Folksonomy, Autonomy and the Death of Expertise

Does anyone remember the days when you went to a grocery store and were served by a person called a grocer? Or when you went to a Medical clinic and were served by a doctor? How about the time you’re purse was stolen and then retrieved by a police officer? Yes? No? Well even if you personally have no experience with any of the above scenarios you will no doubt have noticed the one thing that all three professionals share in common: expertise. The grocer was called a grocer because groceries were his business, and his expertise surrounded his products and what would be best for his patrons.  Before sites like WEBMD turned everyone into a professor of medical science, the doctor was trusted because she had spent literally millions of hours, if not dollars, in school, medical school, and then in residency to have the privilege to tell you: “That wasn’t a heart attack, Dorris, just a case of angina.”  Now, in our society’s ever constant search for autonomy and freedom from the horrible constraints of authority, we have become self styled experts in everything, even library cataloging.  As a prospective library professional, I can now tell you how Mr. Brown felt when his family grocery was bought out by big business and his friendly smile was replaced by a self-check out terminal: it stinks.

Indeed, the folks over at LibraryThing, sure know a thing or too about this new trend of “folksonomy.” In the vision of this utopic movement, we would do away with Dewey and silence the curmudgeony Library of Congress, who think that they know better than the common plebeian how to catalogue a monograph.  After all, what would bourgeois librarians from one hundred years ago know or appreciate about the modern denizen of the internet? We live in a time characterized by the [almost?] most freedom in the history of the world (some restrictions apply, see Pew Research Index), and why should we have to abide by the restrictions of the International Federation of Library Associations? Are we not after all self determining organisms? With certain rights and privileges???

That’s it for the soap box ranting portion of this blog post, I promise. Now to examine more of what makes folksonomy appealing to internet users in and out of the world of libraries.

The user made social tags work in a way which proscribed systems of metadata miss: they express the details which the consumer feels is the most important about the work. When the librarian catalogues a book about science experiments, there is notice made about whether this book is well suited to the classical homeschooling method instead of the Montesorri. However, when a patron is looking for a book on science experiments, this is precicly the sort of information that is important. Folksonomy allows the patrons to share with other potential patrons what the main aspects of an item is that would make it interesting for another user. This makes folksonomy useful in the same way that the dewey decimal system is useful for grouping all the books about science experiments together. On pinterest, a folksonomy-based website, users are able to group images and webpages together onto boards, which then sort the information based on the boards into user searchable topics, thereby leading patrons to similar information that they may be interested in. Folksonomy is therefore an important tool for users who want to discover sources which other users with similar intrests to themselves have found.

Kate Baker, in her blog post “Folksonomies and Social Tagging” points out a similar example of the use of user based tagging. Baker describes how if someone wants to find the book about a pig who wears a red dress, but cannot remember the title, Google and Amazon will find the intended book while a library search of the terms “children’s book pig dress” will not yield the intended results. In situations of forgotten titles and searching for similar approaches to topics that patrons are able to help each other, as they are facing the same situations together.

Perhaps folksonomy and the traditional cataloging systems don’t have to compete. Each helps patrons find the books and other materials which they are looking for, just in different ways. If these systems are able to coexist, everybody can find exactly what they are looking for. Hopefully.


Baker, K. (2012, November 13). Folksonomies and Social-Tagging. Retrieved October 25, 2017, from


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