Thursday, February 17, 2011

Social Bookmarking and Subject Cataloguing

This week we are looking at  subject cataloguing in libraries and the emergence of  folksonomy for web-based resources.  When searching for any library resource having concise keywords or subject terms are crucial to getting what you want and need.  When we catalogue books, good library practice dictates that we don't just use terms that appeal to ourselves.  A standardized set of subject terminology allows for more consistent cataloguing of books and increases the likelihood that patrons will be able to retrieve all applicable resources available in a library collection;  provided they can identify and apply an approved term.

The Sears List of Subject Headings is the the most common resource used by teacher-librarians to provide subject headings for library items. The practice until recently has been to use one to two subject headings for most nonfiction items and not necessarily any subject heading for fiction items.  With the advent of electronic catalogues and electronic search features this restriction is no longer necessary and perhaps even less desirable or acceptable practice. We have the capacity to give patrons a wider variety of access points to an item.  Libraries also exist in a new context where patrons are conditioned to be less thoughtful in the search terms they use. The Google generation uses any term that comes to mind and more often than not have some sort of success in retrieving relevant information from the web. Whether this is be best and most relevant information is not often a consideration. This is a culture or reality I think librarians and cataloguers need to acknowledge.

Library collections exist in the larger  context of the Internet-based resources.  Recently, the phenomena on the web is to catagorize resources using tags. As people identify useful resources on the Internet the use of browser-based bookmarking has become somewhat unwieldly.  We often use multiple computers so we want these resources to be consistently available.  Social bookmarking sites have become the solution.  Bookmarks can now be web-based and be available on any computer.  In addition, social bookmarking sites have addressed the inadequacy of sorting bookmarks under single subject headings (our equivalent of folders in our browser-based bookmarks or favourites) by the advent of tagging.  Users can attach any number of subject terms of their own choosing or invention to facilitate their retrieval and recollection at some future date. 

The practice of developing personal cataloguing systems of subject headings or descriptors is called folksonomy.  This practice has its drawbacks.  When using nonstandardized terms it may require the searcher to use a great variety of terms to locate sufficient resources on a particular resource. Do you use the word cat, cats, kittens, or felines to find the information you desire?  The use of more standardized terms in the social bookmarking context would seem to be beneficial to all, but the capacity to use a great number of tags is useful since it gives these resources a wide range of access points.  A challenge is when the tags are too general then they lose their usefulness and too specialized or specific as to be irrelevant or inaccessible by most searchers. I believe a technological solution may be possible to some of the downside of folksonomy. The development of search algorithms that will generate and match sophisticated lists of synonyms for tags that also filter for specificity seems within the capacity of even today's technology.

I believe the phenomena of the increasing practice of folksonomy will create tremendous pressure to expand and change library cataloguing practice and technology.  Today's library patrons are keyword searchers.  They are used to web searches which use algorithms that search the entire text of websites. Such searching allows users to utilize terms that are personally relevant and doesn't require much reflection or education as to approved subject terms. The pressure is already on for our library collections to provide full electronic texts for most items in their collection.  Full electronic texts opens the possibility of using search engine type algorithms as a point of access to library items. These access points could be used in addition to librarian provided subject cataloguing.  Perhaps library catalogues will be opened to folksonomists at large.  We already have OPACs that allow patrons to append their own personal reviews of the resources.  Technologically it would be fairly easy to add the ability for patrons to add their own tags to these items and allow such searching of collections by tags.

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