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Social Tagging, Library of Congress’ Subject Headings, and Library Catalogs

Jason W. Dean
IST 616
Syracuse University
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Over the past several years the explosion of information associated with the
digitization of information resources has led to the creation of systems for user-created
tags, also known as collaborative tags. These systems allow users of electronic
information resources to assign tags, of relevance to the user, to the information object
itself. These tags, however, are separate from the traditional form of “tagging” in the
library catalog, specifically the Library of Congress Subject Headings. These headings,
alternatively referred to as Library of Congress Authorities, and referred to as LCSH in
this paper, are a massive collection of controlled vocabulary words used for the
description of subjects, organization, places, and individuals in library catalog records.
Both social tags and LCSH provide useful and helpful access points for catalog users.
Furthermore, both systems offer strengths and weaknesses, which are complimentary to
one another. This paper looks briefly at each system and the proposed methods by which
social tags and the LCSH can be integrated in a way that will help the user to find the
information resources they seek.
As pointed out in the Macgregor (2006) article, controlled vocabularies perform
many useful functions, including:
• Managing synonyms and other easily confused terms – This prevents the
description of one “thing” by many terms. For example, without a controlled
vocabulary, items about George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush might both be
described through the term “George Bush.” A controlled vocabulary ensures that
the terms are unique, as well as consistent, across catalogs thereby increasing the
ease of searching for users.
• Discriminates between homonyms – This function eliminates the confusion
between similar sounding or spelled words with different meanings. For example,
a user searching for the term “bark” might be searching for information about tree
bark, but find information only about the sound a dog makes. Controlled
vocabularies reduce the confusion between homonyms.
• Refers user to appropriate terms – From the example above, if a user searches for
“George Bush” in the catalog, the references under the controlled vocabulary
heading will allow the catalog to offer “See under” links, allowing the user to
connect to the specific information they are seeking. In the example, the catalog
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might produce links to both George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush, allowing
the user to search more successfully for the particular person (or term).
• Allows for the use of a hierarchy of terms – This allows for easier classification of
terms, as well as collocation, thereby improving the usage of terms in searching.
• Facilitates the use of language independent codes and notation – This allows users
to look at and understand terms in formatting that might not be in their native
However, controlled vocabularies are not perfect, and are less than perfectly
suited to cope with the explosive growth of information today. As the Steele (2009)
article highlights, libraries are receiving information resources faster than they can create
metadata for these items. LCSH is slow to add new headings, or alter current ones to
meet the information needs of users as reflected in the growth of keyword searching.
However, through the growth of social media websites, such as delicious, flickr,
and LibraryThing, an alternate method for assigning metadata to objects has arisen:
tagging, or folksonomies. This is a method by which any user of a website or service can
assign metadata to an item, with no control over vocabulary headings or preferred terms.
Tags can range from the personal, such as “to-read” to the highly descriptive, such as
“libel law,” to the subjective, as in “bad book.” The appeal of these tags lies in the ease of
their creation, as well as the freedom to “tag” an object with any word the user chooses.
Of course, these terms have many different meanings, each specific to the creator but not
necessarily shared with each individual “user” of the tags, meaning a user who did not
create the original tags themselves. This represents a major problem in using
folksonomies in library catalogs – there is no control over subjective terms, or synonyms.
No widespread efforts exist to combine LCSH and folksonomies but some limited studies
have been done of folksonomies, their use in library catalogs, and their possible
combination with LCSH.
In the Bar-Ilan (2008) article, the authors studied the process of assigning tags to
a variety of photos with significance to the users of those items. Specifically, the study
examined two methods of assigning user-generated tags: free form and through fields.
The authors found that structured tagging, or tagging with the use of fields, can provide
more specific metadata, but also creates room for mis-interpretation of those fields. In
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addition, the users are tied to only those fixed fields, and are unable to assign free-form
tags to the items, limiting the metadata that users can generate. The authors found this to
be a limitation and suggested a system by which users can both generate the fields, as
well as the metadata entered into those fields so that not only do the users create the
metadata, they also create some type of indication as to how that metadata should be
interpreted and utilized.
Tools for the use of unstructured user-generated tags are highlighted in the
Jeffries (2008) article. In this article, the author highlights four social cataloging services:
Shelfari, Goodreads, Visual bookshelf, and LibraryThing. The author gives a general
overview of each service, as well as highlighting their impact for librarians. Tags are
mentioned, but the value of this article lies in its broad overviews of each service, each
one using tags in a slightly different way. In addition, these social cataloging websites
provide a good look at how a library might implement social tagging in their own catalog.
This is an especially helpful resource to read before reading the Thomas and Mendes
articles about LibraryThing for libraries, discussed later.
The Lawson (2009) article examines the use of both LCSH as well as
folksonomies in library catalogs. As highlighted in the conclusion of the article, tags can
yield far more information about an item than a subject heading can. In the case of one
item studied, there was only one subject heading, but many different tags assigned by
users, each which had (arguably) similar meanings to the subject heading. Lawson argues
for the parallel implementation of both LCSH as well as tags in order to enhance
searching and access points for bibliographic records, noting: “While social tagging does
consist of a great deal of subjective tagging, there is enough objective tagging available
on bibliographic-related websites such as Amazon and LibraryThing that librarians can
use to provide enriched bibliographic records,” (Lawson, 2009, p. 580).
In the article “Subjecting the catalog to tagging,” by Mendes et al (2009), the
authors examine the implementation of a social cataloging tool, LibraryThing, in
conjunction with a library’s catalog, in an iteration called LibraryThing for Libraries
(LTFL). The article discusses some of the problems associated with both controlled
vocabularies, as well as folksonomies, and introduces the concept of leveraging metadata
from third party vendors. The authors then discuss the specifics of implementation of
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LTFL in library catalogs. Also included in the article is an analysis of tags and LCSH,
with interesting results. On average, there were only 4.1 LCSH headings per item, but
there were over 30 tags per item. In addition, usage statistics for the user tags are
included, but do not constitute a definitive study of user preferences and trends in using
tags as access points for catalog records.
In his article about emerging trends in tagging, Smith (2008) discusses the advent
of trends in what might be called second generation tagging. He identifies and describes
four areas in which tagging is changing. The first area Smith highlights is that tags are
gaining more structure. This trend allows users to map tags to concepts, so that a user
might differentiate between the bark of a dog and the bark of a tree through the use of
those structures. The second area highlighted is the leveraging of communities. Through
the use of large user communities and large tag pools, users can link any two tags to
make them equivalent. After this is done, the more popular term becomes the preferred
term, much like a heading in LCSH. The third area examined is automanual
folksonomies. Through this implementation of tagging, users can choose from a
predetermined set of tags presented in a hierarchical format, but can also create their own
tags. Finally, the author examines user-generated innovations based on tags. This section
looks at the many ways in which the metadata represented by tags can be used, from an
RSS feed to methods by which users can adapt metadata to better fit their needs.
In his article “The new cooperative cataloging,” Tom Steele (2008) broadly
examines tagging and its use in library catalogs, social cataloging, and tagging websites.
Steele concludes that because the function of a library catalog is to provide access to
information, then tagging has a rightful place in the catalog. He examines how libraries
can utilize tagging within their own catalogs through widely used tagging sites such as
LibraryThing and YouTube, as well as LTFL, mentioned above. In addition, Steele
suggests that libraries can also implement their own independent tagging systems. These
systems would allow libraries to implement tags in a manner that best fits their users.
The Thomas (2009) article compares social tags to LCSH and looks specifically at
what extent tags could replace LCSH. The advantages and disadvantages of both systems
are examined in the article. The authors examine ten books in this process and found that
“social tagging does indeed augment the LCSH providing additional access to resources.
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Tags do supply additional vocabulary that could be incorporated into LCSH,” (Thomas,
2009, p. 431). Important to note, though, is that the authors decline to state that social
tags can entirely replace LCSH, simply augment that system of controlled vocabulary.
The authors propose that a hybridization of tagging and LCSH might be the best use of
tags, especially when the tags used are high in number and have been in use for a longer
time, such as the tags generated in LTFL.
The final article discussed in this review is the Yi and Chan (2009) article about
an exploratory study done examining the linking of folksonomy to LCSH. For this study,
the authors used tags generated from Delicious, a social tagging website, and compared
those tags to LCSH. The authors found that approximately ten percent of the compared
tags had no matching terms in LCSH. In addition, the authors describe the difficulties in
linking LCSH and social tags in an effective manner, including the “occurrence of many
specific technology-related tags, most of which were not found in LCSH; pervasiveness
of inconsistent forms and patterns of multiword tags that result in failure in matching
headings; and incompatibility between word forms such as abbreviations or acronyms
used in tags and terms in LCSH,” (Yi, 2009, p. 897).
A review of the literature above produces two ways in which libraries can utilize
and implement social tagging at the present time. The first manner in which libraries can
use social tags in their catalogs is through a parallel implementation in the catalog with
LCSH. These different systems would appear simultaneously upon the display of a record
and would both be independently searchable in the OPAC. The other method by which
libraries can use social tags is through linking those tags to, or incorporating them with,
LCSH. This linked system would require some type of infrastructure support from LCSH,
either through the incorporation of social tags into the controlled vocabulary or through
the linking of tags to a heading in LCSH.
The first method mentioned above, parallel deployment, appears to be the easiest
to implement in library catalogs. No alteration of LCSH is needed, nor is the library
required to do additional work to link social tags to the LCSH. This allows the library to
reap some of the benefits of social tags discussed in the articles while reducing the
amount of work needed to implement the tags. However, this system is less than optimal
for the user of the catalog. Two systems for subject description have the potential to be
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confusing to the user. Furthermore, tags can become unwieldy, unless a system for
management is in place, which ostensibly would be implemented and maintained by the
The second method mentioned above, linked or integrated deployment, has the
potential to be the best implementation of social tagging for the user. This method
presents the user with a familiar, unified subject description system with the added
benefits of being integrated with the LCSH. Integration helps reduce many of the
problems associated with “pure” free-form tagging: lack of specificity, poor synonym
control, references to preferred terms, lack of collocation and hierarchy, as well as
discrimination among homonyms. This system would also draw on the metadata already
held within LCSH, one of the largest systems of controlled vocabulary in use today.
However, there are problems with the implementation of a linked-type system. Before
this could be implemented, the very fabric of LCSH would need to be changed to allow
the addition and usage of social tags as synonyms, or new headings. In addition, libraries
would need to update the headings in their catalogs in a much more timely fashion than is
generally done now, so that the changes brought by added tags could be used to improve
the access points for records in the catalog.
In conclusion, social tags simply provide too much data about the items they
represent to be ignored by libraries. They provide an interesting way by which users can
“get involved” at their library, even though they might not leave their own homes.
Literature about the topic is helpful, but efforts to integrate social tags into library
catalogs are really in their infantile stages. At this point, two courses of action are
available to libraries, both requiring monumental amounts of work to implement
effectively. Later versions and implementations of social tags in catalogs will yield
greater benefits for users, but major change will not happen until the library community
examines whether or not LCSH and social tags should be mutually exclusive, or should
be integrated in some meaningful way.
Social Tagging, Library of Congress’ Subject Headings, and Library Catalogs, 8


Bar-Ilan, J., Shoham, S., Idan, A., Miller, Y., & Shachak, A. (2008). Structured versus

unstructured tagging: a case study. Online Information Review, 32(5), 635-647.

Jeffries, S. (2008). Social cataloging tools: a comparison and application for librarians.

Library Hi Tech News, 25(10), 1-4.

Lawson, K. G. (2009). Mining social tagging data for enhanced subject access for readers

and researchers. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 35(6), 574-582.

Macgregor, G., McCulloch, E. (2006). Collaborative tagging as a knowledge organization

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Mendes, L. H., Quiñonez-Skinner, J., Skaggs, D. (2009). Subjecting the catalog to

tagging. Library Hi Tech, 27(1), 30-41.

Smith, G. (2008). Tagging: emerging trends. Bulletin of the American Society for

Information Science and Technology, 34(6), 14-17.

Steele, T. (2009). The new cooperative cataloging. Library Hi Tech, 27(1), 68-77/

Thomas, M., Caudle, D. M., Schmitz, C. M. (2009). To tag or not to tag? Library Hi

Tech, 27(3), 411-434.

Yi, K., Chan, L. M. (2009) Linking folksonomy to Library of Congress subject headings:

an exploratory study. Journal of Documentation, 65(6) 872-900.