As a library user, you may be familiar with Library of Congress Subject Headings. While the Library of Congress call number tells us where to shelve or locate a book, the subject heading helps describe the content and, in the library catalog, can link a researcher to other titles that share that same subject heading. Library of Congress Subject Headings have been developed over several decades to be standardized and widely applicable and, as such, they are quite extensive and frequently complex. In fact, the library’s cataloging and reference departments have a five volume set, totaling almost 8,000 pages, listing all the possible subject headings. Though subject headings are certainly very useful in research, with an organizational system as complex as the LCSH, flexibility and the ability to reflect contemporary terminology and usage can be a challenge.

In response to this type of complexity, many social and organizational websites are using the folksonomy approach to help users classify and link their own information, which is generally known as “tagging.” In the same way that the LCSH describes content, users can create individualized categories and tags to describe their content in ways that make sense to them and allow them to retrieve that information quickly. Unlike the LCSH, however, there is no standardization, which can make open and public sites more difficult to use, as there is no “quality control.”

Here are a few examples of folksonomies in use:

  • Steve.Museum: In this collaborative project, users are able to tag art images with any type of descriptive terms that makes sense to them. The site organizers are interested in understanding how users describe information and use the tags.
  • Flickr: Flickr is a well known photo hosting site that allows users to share their photos online. Users can create albums and tag their photos with descriptions that work for their organizational style.
  • Flickr: The Commons: In an interesting partnership, Flickr and the Library of Congress have teamed up to allow the public to help identify and annotate images from the Library of Congress’ extensive photo collection.
  • Gmail: Unlike other email clients that use folders, Gmail uses tags (or labels) to organize your messages, allowing you to have messages in multiple categories.
  • Zotero: A bibliographic storage tool, Zotero makes it easy to download and organize the books, articles and other information that you use for research.

One research aid I would like to discuss in more detail is delicious.com, which is an online bookmarking website. It allows the user to go beyond the traditional features of browser-based bookmarking to create meaningful categories and connections amongst the varieties of information found online.

When you create a bookmark with delicious, you tag it and It is this tagging feature that really makes delicious useful and allows you to customize your bookmark organization. Delicious allows you to create or enter as many or as few tags as you need to describe or categorize a particular bookmark.

One recent example from my own delicious account: I tagged an article, “How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age,” with seven different tags. These tags were based both on the content of the article and how I planned on using it. The content of the article was described by the following tags: teaching, higher_ed, education and research. The tags “librarianship,” “infolit” and “to_read” described the ways I intended to use the article. Thus, depending on my future needs, I have several different ways of getting back to that article. If more information or annotation is desired, there is also a notes field where you can highlight a particular aspect or feature of what you are tagging. If you are like me, and bookmark a lot of things, clarifying why you originally bookmarked that item can be very useful when you return to it at a later time!

Other uses for delicious include:

  • RSS: Your delicious page, or even a particular tag, have RSS feeds attached to them. You can use this to pull everything you tag with a particular term into another application, such as a blog or course page. For example, anything I tag with “lib250” (a course I teach) would show up on my course blog for students to see without them having to go to my delicious page.
  • Collaboration: Tags can also forward your information to another delicious account. If you are collaborating on a project, you can tag something with “for:accountname” and it will appear in the other person’s list of bookmarks.
  • Beyond using your own tags, you also have access to everything else that is tagged by someone with a delicious account. You can go to the delicious homepage and see what is currently being tagged, what the most popular terms are, or what other people have tagged with “funny,” “tutorial” or “design.”

Bookmarking is a basic online task that has been made more useful by new social media features. These features encourage collaboration and, by being “in the cloud,” allow you to access your information anywhere you have an internet connection. How do you see services such as delicious, or the idea of tags in general, changing how you use and share information?

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous (HD30.2 W4516 2007) is an excellent place to start!