Social Indexing as an Intervening Measure: Purposeful Temporality in the Service of Eventual Formalization


This essay seeks to provide a via media in the discourse of social indexing versus professional manual indexing by arguing that the use of social indexing can indeed be useful, and perhaps even the most practical option for imminent use, but should be employed in the service of the eventual application of a formalized methodology. The perspective here set forth argues that professional manual indexing is always the final and theoretical best, but recognizes that temporal circumstances can often render social indexing as the temporary and practical best – yet only insofar as it enables a subsequent and properly thorough treatment. The argument is supported by brief examples from three categories of research fields: established fields, emergent fields, and entry fields.

Concept and Contention

Daniel Webster is credited with having said that a politician”s blind conviction that “something must be done” is “the parent of many bad measures.”1 This tyranny of the urgent to which Webster was referring has a way of tempting even the most judicious of politicians to very injudicious decisions when circumstances are such that they feel “something must be done.” Before too many stones are cast at such politicians, let the reader admit they this tendency is universal enough to include even those in the most judicious of all professions – library and information science.

The question must be asked, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, if this tyranny of the urgent has affected the judgment of the discipline in regard to the continuing debate on the utility and viability of social indexing over against the established and proven manual indexing of information professionals. The lines have been drawn, sides have been chosen, and judgements have been passed. The debate, however, seems all too often to be between the one and the other, with little nuance or admission of mutual utility. The purpose of this essay is to propose a via media, a middle way, through the polarizing debate by arguing that there is a very real, useful, and helpful place for both approaches when applied purposefully.

It should be recognized that temporal circumstances do often construct a legitimate sense of urgency. When this urgency occurs in disciplines which are slow to react, the most sensical course of action is not to quickly and impatiently implement final decisions but rather to implement intervening measures which can provide some helpful, but temporary, structure and organization. Intervening measures need not be as robust, as comprehensive, or even as intuitive as the eventual final solution, but they are extremely important for many reasons. Intervening measures bring at least some structure and organization to the situation. They have incredible potential for shaping the debate as the situation unfolds. Most importantly, however, they enable more thorough subsequent treatments by “buying time” until a patient implementation of a more proper long-term solution is applied.

As Laura Kane McElfresh points out, changes to controlled vocabularies such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are “constrained by the machineries of the bureaucracies that create the classiffication system.”2 In other words, the controlled approaches which have created such a careful, intricate, and thorough approach to the organization of information in the discipline of library science are not the most efficiently responsive of approaches. But they worked, and they worked well. Indeed, they continue to do so. They are, however, ill equipped for fast, relevant, and agile responses to emerging topics. The contemporary information landscape includes many emerging topics that are glaringly absent from the controlled vocabularies most frequently employed -– at least not in terminology relevant to the information searcher. What is to be done? Are users to expect that until the bureaucracy addresses their needs, there is to be no helpful approach to the identification and retrieval of relevant information? It is here that the utility of social indexing can be helpfully employed: relatively short-term and purposeful use of social tagging can help to bridge the gap between the immediate need for information access to fields not readily reflected in formalized and controlled vocabularies.

Contextualized Examples

The most responsive social approaches to indexing are most useful in emerging fields. Established fields of research, on the other hand, are best approached through existing controlled vocabularies that have been formalized through years of application and use. Emerging fields of research do not yet have this luxury and social indexing can be a helpful intervening measure. From a third perspective, neither social nor manual indexing have clear advantages when it comes to their use by novices in what shall be termed entry fields. Each of these shall now be addressed in turn.

1. Established Fields of Research

Controlled vocabularies employed by professional indexers here have a clear advantage for all the reasons explicated by the many basic texts in library science and even in those of research methodology. 3 The study of historical movements is example enough. Research in Reformation Studies is, to many people, a rather specific and narrow topic. For those engaged in research in this Sixteenth Century movement (movements, plural, some would argue) the field of “Reformation Studies” is unhelpfully broad given all its inherent internal, geographic and topical differentiations. For a researcher desiring to find information on Bohemian correspondence related to the Reformation in the Czech Republic, for example, the most effective and efficient option is clearly to to utilize a system such as LCSH where there is already a relevant subject heading.4

Think of the plethora of ways in which users would tag resources relevant to this particular topic. Or, perhaps more to the point, is this topic not too esoteric for a significant enough number of users to contribute enough tags to produce a helpful outcome? In Tom Steele’s defense of the superiority of folksonomies, he argues that “experiments have shown recall is fastest at the basic level. When shown pictures of dogs and birds, people were more likely to use the term ‘dog’ or ‘bird’ instead of ‘beagle’ or ‘robin.’” He concludes, “With tagging, the users can relate to their own basic level, whether it is ‘beagle’ or ‘dog.’ A controlled vocabulary uses a hierarchy instead, which may or may not match the users’ basic level.”5 Unfortunately for Steele, he just proved the wrong point by admitting that users will tend to tag resources with broad topical tags -– an approach clearly unhelpful when searching for detailed, specialized, esoteric information. To alleviate this problem, Steele later asserts that “a thesaurus like the LCSH can assist users creating tags in many ways.”6 Doubtful they will, but his point is taken. If they do, it only serves to further the viability of tagging as an intervening measure until controlled vocabularies can more adequately reflect the field.

Established fields of research are therefore best served through professional manual indexing. Indeed, all fields of research are theoretically best served by this means, but the exponential growth of information now available to searchers is obviously much greater that the capacity of any corpus of professional indexers. It is at this point that this theoretical best must yield to the practical best as a “tide-me-over” in order to temporarily alleviate the urgency.

2. Emergent Fields of Research

A sagacious use of social indexing can help relieve the tyranny of the urgent, and here the very topic of social indexing is its own example. Social indexing is a process identified by multiple monikers – folksonomies, social bookmarking, social tagging, collaborative tagging, distributed tagging, and more. A single term has yet to emerge as the preferred term in the field. In other words, a multiplicity of terminologies are used for the study of social indexing. The LCSH, on the other hand, does not yet have any readily identifiable relevant authority terms. A researcher seeking information on the emerging field of social indexing should not be expected to wait until the LCSH bureaucracy responds. Social indexing can be the very tool that is needed needed to solve the problem.

There are those who have argued that user tagging would enhance libraries’ websites and catalogs.7 It could be argued that most of the literature on emerging fields is published serially, but there is much discussion of how social indexing would also help in identifying monographic material already in publication but which is deemed in retrospect to be relevant to an emerging topic. Librarians are more unlikely to index exhaustively enough to identify secondary or tertiary issues within a resource when indexing it, and they are even more unlikely to retrospectively edit a record to add further index terms. Social indexing is a great advantage at this particular point.

3. Entry Fields of Research

It must be recognized that social indexing offers fewer barriers to involvement in that users do not need a previous knowledge of complicated thesauri or controlled vocabularies in order to participate in the process.8 Novice information seekers are drawn to the practice because this lack of necessary instruction. It is somewhat intuitive for personal use. This also explains Rolla’s conclusion that tagging is more commonly employed for popular works, with the consequence that its usefulness for special and academic libraries remains in ques-tion.9 More specifically, Montana State University Libraries had concerns over whether social indexing would be adequate for the electronic dissertations and theses (ETDs) and discovered that though the average ETD in their collection had four LCSH headings, only 2.4 percent had tags assigned by users.10 Clearly social indexing is best reserved for more popular settings.

Conclusion and Summary

Controlled vocabularies easily vanquish the problems of polysemy, synonymy, and basic-level variation, all of which are significant problems with the social approach to indexing. However, Peter Rolla’s comparative study of tagging on LibraryThing with LCSH found that in every LibraryThing record the tagging community assigned at least one concept not covered by the subject headings in the catalog record.11 Both approaches, then, have clear strengths. But determining when to employ each requires a purposeful approach. It is here argued that the use of controlled vocabularies – especially in academic settings – is to be preferred, but due to the slow nature of these systems in responding to new topics social indexing can serve as a helpful and viable intervening measure. This approach ensures the continued careful treatment of topics by professional manual indexers, while taking advantage of the adaptability of social indexing. Indeed, the two can learn from each other without the resultant “bad measures” that flow from acting on the impetus that “something must be done.”

1 Fadiman, Clifton Fadiman, The American Treasury, 1455-1955 (New York: Harper, 1955) 338.

2 Laura Kane McElfresh, “Folksonomies and the Future of Subject Cataloging.” Technicalities 28, no. 2 (March/April 2008): 3-6. Library Lit & Inf Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed October 11, 2009).

3 Thomas Mann provides an entire chapter on subject headings in his Oxford Guide to Library Research [How to Find Reliable Information Online and Offline] (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005).

4 Reformation–Czech Republic–Bohemia–Correspondence

5 Tom Steele, “The New Cooperative Cataloging” Library Hi Tech 27, No. 1 (2009): 70. Library Lit & Inf Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed October 11, 2009).

6 Steele, 72.

7 See, for example, Louise F. Spiteri, “The Use of Folksonomies in Public Library Catalogues,” Serials Librarian 51, no. 2 (2006): 75-89.

8 See Darlene Fichter, “Intranet Applications for Tagging and Folksonomies,” Online 30, no. 3 (2006): 43-46; See also Ellyssa Kroski’s assertion that metadata is now in the realm of Everyman in L. Gordon-Murnane, “Social bookmarking, folksonomies, and Web 2.0 tools,” Searcher 14: 26-38.

9 Peter J. Rolla, “User Tags versus Subject Headings: Can User-Supplied Data Improve Subject Access to Library Collections?” Library Resources and Technical Services 53, no. 3 (2009): 178.

10 Elaine Peterson, “Patron Preferences for Folksonomy Tags: Research Findings When Both Hierarchical Subject Headings and Folksonomy Tags Are Used,” Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 4, no. 1 (2009): 55.

11 Rolla, 183.