On tagging (2)

I previously made some comments about tagging. I believe tagging has its place as does controlled vocabularies. John Udell’s blog post yesterday on tagging and foldering made the point that: “On the desktop as well as on the web, we’re in the midst of a long transition from container-based to query-based storage and retrieval”.

In container-based storage one looks for what you want by going to the container and looking to see what is in it. In a search-based world, the container is irrelevant so long as access to the contents of the container can be searched, made even more powerful by being able to search across multiple containers. And even the notion of containers is becoming obsolete as digital content becomes miscellaneous.

Interestingly, I was left thinking about the notion of access points that we looked at years ago in my librarianship training. Traditionally, access points were different ways of accessing a library catalogue but now access points relate also to the digital domain. The fact is that now we can have an enormous number of access points and these access points can now be determined by users with user-generated content and tagging.

The Udell blog post reignited some thoughts on my own plans for my home digitisation project to convert several thousand hard copy prints and slides into digital images. The workflow includes using cataloguing software for categorising and searching my photo collection (where are the digital images located on my computer and external drives and what terms will I use to be able to search and find the ones I want?).

The issue for me is that I need a controlled vocabulary to ensure consistent and accurate description and searchability of my photo collection. In addition, I will be undertaking this catagorisation myself so there is little benefit gained from tagging since I am not saving time by having others do the categorisation for me. And certainly, there is no user-generated aggregation as there could be if I used Flickr as my host and archive.

And this is the point: tagging works best in aggregate for two reasons: Firstly, aggregation enables some semblance of preference that gives a general consensus from which patterns emerge (folksonomies) – a kind of user-generated thesaurus. Secondly, tagging works because aggregation also takes place at the actual labeling end of the workflow – individuals tagging upon production and subsequently by use, a scale issue that traditional thesaurus-based cataloguing cannot compete with. In other words, there is so much digital content out there that changes all the time that a consistent, centrally-determined traditional classification scheme and workflow is impossible.

But at home, I can generate my own controlled vocabulary to ensure accuracy and consistency across my photo collection, make reference to it for future additions, and find what I want in a reliable manner. If I was tagging, in the end I would probably have a defacto controlled vocabulary, but something less than consistent and no more meaningful.

The future may yet bring, however, the opportunity for improved tagging that generates greater consistency and reliability while still maximising scale. Even so, for my home project that’s not needed.

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