inside the man

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

IA pitches folksonomies to librarians

nform Information Architect Gene Smith faced an audience of professional librarians at the Access conference this week to let them know that folksonomies are a good idea. While this conference is being held in my home town of Edmonton, Alberta, I was, unfortunately unable to attend. Fortunately, Gene has made his slides available at his blog.

I can tell you, as a librarian, that the profession as a whole is not necessarily warm to the idea of folksonomies. Librarians have a long term professional stake in the notion of authoritative classification and description of documents using thesauri and other controlled vocabularies. The folksonomic or social tagging movement is the antithesis of this perspective focused on amateur classification unimpeded by formal vocabularies.

I do not know how Gene introduced Clay Sharky's opinions on this issue during his presentation - it would be interesting to know - but Sharky's name is mentioned a few times and his mug graces one slide. I wonder how the audience of librarians, most of whom would not be familiar with Sharky's views on the profession of cataloguing, would respond if Gene had read the following quote from the summary of one of Sharky's well known presentations?

"The LC scheme, when examined closely, is riddled with inconsistencies, bias, and gaps. Top level geographic categories, for example, include "The Balkan Peninsula" and "Asia." The primary medical categories don't include oncology, defaulting to the older and now discredited notion that cancers were more related to specific organs than to common processes. And the list of such oddities goes on... it enforces cookie-cutter categorization that doesn't reflect the polyphony of its contents--there is a literature of creativity, for example, made up of books about art, science, engineering, and so on, and yet those books are not categorized (which is to say shelved) together, because the LC scheme doesn't recognize creativity as an organizing principle. For a reader interested in creativity, the LC ontology destroys value rather than creating it."

[You can listen to Sharky's full presentation here.]

There is also a third approach mentioned in Gene's slides - machine indexing. For the sake of clarity, the three approaches to making documents (or items, data, or whatever) findable are:

  1. The traditional cataloguer's approach - authoritative classification with controlled vocabularies that may or may not fit into the categories of ontologies or thesauri
  2. The amateur post-facto approach - a community of users, which may be as small as one or as large as all Internet users, tags items with any word they want to use
  3. The Google approach - keyword index everything and use clever relevance sorting on search results

For the record, I support the view put forward in Gene's final slide, the ideal for most situations is a combination of approaches to describing items.

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Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Returned to working as a Management Consultant, specializing in risk, security, and regulatory compliance, with Fujitsu Canada after running the IT shop in the largest library in the South Pacific.

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