Tags, Folksonomies, And Whose Library Is It Anyway?

I was honored to join the conversation yesterday for the latest Talis Library 2.0 Gang podcast, this one on folksonomies and tags. The MP3 is already posted and, as usual, it makes me wonder if I really sound like that. Still, listen to the other participants, they had some great things to say and made it a smart discussion.

I approached the conversation with the notion that what we were really talking about was whether libraries should give their patrons the opportunity to organize the resources they value in ways that make sense to them. For some time one of our patrons here has been telling us he wants all the books that he’s interested on one shelf, and for years the standard retort has been a chuckle. But, why, he might today ask, can’t our library systems make this possible in some virtual way now?

Tags — specifically user contributed tags — are a big element in this larger question. Though they bring up all manner of concerns from authority to vocabulary control, they’ve shown great value outside libraries and interest in them has been energized with the active discussions about how to re-imagine our library catalogs for today’s needs.

My big question is who “owns” those tags, and what motivates taggers. LibraryThing, has enjoyed some great success with tags, while Amazon has achieved little. Tim Spalding’s theory on the matter echos Josh Porter’s dissection of “The Del.icio.us Lesson,” where he notes that “personal value precedes network value.” That is, people tag for personal, perhaps even selfish reasons. People don’t tag to help the community, they tag because it helps the tagger.

I’ve been tagging my stories at MaisonBisson for some time now, and the effort has paid off by making my content more findable both internally and externally at services like Technorati. Flickr makes tagging even more valuable, as the tags are often the only searchable content for image. How else could I find my library-related photos if not from the tags?

On the other hand, my own experiment in user contributed tags seems to have fallen flat, as I’ve received very few useful tags despite the high number of readers who I’d expect to be familiar with tagging. Meanwhile, del.icio.us tells me that there are 133 tagged bookmarks to MaisonBisson in their database. This leaves me wondering if I should invest more effort in working on user contributed tag system that lives in my blog (or or a library catalog, or other discrete system), or should I instead focus on making those systems support outside tagging systems like del.icio.us? This is easy for my blog, where all the pages are already URL addressable, but bibliographic systems are a bigger challenge.

update: hey, Abby’s talking about this over at Thingology and her headline is way better than mine. Darn. Still, the point remains: we need to leverage our systems to make it easy for our patrons organize the things they like wherever and however they wish. Then, we should look for ways to find value in the aggregate. That’s the del.icio.us lesson.