Tagging in Archives

The U.S. Library of Congress’ new Flickr photo tagging effort The Commons is getting lots of attention from info studies folks and the wider blogosphere. The upload of historical photos owned by LC onto such a popular “Web 2.0” site has generated talk about possibilities for incorporating user tags into library and archive collections. The Commons tagline underscores this possibility, reading: “Your opportunity to contribute to describing the world’s public photo collections.”

The Commons is but one example of growing attention to the possibilities for user-generated content in museum, library and archival settings. Projects such as Steve.Museum have similar goals. But as RLG’s Hanging Together blog points out, the LC effort seems to be as much about publicity for LC’s digital collections as it is about incorporating descriptions provided by taggers into LC records. LC, much like Steve.Museum, seems to be testing the water on tags without full commitment to including user descriptions in collection metadata.

The effort also raises questions about the nature of “participation” in collection management and description. Tagging – the practice of users labeling online content with descriptors – seems to many info professionals a promising route toward increasing participation. As someone particularly interested in increasing participation and representation in archives, I’ve often wondered what tagging could do for description of archival resources.

But the more I learn about tagging, the more I question the assumption that tagging = description. Taggers have a wide range of motivations for tagging, and they span far beyond organizational and descriptive practices. Taggers use tags for personal retrieval and time management (tagging a webpage “to read” in tagging giant del.icio.us), and for self-expression and performance (tagging “favorites” or “I hate this” on Amazon.com, or as my colleague Alla Zollers cites, “Maybe that is why i sometimes still don’t feel like a grown woman-music” on music site Last.fm.)*

Rather than user-generated description, tagging is something more like user-referential content: tags express a relationship between a person and a digital object. This means that tagging is most meaningful when a relationship between a user and an object exists. If users don’t feel a connection to the content in the LC Flickr collection, they won’t tag. I wonder if LC has considered their intended tagging public and their relationship to a photo collection in choosing collections for display? And if so, how did they define this public?

A different but equally interesting criticism of tagging is that the practice creates “flat” descriptions: tags like “grain elevator,” “baseball,” or “painting,” without dialog about what those descriptions mean. It is also a way of expressing one’s own view without recourse for discussion or the need to consider the view of others. (Tagging political items could really suffer from this lack of dialog). Could we instead envision a system that, instead of asking for one-word descriptions, asked questions like “what does this mean?” or “What is important here?”

For archives, projects like LC’s Flickr collection are a reminder of the question of how to meaningfully increase user participation in collection description. Tagging is appealing for its growing popularity and emerging accessibility. (Still unclear are questions about the demographics of the tagging population – who tags – and whether tagging is, at the moment, culturally widespread.) Tagging can be a step towards user involvement in archival description. But I do not think that tagging, in itself, can increase meaningful participation in archives.

What about all of you? Do you tag? Do you find it useful, accessible, interesting? Do any of the information organizations you work with use Web 2.0 technologies to experiment with collections?


A cool side note about The Commons: the pictures are all widely usable under the statement “no known copyright restrictions.” Fodder for a different post….

* Zollers, Alla. “Emerging Motivations for Tagging: Expression, Performance, and Activism.” Proceedings of WWW 2007. 2007.



1 Comment

Filed under archives

One response to “Tagging in Archives

  1. Martha

    Like Katie, I have my concerns when it comes to the tagging hype. Tagging seems to be very idiosyncratic, which I love when using del.icio.us but it seriously limits its utility of as public retrieval tool.

    On the other hand, I believe that tags offer valuable insight in to how people organize information (I don’t that it does much description), which can help both archivists and librarians to better understand what the public wants and needs. That being said, as Katie mentions, we also need to pay attention and see who is actually tagging, which sectors of the population they represent.

    As far as I am concerned, just as google will not replace libraries, tagging will not replace formal description and classification, but in both cases there is a thing or two we can learn from them.

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