It’s just a wild and an untamed thing …. –Rocky Horror Picture Show
Back in the Really Olde Days when I was but a wee nipper, our high school biology teacher had us do an interesting exercise. We were to pretend that we were stranded astronauts trying to make it back to our base. He gave us a worksheet listing various items that we could take with us and we not only had to chose which items we would take to help us survive, we had to rank them in order of their importance. First, he had us do the picking and ranking on our own. Then he gave a second copy of the worksheet and we had to form small groups and do the same thing. Afterwards, we compared the two worksheets. The one that we had done as a group had more right answers than the one we had done individually. This was my first introduction to the intelligence of the collective.
What I find most fascinating about LibraryThing is not the bookshelf or community functions, but the tagging. The LT community is now large enough and has generated enough tags that they can actually catalog by consensus. That is, if you pick any one book from the list and have a look at its tags, most of them will accurately describe the book. There will always be a few inaccurate tags in the mix, but the majority are spot on. LT is an excellent example of a folksonomy–a taxonomy where the terms are generated by non-experts.
The other thing–and this is a big one–that fascinates me about tagging is that for the first time we can really see how people think about and use information. To understand why this is exciting you have to understand that most of the time librarians can only count the number of times people access information. That is, we can tell how many times a book circulates or how many hits a database gets, but we can’t tell what the patrons thought about the information they found. Did they find the book they needed? Was that article really what they were looking for? LT is essentially an on-line laboratory for information scientists.
I think that it would be very cool to be able to either overlay or import LT’s tag clouds into our own catalog and then to be able to search on them. LT has already done most of the work, including cleaning up the spam tagging, so it would essentially be a free extra for us.
This is one of the most interesting Learning 2.0 assignments to date. I was inspired to look up other articles on tagging in the Library Literature database and to follow the discussions on LT itself. I highly recommend watching the video of Tim Spaulding’s lecture on LT and tagging at the Library of Congress which is about 40 minutes long. Tim introduces LT and then talks about the strengths and weaknesses of tagging vs. controlled vocabulary and about the importance of opening library catalogs to on-line search engines. I also recommend checking out the discussion of tag mashups, LT’s version of Boolean searching.