora anyway.


I found  Phyllis R. Snipes (in Folksonomiy vs. Minnie Earl and Melville) and Tim Spalding’s LibraryThing treatment of the debate between authority control subject heading versus user-generated tagging to be fascinating and complex.  LibraryThing in particular makes a strong case for the democratization of cataloging through tagging.  Spalding gives the example of his wife Lisa Carey’s book, Love in the Asylum, where one of the subject headings given by the Library of Congress is Alcholism, mentioned superfluously on the book flap, with no mention of Native Americans which would have been more appropriate.  Catalogers in the Library of Congress more often than not don’t read a book before cataloging it, so subject headings may or may not be a best fit.  LibraryThing users have read the books they are cataloging and can assign applicable subject headings.  Spalding goes on to say that authority controlled subject headings often lack relevance or timeliness.  The popular “paranormal romance” genre will be cataloged as “love story” by the LOC, but users of LibraryThing can use this subject heading to call up mutiple titles.  Other limitations to traditional subject headings: the limit of 3 to 6 subjects, their static and hierarchical nature, the fact that only librarians are allowed to provide them rather than readers.  Snipes heralds the social nature of tagging, allowing patrons to publish, share and save access points and search in a way that makes sense to them.  What’s not to love about tags?

I see a lot of value in adult users, experienced researchers, applying and searching by tags.  For younger students, however, I can imagine feeling overwhelmed by a sea of tags and a difficulty discerning which tags are more appropriate than others.  Especially if information is tagged incorrectly.  I wonder if adults take the skill of narrowing or disregarding tags and selecting appropriate search terms for granted.  Is it possible that, because we grew up having to abide by authority control, we’re more savvy searchers?  Are we doing our students a disservice by enabling them to search on their terms?  Will they get used to researching on del.icio.us and Twitter and not know how to navigate a research library when they get to college?  Maybe it’s a good thing to have guardians at the cataloging gates.  McClellan, quoted by Snipes, cites critics who say that folksonomies “will never yield the clarity of controlled classifications administered by professionals.”  Indeed, democratization via the internet sounds great until you recall reading the comments section of any article at CNN.com.  The internet and Web 2.0 often opens the gates to a lot of stupid.

The LibraryThing presentation ends by taking the Dewey Decimal System to task and calling for an “end of intellectual structures based on and limited by the physical world.”  Yes, in a virtual world, I agree that it’s beneficial to open more pathways to information for searchers by searchers.  However, as long as library buildings exist, with physical books sitting on actual shelves, there will still be a place for Dewey and a need for a defined classification number.  Let the tags and folksonomies bring you to the title.  Let Dewey and the LOC point you to the shelf.

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