Monday, April 28, 2008

Collaborative Tagging

Traditional classification systems, like that devised by Melvil Dewey in 1876, have served us well. Nevertheless, it is time to reconsider the value of an approach that requires that a document be categorized in a single uniform way in order that it can be returned to a single place in a library somewhere. In today's cyber library people are not concerned with how a document is named (categorized) or where it is located. They only need to know what they need to know.

Formal classification systems require a trained professional to do the classifying in a consistent manner - over time. Once classified, the document is then moved to the physical location that corresponds to its code. To find the document, one need only know the code or ask the professional librarian for assistance. This process was further simplified by creating card indices according to Subject, Author and Title. This additional level of abstraction actually made it easier to live within the system of codification.

As we move further into cyberspace, the establishment is contending that a formal system of document classification is still needed. I describe these people as “establishment” because when probed, they maintain that a document can only be correctly classified or tagged in one specific way. When asked why this should be the case, the establishment has no answer. They don’t know why at document could not be coded more than one way.

In the old world, a book could only appear in one location. The code was used to locate the document and the rule stated that multiple copies of a book could not exist in more than one location. Every time you walked into the library you could be sure to find the document in its defined place. Not only that, if knew the code, you could walk into any library and quickly locate the document.

Cyberspace, would not be what it is today is it adhered to a rule that said a document could not exist of it was not first classified according to a unified codification system. It wouldn’t work. First, it would take too long to reach consensus on a universal system of codification. Next, organizations would need to create hundreds of thousands of new librarian positions to ensure that codifications were applied in a consistent manner. Finally, over time, the codification system will need to be modified and updated. What a horrendous task that would be. The Dewey Decimal System has been modified greatly since its inception – most recently in 2004. Imagine keeping an internet-based classification system updated.

The problem with traditional classification (control) systems is that they require constant maintenance. They require centralization in order to maintain control required to ensure that the document is returned to the same location every time in order that you and the librarian can be assured of retrieving it easily. The internet however works on a far different premise. It acknowledges that a single document can appear to be in several locations at the same time. In reality the document never leaves the shelf upon which it is stored and the need to have it diligently returned to its original location removed.

It’s probably too early to determine how collaborative tagging , also referred to as 'open tagging', 'faceted hierarchy', 'social tagging' and 'folksonomies', will be received. The Red Queen will help determine this. (So much for a controlled vocabulary.)

How about an intranet that provides an opportunity for you to tag a document at whenever you go to book mark it. Imaging what it would be like if your tag (categorization) was taken into account by the search engine along with the tags of all the others who took the time to contribute their two cents. Would it lead to meaningful search results? The jury is still out.

Also See Collaborative Tagging Sites Like:
- Flickr