A Look At Tagging

February 20, 2007

Ever wonder about tagging and how people use it? Well, take a look at Tim Spalding’s recent analysis – When tags work and when they don’t: Amazon and LibraryThing. Spalding writes: “Both LibraryThing and Amazon allow users to tag books. But with a tiny fraction of Amazon’s traffic, LibraryThing appears to have accumulated *ten times* as many book tags as Amazon—13 million tags on LibraryThing to about 1.3 million on Amazon.” This is interesting stuff. I can’t say that I am surprised by the results. I use Amazon constantly – to buy stuff, to check citations, to search inside the book, to read reviews, to check upcoming release dates for new titles, etc. I love Amazon. I make wish lists. I read other people’s lists. I do not, however, tag anything.

Now, I also use LibraryThing. I currently have about 1750 books in my catalog, and I have added tags to the majority of them. As one of the commenters (Jason Lefkowitz) on Spalding’s post puts it – “People WILL tag things if the tags are useful to THEM.” Tagging items in Amazon wouldn’t really do anything for me. If I’m interested in a title, I put it on some type of list. However, in my LibraryThing catalog, the tags have meaning to me. Tags, in other words, add value to my information. I don’t have any need to try and add value to Amazon’s information. In my catalog, I have about 526o tags (roughly 3.09 tags per book). I own mostly fiction books. The information that is important to me is character names – this is one way that I like to search through my books. I also put the time period of the work in a tag. Thus, I can sort my collection by the time period during which the story takes place. This may not make sense to others, but it is how I want to be able to search and sort my books.

What does all this mean for tagging in library catalogs? Will it be a useful concept for people? I’m not sure. I can see some applications where people might tag information about books that they used in their research – but only if they saw some value to themselves. One other area where tags have really taken off is in the PennTags project. PennTags is a really wonderful example of students using tags in some inventive ways. Here students create their own spaces, add items to it and tag their data. The key (again) is that people are tagging their own data. Information in a library catalog (the way it currently exists in most cases) does not belong to the patron. In Ann Arbor District Library’s catalog (or SOPAC), people have been adding tags. It is pretty interesting to go through the tags and see what people are adding. It is difficult to tell how popular the feature is. From a cursory glance, it doesn’t appear that too many titles have been tagged. Ultimately, I doubt that patrons will find tagging overly useful in a library catalog unless it fills some need.

In the mean time, Tim Spalding’s look at tagging is worth a read or two. He has some great ideas for making tagging work in ecommerce sites. I hadn’t given much thought to the impact of “opinon tagging.” Food for thought!