This morning I read a post at Nicole Engard’s blog, What I Learned Today…, about a Library Camp session. The post is titled “Library Camp – Weinberger & Cataloging.”
Before I begin, I want to make explicit that I am not picking on Nicole, the participants in this session, or anyone in particular. I may well use a few straw man arguments. I am not claiming that anyone is making these specific arguments, or that they might not nuance things a bit more if pressed.
My concern, though, is that they are making assumptions about language, language use, human behavior, and transferable benefits for which they have nothing but anecdotal evidence. By allowing these (usually) unstated assumptions to stand, they are, at best, collapsing some very important distinctions and, at worst, are, in effect, making the arguments I am suggesting.
This is one of those things that has been niggling away at me for a while which I have been unable to formulate coherently. Again, I am not claiming that anyone is overtly making these arguments; only that they are assuming too much. Nicole’s post and some of those cited in it are only “guilty” of helping me finally sort out my thinking some on this. There is much of value reported in Nicole’s post and it sounds like it was an interesting discussion. Thank you, Nicole. 🙂
I want to state from the start that I am for tagging. I tag. In many places. For several reasons. I am not advocating an either/or position. I want formal cataloging for resources that require that level (I should say, those levels) of description, and I want tagging for pretty much all resources.
A few quotes in particular that are useful to my concerns:
- – Our users don’t think in subject headings (Kate)
- – People tag for personal reasons – allowing them to build meaningful collections for themselves. (John Blyberg)
- – Will patrons really come in and tag items? The power users who are passionate about something will come in and tag. Those casual users may not be tagging, but they’re benefiting from the tags. While it’s just power users tagging – they’re still not librarians – they’ll use the lingo that most people understand – the tags are not just geared toward them like subject headings are just understandable by librarians.
Minor issues first:
I am fairly certain that the vast majority of catalogers do not think in subject headings, either. The same holds for most librarians. Are we more adept in using them than the typical patron? Certainly. Can we employ them—perhaps even, “think in them”—when it is a good tactic for us to do so? Certainly.
Actually, this statement is so removed from the context in which it was uttered that I probably shouldn’t say anything. But my point—admittedly purely anecdotal—is that likely no one “thinks” in subject headings. We think about subject headings, when and as appropriate. And maybe (most?) of our users do not. Maybe the distinction that I am trying to draw is “pure semantics” in some folks’ book. OK. I am talking about meaning; I’m perfectly happy with it being a semantic distinction.
Based on some of the research that is beginning to come out (E.g., M. Kipp, J. Abbas), and on anecdote, people tag for a variety of reasons. Some of these are personal and some are social. I am overjoyed to see the realization that tagging is not only social as many seemed to think initially. But let’s please not go too far the other direction. There are multiple reasons that people tag, and they are not all personal. Various reasons are often employed synchronously and they will often be hard to pull apart. Again, this is minor.
My major concerns are about the assumptions contained in the last quoted bullet point.
(Some of the) Assumptions:
- Librarians and all others constitute some sort of natural and distinct classes.
- Librarians are of a different language use community than others.
- Powers users/taggers and casual users are of the same language use community.
- Non-tagging users benefit from the tagging of others.
- Non-tagging users (and power users) do not benefit from traditional subject cataloging.
- Subject headings are understandable only by librarians. (Explicitly stated here.)
Keep in mind that I am critiquing many “arguments” that I have seen along these lines. I am sure that I have failed to extrapolate a few from this example and that—if I wasn’t too lazy to go find them—I could obtain more assumptions from other examples. I’m fairly sure that we’ve all seen a few examples like this one, though. [And I am generally using the language used in the post. I do not necessarily equate power users with taggers.]
I do not think that any of these assumptions can stand without real empirical data. I am more than willing to accept that (some) non-tagging users benefit from the tagging of others, but only if folks are also willing to accept that (some) users also benefit from traditional subject cataloging. The amount(s) and type(s) of benefit from each and for certain users in specific contexts is certainly an open empirical question, or set of questions more likely.
But my concern is the unstated AND between those two assumptions as I listed them.
As for the assumption (outright statement in this example) that subject headings are understandable only by librarians … well, that is simply ludicrous
Yes. There are certainly problems with various forms of subject headings, although I imagine the main issue is with LCSH. You will not find me doing a lot of defense of LCSH in its current instantiation. You will find me defending using controlled vocabularies (and other means) as appropriate for subject indexing. LCSH has many problems, as will any controlled vocabulary, especially one attempting to cover such a broad spectrum of topics. But uncontrolled vocabularies also have problems. They generally have other problems, which is one reason why we need both.
But to say that only librarians understand subject headings goes completely against the experiences of many library users of the last 100 years! Yes, they can be difficult. Especially in this day and age when we are all agreeing that people only want to dump one or two keywords into Google and be done.
But see. I don’t agree with that. And if I could learn to use the card catalog at the age of 5 then so can others who are not librarians. And please do not tell me that I must have used the Author file because you would generally be wrong. I was 5 years old! How familiar could I have been with “the literature.” Perhaps I could look up Syd Hoff, Dr. Seuss (See …), and a few others, but they certainly did not exhaust the topics I was interested in. Yes, topics. Displayed (and searched!) in a card catalog by subject headings and subject strings. No keyword searching allowed. So I must have “understood” subject headings, or at least how they worked. As do many others!
As for this binary division of the language community:
First off, to assume that there is one homogeneous community of language use within librarianship is simply laughable. Many of my good librarian friends and I would do better talking about TV shows (which I do not watch) than trying to communicate about our respective areas of librarianship. There are many communities of language use within librarianship!
By the way, please do not assume that I would be happy with a division of librarianship into catalogers and others. I would not! Take a 5-minute glance at AUTOCATs recent archives, for example, to see how vastly many communities there are even within catalogers. We are not all the same either!
To assume that there is a division of language use between librarians and all others is also fairly laughable. Two primary reasons. First, see two paragraphs above. Second, we ARE the others. We all belong to many different communities of interest and practice. We all belong to multiple language communities.
Yes. I fully realize that there seems to be some sort of difference between librarians and users. Call it professionalization or something else. We do—sometimes—speak differently. Just as I would speak differently if I was to discuss role-playing games than would someone who does not. There are good reasons for this. And, yes, it often gets in the way. But I am more than willing to totally ignore this with anyone who is willing to assume that this difference is greater than any of the other language differences between ourselves, our users, and our users and us.
Even if, and especially if, you disagree with me about the importance and location of these differences in language use then the burden is on you to show that the power user/tagger and casual user (non-tagging tag user) are in the same language use community. In fact, I maintain that this is one of the most critical points that needs to be shown by research in tagging.
Language in use (overt behavior) is pretty much all we have to go on regarding the study of people’s use of language. It seems pretty clear to me that the null hypothesis in this situation ought to be that these are (at least) two different language using communities based on the overt display of their use of language.
Taggers tag. They apply language to describe and otherwise label information resources. Whatever kind(s) of analysis employed, whatever reason(s) they do so, whatever benefit(s) they perceive for themselves or others … they use language to assign, attribute, credit, impute, associate, link, relate, classify, et. al. things with words. (These words may well be concepts, but that is a whole ‘nuther ball game.)
Non-tagging users of others’ tags do none of that. They use the labels, categories, links, etc. that others have assigned. No matter whether they use others’ tag or others’ formal subject analysis they are using decontextualized language. I would argue, though, that use of tagging (by others) is more decontextualized than, say, LCSH.*
This seems to me to be two vastly different (overt, demonstrated) ways of using language. On what basis can we even begin to say that they are the same (“they’re still not librarians – they’ll use the lingo that most people understand”) language using community? Please. Can anyone actually support this contention?
Also. Many taggers are librarians. I have no idea what percentage of taggers are librarians, nor do I have any idea what percentage of librarians are taggers. But until someone who wants to make these assumptions that I am critiquing proves otherwise, I am going to assume that the percentage of librarians who tag is higher than that of taggers in the general population.
Some of us taggers are even catalogers. You know, those people who think in subject headings. This seems to me to put those folks (me, for instance) in the same language using community as the taggers, but not that of the non-taggers. “Dang, what happened to my black and white divisions?,” you should be asking about now.
My point is not that there is nothing at all valid in these assumptions. There may well be, and probably is. But they are also highly flawed, and when they remain unstated and more importantly, unquestioned, they are dangerous. They blind us towards other ways of looking at the situation because we have already (unquestioningly) assumed that the situation is some way it may not, in fact, be. They are, to put it simply, simplistic.
The main point is that the world is not this simple. You cannot simply divide it into “us and them.” Language use, religious belief, sexual preference, whatever. Binary divisions rarely exist, except as unquestioned beliefs in individual minds.
- All librarians do not speak the same language.
- Nor are those languages always and completely different than that of users.
- I maintain that anyone making the assumption that taggers and non-tagging tag users are of the same language community while librarians are not is making a major mistake.
- People tag for lots of reasons. Some are personal, some are social. Pulling these apart will be hard, and often impossible.
- I am not arguing for a solipsistic view of language. I believe that we generally do manage to communicate. But whether you call them communities, sub-communities, jargons, argots, or whatever, we all belong to multiple language use communities.
So can we please stop with all the anecdotes and, in particular, those founded on faulty assumptions? A simple perusal of an article such as “Folksonomies: Tidying Up Tags?” by Marieke Guy and Emma Tonkin ought to persuade anyone that even considering the power users/taggers as a single, coherent language community is a non-starter.
Again, I’d like to thank Nicole and those she cited for helping me clarify my thinking.
* This is due to the fact that—with a little work—some context can be retrieved from working with a group of resources that have been assigned LCSH. Some tagging systems also allow for some retrieval of context with a bit of work, but many do not. This could change as our systems—both formal and informal—evolve. My point is simply that none of this is simple.