Formal Reader’s Response: Whose Space?

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Flickr are rapidly becoming the information exchange system of choice for today’s youth. In his article “Whose Space?” John Maxymuk makes use of several studies on social networking trends as he surveys the landscape and describes the problem these sites create for today’s librarians. As John describes himself as an older, “cranky” librarian who “see[s] a clear difference between private and public space” (2007, p. 97) right from the start, we should not expect a spirited defense of the MySpace-Facebook paradigm. In his opinion, these tools mostly bring out our immature, narcissistic side. Despite his negative feelings, Maxymuk understands that librarians need to better understand these tools and what they can do for and to academic libraries, because the library’s users are Facebook users, too.

Maxymuk first describes today’s students and their preference for multimedia, freely shared content, and working collaboratively. He explains that they are not very fond of copyright laws, which they see as an encumbrance on the sharing of information, and they blur the lines between creators and consumers, gravitating toward “more democratic ways to learn and stay current about their world.” (2007, p. 97).Next, the article provides a short discussion on social bookmarking, the practice of sharing one’s favorite web sites with others in one’s social circle, which is rooted in the basic hyperlink-based structure that developed into our modern world wide web. Maxymuk then introduces the concept of tags– user-created, non-hierarchical metadata — that are used to classify the bookmarks. Here he hits on a key point: while metadata created for a digital library project are likely to take advantage of controlled vocabulary, expert catalogers, and expert users, tagging on the web is mostly done as the records are being created, by amateurs who use neither controlled vocabulary nor any kind of expertise (2007 p.98).

Maxymuk goes on to say that social tagging, or “folksonomy,” presents both positives and negatives, although outside of cost effectiveness he does not name any of the pluses, referring us instead to a paper by Adam Mathes. Mathes lists lower cognitive cost needed to participate, instant feedback loops, new kinds of asymmetric communication between users through their tags, lower barriers to collaboration, a compulsion to share information, and the possibility of unanticipated uses (2004). Maxymuk concentrates on the negatives: tag ambiguity; lack of control for synonyms, capitalization, singular/plural, or even correct spelling; constraint to single words; uniqueness of each user’s tagging philosophy; and vulnerability to spammers. He argues that folksonomy is “not an effective way to find information on a topic” (2007, p. 98), although the practice is popular and becoming more so.

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of various social tagging engines, Maxymuk conducted an experiment in which he searched for the term “library” in a variety of these sites. He shares his findings, dividing them into several different categories, each of which yields progressively more focused results. First are popular favorites like Flickr and del.icio.us. The former turns up pictures of libraries as well as less germane subjects, while the latter returns lots of references to software development (code libraries). The next category is portable bookmark sites (Furl and Spurl) which do return links to the home pages of some of the better known libraries, as well as some sites that aren’t quite what he had in mind, like the Web Design and Texture libraries. Next are the academic sites, like CiteULike and Connotea, where the tags are far more academically inclined. Not surprisingly, these sites refer him to scholarly journals on subjects like libraries and documentation. Finally, he recommends LibraryThing, a site that allows users to catalog their books online using their own tagging systems or one of several widely accepted ones, like the Dewey system.

Having surveyed the landscape, Maxymuk reaches the conclusion that, although these sites “run counter to basic library principles,” (2007, p.100) they are here to stay and libraries have to make use of them if they are to make a connection with the user of tomorrow. He ends by suggesting that librarians follow Peter Meholz’s suggestion and use social bookmarking tags as “desire lines” (a concept also mentioned by Adam Mathes in his essay). By studying social tagging patterns, librarians can deduce which connections users are making on their own, and they can use those connections as a basis to refine their more formal taxonomies. This synergy, if it can be created and exploited, will allow librarians to reap the true benefits of folksonomy.

Sources:

Maxymuk, John (2007). Whose Space? The Bottom Line: Managing Library Finances, Vol. 20 (No. 2), pp. 97-100.

Mathes, Adam (2004). Folksonomies – Cooperative Classification and Communication through Shared Metadata. Retrieved July 12, 2009, from http://www.adammathes.com/academic/computer-mediated-communication/folksonomies.html

Reflections on chapter 11 of The Portable MLIS

When I tell people about my desire to become a librarian, they almost always bring up the Evil Internet. After the jokes about how long it will take to grow my hair long enough to make a proper bun, the E. I. is probably the most common reaction I get. How can I possibly put this much effort, they ask, into learning a profession that is being made moot by the great electronic revolution as we speak? The E. I. is democratizing access to information at a torrid pace, obviating any need for libraries, newspapers, television networks, and any other vestiges of the dictatorial systems of the past. Why would anyone come to me for advice on finding a particular piece of data, when Google and Yahoo have made the task as easy as putting on a pair of pants?

Until now, I have responded to these concerns with some sort of speech about how librarians are needed now more than ever, for as the information available to the average person multiples exponentially, the ability to intelligently search and retrieve that information becomes even more valuable. In order for democracy to be valuable to you as a voter, you need more than simple access to the booth; you also need a way to educate yourself about the issues you are deciding, lest your vote become meaningless. Thanks to Judith Weedman, the author of chapter 11 of The Portable MLIS (2008), I can now dispense with the oratory and answer with one simple word: kittens.

Ms. Weedman uses kittens in a discussion about social tagging, the phenomenon whereby the users of an online resource create their own information retrieval as they add content by adding tags to their content. In her example, users who upload pictures of kittens are likely to apply the tag “kitten” to the photos because that is the tag that will make it easy to find whenever that user needs a picture of a young cat. In the best case scenario, the vocabulary used in tags converges, that is, all users decide on “kitten” as the proper tag for this type of photo (as opposed to “cat,” or “young cat,” or even “dog”), and the system evolves organically into a useful database, containing a powerful, intuitive information retrieval system. If you want a picture of a kitten, and you don’t have one, you can use the communal tag and find other users’ kittens. In this way, online communities obviate the need for librarians, as all information is correctly catalogued by the users themselves.

If you are looking for a picture of a kitten, any kitten, this system is likely to work well. If you are writing a paper on the defeat of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps by British forces at El Alamein in 1942, and you need to find information on troop numbers, strategies, key leaders, and the impact of the campaign on the overall course of World War II, then community-operated databases may not be your tool of choice. Sure, Wikipedia has a page on Herr Rommel that contains a bounty of information, but how do you know that all of it is accurate? How can you be sure that its sources include all of the information on this particular episode? The litmus test for a professionally designed information retrieval system is that it will find not just some information on a particular topic, but the most reliable, most relevant information. Or as I will now tell my friends, say you lost your kitten. Would you be satisfied if someone brought you any old kitten, as smart and cute as it may be, or would you insist in finding the very same one you lost?


Weedman, Judith (2008). Information Retrieval: Designing, Querying and Evaluating Information Systems. In Haycock, Ken & Sheldon, Brooke E. (Ed.). (2008). The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts. (pp. 112-126) Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.