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  1. 1. Alphild DickLI804Research paper Tag, you’re it: The history, and future, of folksonomies in libraries At first blush, the terms “tagging” and “folksonomy” might seem to be a bit ofWeb 2.0 jargon, overenthusiastic hype perpetuating a gimmicky digital practice. But hasthe hype matched the reality? As librarians, it is important to remember that beingskeptical of technological gimmicks is a part of our job. Given that the jobs of librariansare coalescing with technology experts, it is imperative that we be able to discern lastingpractices from ones with a shorter lifespan, functionalities that will bring real change intoour modes of practice from those that only promise to. As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, these concerns are asimportant as they have ever been and there are many questions that have developedaround some of the Web 2.0 programs, particularly tagging and folksonomies. Whatexactly do the practices of tagging and folksonomy offer library and informationprofessionals? Do these methods of crowd-sourcing classification and organization reallychange the way people seek and use information, or are they simply digital decoration? Inthis paper, I will explore their uses, structure, and the benefits and problems withfolksonomies within the context of academic libraries. How do the philosophicalunderpinnings of folksonomies compare to those of professional cataloguers? What aretheir similarities and differences? I will also consider what implications folksonomieshave for the future of cataloguing and the organization of information within LISprofessions.
  2. 2. I. A people’s history of folksonomies Beginnings with early blogging and social bookmarking efforts in the late 1990s,folksonomies as they are known today arose in the early-2000s along with “Web 2.0”ands its focus on “data-driven applications, user participation, simplicity, and informationreuse” (Schmidtz, 2007, pp. 91). The early progenitor of this structure is,which went public in 2003 with its unique way of organizing and publishing anindividual’s web resources (Galarza, 2011). One common feature of Web 2.0 applicationswas the use of metadata annotations, also known as tags. These tags were defined andorganized by users—who were largely untrained non-professionals. That is to say, theywere average Internet users engaging in the act of helping organize web content. By 2004, these non-professional users could “add tags using a non-hierarchicalkeyword categorization system” and with the number of web functionalities providingthis feature on the rise, popularity began to grow among Internet users, although thepractice had not, at that point, been formalized. It was in that same year that ThomasVander Wal first coined the term “folksonomy,” a portmaneau of “folk” and “taxonomy”(QA Focus, 2005, pp. 1). The term arose after Gene Smith, member of listserv for the Asylomar Institutefor Information Architecture (AIFIA; today known as the IA Institute) wrote: “Some ofyou might have noticed services like Furl, Flickr, and using user-defined labelsor tags to organize and share information…Is there a name for this kind of informationsocial classification?” One member responded with the suggestion of “folkclassification,” leading Vander Wal to respond, “So the user-created bottom-up
  3. 3. categorical structure development with an emergent thesaurus would become aFolksonomy?” (Vander Wal, 2007). In explaining his logic behind this, Vander Wal wrote, “I am a fan of the wordfolk when talking about regular people…if you took “tax” (the work portion) oftaxonomy and replaced it with something anyone could do you would get a folksonomy.”He notes that, “the value in this external tagging is derived from people using their ownvocabulary and adding explicit meaning, which may come from inferred understanding ofthe information/object. People are not so much categorizing, as providing a means toconnect items (placing hooks) to provide their meaning in their own understanding”(Vander Wal, 2007). Folksonomies, both as a practice and as a concept, grew in popularity throughoutthe end of the 2000s. Users engage in tagging on sites such as and Flickr, butalso on Amazon, Facebook, LibraryThing, and CiteULike. In fact, it is safe to say thatmost users engage in this activity with little awareness that they are creatingfolksonomies. This, in turn, begs the question of how we actually define the concept. Inits briefest definition, a folksonomy is “a people’s taxonomy” (Pink, New York Times,2005). PC Mag describes the term as referring to “Classifying Web sites by the usercommunity rather than by taxonomy professionals. Folksonomy is said to provide ademocractic tagging system that reflects the opinions of the general public”(Folksonomy). A more expanded definition, notes that the term folksonomy “describesthe users, resources, and tags, and the user-based assignment of tags to resources.”Hothno goes on to say that, “the new data of folksonomy systems provides a rich
  4. 4. resource for data analysis, information retrieval, and knowledge discovery application”(Hotho, 2010, pp. 66). On the other hand, Vander Wal provides a slightly different view on what afolksonomy is. He writes, “Folksonomy is the result of personal free tagging ofinformation and objects (anything with a URL) for one’s own retrieval. The tagging isdone in a social environment (usually shared and open to others). Folksonomy is createdfrom the tag of tagging by the person consuming the information” (Vander Wal, 2007). But even when we know what folksonomies are, there is still the question of howthey are formed. Although folksonomies do not, by definition, by operate on the basis ofa controlled vocabulary, research has been conducted to peer into the ideas behind themand what their use says about how humans create and use organizational structures.Although one can find a number of complicated algorithms detailing the structure offolksonomy, for the lay person, for the layperson, the most important aspect offolksonomies is that they require three basic elements to function: the user, the tag, andthe resource. According to the researchers Ching-man Au Yeung, Nicholas Gibbins, andNigel Shadbolt, folksonomies depend on the interrelation of the user, tag, and resource.They note, “a tag is only a symbol if it is not assigned to some Webresources…Similarly, a user…is characterized by the tags it uses and the resources ittags. Finally, a document is given semantics because the tags act as a form of annotations.Hence, it is obvious that each of these elements in a folksonomy would bemeaningless…if they are considered independently” (Yeung, Gibbens & Shadbolt, 2007,pp. 967). Folksonomies, therefore, are not just a manner of organizing information—theyare a method of creating meaning as well.
  5. 5. II. Folksonomies and cataloguing From a theoretical standpoint, folksonomies provide a counterpoint to the othermain methods of classification, such as professional cataloguing. Both methods oforganizing information do, of course, share some philosophical interests. Both areinterested in creating accessibility and organization within a body of information. Theyseek to replicate our understanding of relationships between and within items and allowus to locate. For purposes of explication, it is useful to explore how tagging and folksonomiescompare with a formal classification system, such as the Library of CongressClassification system, which is commonly used in academic libraries. In the LCC,resources are categorized in a hierarchical format; for example, one could create ahierarchy of Languages and LiteratureGermanic LanguagesWest GermanicLanguagesYiddish. Moreover, exclusivity becomes a factor; even though under LCC, awork can belong to multiple categories, it is presumed to be about one main thing morethan another, regardless of the actual contents. Using the example of Yiddish, the bookYiddish: A survey and grammar by Soloman Birnbaum heavily deals with the JewishDiaspora, yet the book is said to be, primarily, about the grammatical structure of theYiddish language. Interesting, within the framework of hierarchical classification system,it is assumed that, for this book, a “logical place already exists within the system, evenbefore [the resource] was published” (Noruzi, 2007). In other words, the book can bemade to fit within the order of the classification system, not the other way around.
  6. 6. In comparison, folksonomy-based classification is not based on exclusivity norhierarchy. To begin, at least among digital resources, folksonomies do not require anysort of physical constraint upon a resource; a link may be located in any number of placesat any given time. Moreover, folksonomies operate in a hierarchy-optional manner.Websites such as give users the option of creating hierarchies within theirgathered resources, but it is not required (Noruzi, 2007). Hierarchies are an especiallyinteresting aspect of folksonomies to examine. Unlike the top-down nature of taxonomywithin library classifications, folksonomies take a bottom-up approach to classification. Another aspect to consider is the issue of authority control. Authority control, orthe practice of developing and maintaining index terms, within library classificationschemes comes from official thesauri. For folksonomies, however, authority control iselusive. A user can use the tag “TV” or “television,” “auto” or “automobile,” “fridge” or“refrigerator,” creating what is known as tag redundancy. Folksonomies do have theoption of utilizing optional authority controls, which is done by connecting taggingsystems to previously created authority controls and/or controlled vocabularies (Noruzi,2007). If we consider the philosophical issues in the discussion of formal cataloguing andfolksonomies, one issue that comes up is the question of who is charge. After all,“catalogers have traditionally been responsible for expressing the subject, the‘aboutness,’ of a work by choosing subject terms from controlled vocabularies such asLibrary of Congress Subject Headings” (Tappeiner & Lyons, 2009, pp. 111). To be sure,cataloguers are mindful of the guesswork that goes into this activity, the reality of thesituation being that cataloguing efforts are only approximations.
  7. 7. In the eyes of proponents of Web 2.0 and the social nature of folksonomies,tagging and folksonomies are “necessary antidotes to the hierarchical nature andinflexibility of controlled vocabularies. Groups of users with similar interests may usesimilar tags, creating flat and democratic folksonomies as opposed to a hierarchicalcontrolled vocabulary” (Tappeiner & Lyons, 2009, pp. 111). Folksonomies also allow forquick cultural and linguistic adaptations; recent words and technologies can be broughtinto the fold much more quickly than the ponderous LCC or DDC, and differentlinguistic groups have the opportunity to engage in the classification process.III. Folk practices: The uses of folksonomies in libraries Today, folksonomies are being used widely throughout web-based applications,but they have also found their way into information institutions, such as libraries andarchives. One particularly interesting area of use is within the institution of the academiclibrary, which are often able to explore the forefronts of new information technologieswith greater daring than public libraries or archives. Within academic libraries, there are a number of interesting studies regardingfolksonomies and tagging. As scholars Yong-Mi Kim and June Abbas (2010) write aboutacademic libraries, “Recognizing the importance of the knowledge repository and sharingcapabilities of this functionality, academic libraries increasingly adopt this functionality.For example, 76% of academic library sites (13 out of 17 total academic library sites)provided user tagging.” The enthusiasm over Web 2.0, moreover, can be seen in thecreation of projects like the Penn Tags project, undertaken at the University ofPennsylvania, where students and faculty can contribute to the collection of tags within
  8. 8. the university’s library OPAC (Abbas & Kim, 2010). A similar enterprise has beenundertaken at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law SchoolLibrary. Through the H20 Playlist, a shared list of readings and other intellectual content,students can create tags and share them with fellow students (Redden, 2010). Other institutions, such as the Oviatt Library at California State University, havebrought in user-created metadata from LibraryThing for Libraries (LTFL), a list of tagsprovided by users of the social cataloging site LibraryThing. LibraryThing is then whichlinked to a librarys catalog via ISBNs, and tags for a library catalog record are given. BySeptember of 2008, 25 academic libraries and 68 total libraries were implementingLTFL. One particular study reported that the use of LTFL at the Oviatt Library atCalifornia State University, Northridge resulted in a substantial increase of resourcediscovery; users found four new books using LTFL for every new book found throughLibrary of Congress Subject Headings (Willey, 2011). Similarly, the DeweyBrowserallows users to look for Dewey Decimal subjects or click on those within the tag cloudand find related resources in WorldCat, which are customizable by language, format andaudience. Two other tools for librarians looking to harness the tags and folksonomies areLibMarks and LibGuides, both developed by Springshare, a Web 2.0 company thatfocuses on developing programs for libraries and educational institutions. LibMarks is anapplication that was designed with libraries and institutions in mind, allowing bookmarksto be saved and rated. As part of a content management and information sharing system,it also allows libraries to integrate services with social networking sites. Moreover,LibMarks has widgets that let library professionals share tags and information via blogs
  9. 9. and instruction delivery systems. LibGuides, on the other hand, has a more specific goalin mind. It allows library professionals to make subject guides and send links to users; italso offers the option of allowing library professionals to create tags and tag clouds forindividual library guides (Redden, 2010). The incorporation of tags and folksonomies generally follows the movement toincorporate aspects of Web 2.0 into library practices, such as blogs, social networking,and podcasts. These new practices allow for one of the core tenants of Web 2.0,personalization, to be brought into foreground. Personalization in this context allowsusers to “customize or tailor content or store frequently visited links” (Abbas & Kim,2010). Tagging and folksonomies also create the opportunity for users to utilize naturallanguage in their searching; instead of relying on predetermined phrases, users now havethe capacity to engage searching and organization based on their own knowledge andunderstanding of language, as well as its relationship to resources. The ideology behind these activities within the library setting is very much akin tothe ideology that has encouraged the growth and development of Information Commonsamong academic libraries—a desire to make the library an accessible, intellectuallyorganic location. As researchers Booth, McDonald, and Tiffen (2010) note, thefolksonomies and the commons model both allow customization of space that createsinformation systems and structures that are more intuitive and navigable for the user.Moreover, the commons model and folksonomies offer what appear to be adaptable,engaging, and responsive models for the future of libraries (p. 6). But are they as adaptable and engaging as proponents argue? The interest in Web2.0 technologies, folksonomies included, does not always translate to use and adoption.
  10. 10. Some of the challenges and setbacks experienced by academic libraries in their attemptsto institute these technologies are outlined in the 2010 study by June Abbas and Young-Mi Kim. They note that adoption rates are far lower than one would expect them to be,especially given the interest. They write that, while 76% of academic library sites offeruser tagging (which allows for folksonomies to develop), “Tagging and folksonomy…arethe least utilized functionalities” of all of the Web 2.0 options, with only 12-13% oflibraries use them. On a certain level, this is surprising. After all, the present generation of collegestudents is often presumed to have a high comfort level with Web 2.0 technologies thatlibraries have gone to great pains to integrate into their systems. Abbas and Kim suggestthat the low levels of adoption of “user-initiated functions” like tagging and folksonomieshave something to do with the relationship of the user to the institution; perhaps users areconcerned about contributing because they believe “their contributions may not beconsistent with the views of the experts” (Abbas & Kim, 2010). In addition, these user-initiated knowledge creation spaces also may not be advertised to the users as a meansthat they can contribute their knowledge within the library community.IV. The new future of folksonomy It is interesting to point out that the studies cited above, by Abbas and Kim and byRedden, were published within a very close frame of time—April and May of 2010,respectively—yet they come away with very different analyses of the use of tagging andfolksonomies in academic libraries. Redden is relatively optimistic about the continueduse of these functionalities, but Abbas and Kim, on the other hand, are much more
  11. 11. measured in their response, considering their lower adoption rates within academiclibraries. Suprisingly, Abbas and Kim do not focus on how problems within tagging andfolksonomies may impede user adoption. Indeed, there are areas in which folksonomiescan be improved. Language, in particular, presents a special challenge. Although naturallanguage searching is one of the benefits of folksonomies, there are problems with theway language is represented in tags. Four main language problems can be identified:plurals, as tags of “car” and “cars” are distinct and often not mutually searchable;polysemy, or words with two or more meanings; synonymy, or different words withsimilar meanings; and depth of tagging, or the specificity allowed by tags in searching(Noruzi, 2007). There are other questions to consider as well. How will, for example,academic libraries maintain tags over time? Although one of the charms of tagging andfolksonomies is that it allows users to utilize current linguistic standards to assist insearches, language is an ever-changing thing. What happens, then, when the meaning oftag terms changes over time (Medeiros, 2008)? Resolving these issues will improve utility of tags and folksonomies for academiclibraries. But the feelings of the end user cannot be ignored. One issue that needs to beaddressed is one of the fundamental assumptions behind the addition of tagging andfolksonomic capabilities within academic libraries—do students want to search this way?Tagging and folksonomies are ways of organization that are purported to be more“democratic,” but literature often fails to define what this means and why it is ofimportance to users. Another more basic question also must be addressed: do users ofacademic libraries have the skills to navigate systems using tags and relying on
  12. 12. folksonomies? Although there are a great many undergraduate students with excellenttechnological skills, the presumption that all college students are digital natives may beoff the mark; the digital divide affects the college-going demographics as well. Redden,however, aptly suggests that instruction in the use of tags and creation of folksonomiesmay go a long way towards ameliorating problems of this nature. She writes that through“teaching students to use tags, whether through workshops or bibliographic instruction,librarians may also emphasize tag literacy, defined in part by the use of properly spelledtags and collective tags, when appropriate. Encouraging users to be aware of thecollaborative nature of tagging and the most conscientious ways to participate in taggingcommunities promotes socially responsible bookmarking” (Redden, 2010). How the future of tagging and folksonomies develops remains to be seen. Amongscholars, the consensus seems to be as follows: it will be interesting to see what happens.Certainly, the aforementioned issues will need to be addressed if folksonomies are to beincorporated, in the long-term, into formal classification structures and retrieval systems.But, as Abbas and Kim’s study points out, there is one heartening aspect to the effort.Academic libraries are interested in how their users look for information and accessibilityand usability remains a high priority. Returning to a philosophical point of view, althoughlibrarians must continue to be critical of new technologies, it is exciting to see the effortsof academic librarians to make their collections as accessible as possible to users, as wellas to involve users in the classification process. Classification, even within academia,should not be an us-versus-them proposition; tagging and folksonomies can help usencourage this develop.
  13. 13. ReferencesAbbas, J. & Kim, Y.M. (2010, April). Adoption of library 2.0 functionalities by academic libraries and users: A knowledge management perspective. Journal of academic librarianship. 36(3), 211–218Booth, M., McDonald, S. & Tiffin, B. (2010). A new vision for university libraries: Towards 2015.Galarza, A. (2011). Folksonomies. History of the digital age. Retrieved from (2008). In PC Mag Encyclopedia. Retrieved from,1233,t=folksonomy&i= 56510,00.aspHotho, A. (2010). Data mining on folksonomies. Intelligent information access. G. Armano (Ed.). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.International Semantic Web Conference, Aberer, K., & Asian Semantic Web Conference. (2007). The Semantic Web: 6th International Semantic Web Conference, 2nd Asian Semantic Web Conference, ISWC 2007 + ASWC 2007, Busan, Korea, November 11-15, 2007: proceedings. Berlin: Springer.Noruzi, Alireza (2007). Folksonomies: Why do we need controlled vocabulary? Webology. 4(2). Retrieved from, N. (2008). Screw cap or cork? Keeping tags fresh (and related matters). OCLC Systems & Services, 4(2), pp.77 – 79.Pink, D.H. (2005, Dec 11). Folksonomy. New York Times. Retrieved from, C.S. (2010, May). Social Bookmarking in Academic Libraries: Trends and Applications. Journal of academic librarianship, 36(3), 219-227.Schmitz, C. (2007). Self-organized collaborative knowledge management. Kassel: Kassel Univ. Press.Vander Wal, T. (2007). Folksonomy coinage and definition. Retrieved from, E. (2011). A cautious partnership: The growing acceptance of folksonomy as acomplement to indexing digital images and catalogs. Library student journal. 6.
  14. 14. Retrieved from