Monday 11 December 2006

Bear with me

I know social tagging is hardly a revelation, but over the past year I've heard a lot about it in various presentations and conversations with colleagues. I'm particularly interested in the way that arts institutions are looking to tagging as a way to enhance the search functionality of their online collections. Examples of New Zealand institutions who have put their collections (or slices of them) up online include:

Auckland Art Gallery
Te Papa
Christchurch Art Gallery
Alexander Turnbull Library
Matapihi (a site that gives users access to the online collections of about 12 partner institutions).

Tagging (for people who aren't far behind me) allows users to contribute keywords to internet resources (like web pages, videos, images and blog posts) that are not controlled by a central vocabulary. Sites like Flickr, and YouTube are exponents of social tagging. The benefits of tagging include enhanced personal organisation of digital resources, spam detection, social networking and improved search functionality.

It's these last two aspects that arts institutions have jumped on. On the one hand, they're all excited about the sexy Web 2.o idea of users actively engaging with an contributing to their collections and sites. On the other hand, there's the way that tagging might / will be able to make online collections easier and more rewarding to search.

The 'problem' (not everyone's convinced that this is a problem) that tagging could fix is that the language used by curators, registrars and collection managers when cataloguing items is not necessarily the language used by the public.

For example - and not to pick on Te Papa, although god only knows why they're using rough images, not clearcut ones, on their site - when you search on the Te Papa Collections Online database using 'otago landscape' as your simple search keyword, you get this: Haru Sameshima's St Bathans, and Colin McCahon's Otago landscape no 2.

Among the artworks you don't get: Rita Angus's Central Otago and McCahon's Otago Peninsula.

The idea is that social tagging could help users to find items using keywords that aren't being used to describe the objects by the institutions. There are debates, of course, about the usefulness of user-contributed tags. People start throwing around terms like 'faceted tags'. The US Steve Museum project has just received funding to research questions like this.

Steve Museum

Sydney's Powerhouse Museum has produced a 2.0 version of their online catalogue that includes not just tagging, but Google-type features such as the 'people who searched for A also looked at X, Y and Z', all aimed to encourage 'serendipitous discovery'.

Powerhouse online collection database

Image: from

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