I’ve written previously about the problems of keyword search and importance of controlled vocabulary in the context of undertaking research but I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m against ‘natural language.’ How you and I write or speak in our natural language informs our own ‘personal vocabulary’. It may be that our own word choices/selection may make search retrieval difficult in the search environment of a Library’s catalogue which is built around precise controlled vocabulary. Using initial keywords to find a relevant record and then using the Library of Congress Subject Headings to pivot to a hierarchical subject index is the obvious solution here.
That said, in this digital age we live in, we need strategies for remembering the objects we come across on the internet, whether they are PDFs, YouTube videos, news articles. We could use the ‘bookmark’ function in our browser and even have folders and folders within folders of similar materials in our ‘Favourites.’ However, the issue of information retrieval quickly arises. How do you search across all of your bookmarks. How can you find that one PDF you bookmarked on pharmacology or that new case study published in an open-access journal? Do you have a folder of PDFs bookmarked in your browser? This is where ‘social bookmarking’ and ‘tagging’ come into play.
Services like Delicious give you the ability to bookmark the URLs of objects you come across the web. It doesn’t save the digital object itself like Zotero but it offers you a means to facilitate your information retrieval. Delicious features one of the fundamental properties of Web 2.0 technologies: tagging. Tagging is the means to describe a given object using your own natural language and personal vocabulary. I’ve also referred to it as ‘personal metadata.’ Building and maintaining your own research database, your list of ‘favourite’ URLs, you can easily filter them using combinations of these tags.
If you were to abstract tagging into its larger concept-entity or philosophy, you would find it described as folksonomy. Folksonomy is a portmanteau of the concepts ‘folk’ and ‘taxonomy’ originally coined by Thomas Vander Wal. Terms are built into larger concepts within open structures which are shared collectively. As Vander Wal describes it:
Folksonomy is the result of personal free tagging of information and objects (anything with a URL) for one’s own retrieval. The tagging is done in a social environment (usually shared and open to others). Folksonomy is created from the act of tagging by the person consuming the information.
The value in this external tagging is derived from people using their own vocabulary and adding explicit meaning, which may come from inferred understanding of the information/object. People are not so much categorizing, as providing a means to connect items (placing hooks) to provide their meaning in their own understanding.
Delicious allows you to also see what others have bookmarked and search across their bookmarks and create a network of others’ bookmarks. So for example, if you are searching a particular tag in your list of URLs you can expand the search to draw upon tags of identical nomenclature in others’ list of links for your query. In this manner you can customise and expand your personal database. Hence, Delicious has been called ‘social bookmarking’ or ‘social tagging’ or ‘collaborative tagging.’
As I stated earlier, our individual word choices and personal vocabulary may not always coincide with how others describe identical objects. There are Anglo-American spellings to things like theater or theatre. Sites like Delicious operate internationally and consequently other users’ tags appear multi-lingually. Interoperability of tagging requires some synergies of organisation/classification. Just as cataloguing librarians use AACR2 (and now the RDA) as standards so there is consistency in the catalogue records of libraries across the world, I proposed such a framework at the 2009 IMS/IAML Conference which I named SoBoMeF or Social Bookmarking Metadata Framework. Such a tool would allow more consistent sharing of personal metadata. Cataloguing librarians which are responsible for their countries’ national cataloguing (such as those at the Library of Congress) have been resistent to what is in essence, uncontrolled vocabulary. However, in a pilot project in 2008 the Library of Congress put some of their digital photographic collections online in Flickr and then opened it up to the public to tag and describe some of the photos (particularly some which their curators could not identify). The project spearheaded the loosening of some cataloguing standards when it comes to the cataloguing of digital objects and the value of uncontrolled vocabulary: tagging. You can read more about that project including the associated reports here.
For me, ‘good’ quality tagging is just one of a number of new skill sets which researchers will need to get a handle on as more and more digital objects need to be organised and retrieved from across the web and your laptops!