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Tag, You’re It

You may have heard about tagging (AKA folksonomies). If you’re a cataloger, the whole concept might give you nightmares. So, before we even delve into what tagging is, let’s preface the discussion with this: tagging does not replace cataloging. It is a supplement; an additional way to get metadata that may help the end user retrieve the data.

Ok, back to basics. Tagging is actually very simple; it is simply the act of assigning keywords to something. When I demonstrate at conferences, I like to hold up an object, like a bottle of water, and I ask the audience to shout out one-word descriptors (keywords) for it. A short list might include:

  • “Wet”
  • “Plastic”
  • “Bottle”
  • “Labeled”
  • “Cold”
  • “Clear”

Now, I am definitely not a cataloger, but I’m willing to bet that none of those keywords (tags) are in either the Dewey or LC classification schemes. But it’s an example of tagging at work. People see something, and assign descriptive keywords as they see fit.

Why is this useful? (Here’s the example I use every time I explain this, wherever I go, so thank you in advance for your patience.) When I first started working in a public library (pre-MLS), I was put out at the reference desk to answer questions (yes, I got training first!). One of the first questions I got was from a woman wanting a book on Polish cooking. So, naive new assistant that I was, what did I type into the OPAC?


I can laugh now, but at the time I was horrified to discover that you could not actually find cookbooks in an OPAC by calling them what they were. (And “Cookery” is ever so intuitive, right?). A librarian stepped in to assist and all was well. But imagine if you could not only find things through an official classification system, but also through tags people had assigned? What if the OPAC had been able to retrieve items tagged as “polishcooking?”

Imagine no more. Tagging is now a common feature of many web services, including Flickr and del.icio.us (posts for another day). Try searching Flickr for “publiclibrary.” You’ll see some fascinating photos from around the world of public libraries.

Tagging is just another way to provide metadata (data about data) to patrons, and often it can actually engage patrons in the process. Allowing users to assigning keywords to items makes them part of the community. Amazon has made a science out of engaging its users; check out this tag cloud of the most popular tags by their users.


  1. Tagging does not replace cataloging. It is a supplemental way to create metadata.
  2. Allowing users to tag items, posts, comments, etc. is a great way to involve people and make them feel part of a site’s community.
  3. Tags can often provide more intuitive ways to get to a specific type of item, but not always. Tags are created arbitrarily and there is no authority control for terms.
  4. Tags can create very nifty ways to visually browse a collection and easily determine popularity of items via tag clouds.