Who Said You Couldn’t Catalog the Internet?

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I seem to remember, in the early heady days of the internet, there was a cry from the library profession to "Catalog the Internet" -- to create descriptive records and controlled vocabularies for every resource out there deemed useful. The early Yahoo!, with a librarian on the staff, was going to help by putting everything in a neat, orderly classification system. The rest of us were going to catalog sites like mad and put them all into WorldCat (and keep them up-to-date). A nice dream.

Looking back, we can probably guess the reasons why this dream isn't reality today: ill-suited classification schemes, sites that defy classification, etc. I think the real killer, though, was that we thought we could do it ourselves. But you know what? There is too many of "them" creating content on the internet and not enough of "us" to keep up.

I was reminded of this history as a I read a "HOWTO" called "Thirteen Tips for Effective Tagging: How to mark sites so you and others can find them" found via an LISnews posting. Written by non-librarians (presumably) for a non-librarian audience, it describes a "collaboratively generated, open-ended labeling system that enables Internet users to categorize content such as Web pages, online photographs, and Web links." Sounds reasonable enough, yes? After all, as a profession we just need to step in and give them LCSH I couldn't help but laugh when I read the big news for the 2006 edition of LCSH: "BONUS! Includes Free-floating Subdivisions as a separate section in Volume I." Hurray! as a "open-ended labeling system", right?

Nope, the next sentence of the article reads: "Tagging lets you categorize information online your way."

What?!? Their way? No way! We've got things like MARC, AACR, Dewey, and LCSH that have taken us decades to build. We know how to do this better than anyone else, so y'all just sit back and let us do our jobs. In the words of Michael Gorman, "I have spent a lot of my long professional life working on aspects of the noble aim of Universal Bibliographic Control—a mechanism by which all the world's recorded knowledge would be known, and available, to the people of the world." I offer that this excerpt resonates with many in the library profession today, and that we think we can still build a system of Universal Bibliographic Control that will be so good everyone else will obviously adopt it.

But in the grand tradition of the history of the internet, collectively its users routed around failure. One of the strengths of the internet is its capacity to "route around" failure, as explained in this piece from "NCSA's Looking Back On Three Decades Of Internet History":

But in the early 1960's, researchers began to realize that a computer network would be much less vulnerable to failure if it was more widely spread out -- less like the air travel system than like the network of back roads weaving together every municipality in the country. Each point is connected to its nearest neighbors by several redundant paths. If a connecting node between A and B fails, it is easy to find an alternative route.

And here it is done in grand fashion with 13 recommendations for user-supplied, globally recognized tagging:

  1. Be a lemming.
  2. Follow the herd.
  3. Avoid camels.
  4. Like nature, del.icio.us abhors a vacuum.
  5. Punctuate with care.
  6. Independence is a virtue.
  7. Hang out at crossroads.
  8. Co-ordinate your efforts.
  9. Tags are written in pencil.
  10. Bonus tip for Mac users: the Cocoalicious client.
  11. On del.icio.us, everyone knows you're a dog.
  12. Shh! This one's for:you.
  13. Spread the word.

Is it a perfect system? No -- and one could pick at the many faults.

Does it work? Arguably, well, yes.

Update (20080404T2147) : Update link to "Thirteen Tips..."

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.loc.gov/cds/lcsh.html to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Congress_Subject_Headings on November 17th, 2010.

The text was modified to update a link from http://lisnews.org/article.pl?sid=06/06/05/125239 to http://lisnews.org/node/18783 on January 13th, 2011.

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/webbuilding/page5508.cfm to http://web.archive.org/web/20060924214426/http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/webbuilding/page5508.cfm on August 21st, 2013.