Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Folksonomies - Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata

Adam Mathes offers an interesting analysis of the user-generated metadata being added to systems lick del.icio.us and flikr. Mathes' very even-handed assessment identifies one of the significant problems with professionally created metadata:
"While professionally created metadata are often considered of high quality, it is costly in terms of time and effort to produce. This makes it very difficult to scale and keep up with the vast amounts of new content being produced, especially in new mediums like the World Wide Web. An alternative is author created metadata. Original creators of the intellectual material provide metadata along with their creations. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative has been used with some success in this area (Greenberg et al, 2002). Author created metadata may help with the scalability problems in comparison to professional metadata, but both approaches share a basic problem: the intended and unintended eventual users of the information are disconnected from the process." (p. 2)
One can't deny the increased precision that a controlled vocabulary and well-developed taxonomy offers the end-user. But, most library users I know never learn the Library of Congress Classification system not to mention LC subject headings. (I won't mention the librarians who struggle with it as well.

Missing from the paper is a sense of the changing cultural context in which we find "folksonomies" emerging. Most libraries today function on a very "modern" model for the acquisition, organization, and control of their collections. The Deweyesque assumption that libraries have for decades and must continue to control the chaos of information through our systems of classification and organization may be a flawed assumption. That's not to say that librarians won't be needed. The problem is that these systems simply aren't scalable.

Thirty years ago, the primary interface to the library's collection was the reference librarian who had intimate knowledge of the collection and could guide the user to the information she sought (whether she knew it or not). In many ways, the reference librarian functioned in a role like the waiter in a Chinese restaurant. The waiter takes my order in English, but walks into the kitchen and gives it to the cook in Chinese. The reference librarian helped the library user find the book she needed even if she didn't know the proper subject heading or classification.

The reference librarian is no longer the primary interface to the library for most users. And the professionally created metadata is no more intelligible to users than it was thirty years ago. So users have developed on their own a way to find the information they need.