The “F-Word”: Folksonomies (Give them a Chance!)

The following post was submitted by students enrolled in LIS2407 – Metadata at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences. For more information on the series, see the introductory post

By Amy Berish and Amy Dinkins

As individuals we are constantly trying to organize and categorize the world. Most of the time, these specific duties are left in the hands of trained information professionals such as archivists, librarians, and other professionals who create and collect metadata. What if this task was left to the users of this information? Folksonomies, or user created metadata, increase the discovery and overall use of collections by creating more access points. “[A] folksonomy evolves when many users create or store content at particular sites and identify what they think the content is about” (Gartner 2015). Folksonomies usually take the form of tags created in a social structure where the consumer of the information is the entity creating the tag. Folksonomies are unique and attractive because they put the power of description in the hands of the user. Often times, the controlled ways metadata and information professionals describe objects may not coincide with the general language people use to search for and retrieve information. Folksonomies help with this as they allow information seekers to use natural language to describe items. With a specific local structure, information professionals can enhance their metadata by outsourcing descriptive gaps to users.

The beauty of folksonomies is that they are completely uncontrolled. This usually does not jive well with the work of information professionals since they are usually the ones in total control. Often, “traditional, hierarchy, chaos, classification and authority are all words that swirls around the talk of …. folksonomy” (Edmunson-Morton 2009). So why should information professionals give folksonomies more attention? According to OCLC, “of the user-contributed content that would most enrich the metadata created by libraries, archives, and museums, more than half improve description. Almost half contribute content to the resources already offered” (Smith-Yoshimura 2012, 5). Additionally, user-generated metadata can help institutions bridge descriptive gaps, increase discovery and use of materials, and save time and money.

Oregon State University, in their recent metadata project, used folksonomies to assist in describing photographs in the Gerald Williams Collection. The project utilized the built-in tagging structure provided by Flickr. The project resulted in “increased visibility and access to our collections… [provided] avenues for further study or research, and [gave] our users a unique opportunity to interact with the Archives and other users” (Edmunson-Morton 2009).

A suggested way to bridge the inherently messy nature of folksonomies with the interests of information professionals is to utilize a local vocabulary where terms are suggested and users can suggest additional terms for the tagging system. At the beginning of the project, the OSU Archives staff developed a policy of persistent and consistent tagging for their Flickr accounts. Since the goal was to encourage user participation, the staff limited provided tags in order to reduce their influence on users (Edmunson-Morton 2009). It is a delicate balance, but using folksonomies does not have to mean dropping authority files completely. Controlled vocabularies are created from the needs of archivists, librarians, and information professionals – the people who use them. The way users categorize and retrieve information is often absent in these structures, leaving a very noticeable gap. Folksonomies are one way to fill it. With metadata generated by users, information professionals can identify new relationships, incorporate terms used by the community, and make it easier for people to discover the materials. Scary as it may be, information professionals should loosen their grip and give users a space where they have power over description. There are considerable benefits to folksonomies, and it is up to the professionals not to waste them.


Edmunson-Morton, Tiah. June 19, 2009. “Talking and Tagging: Using CONTENTdm and Flickr in Oregon State University Archives.” The Interactive Archivist. Society of American Archivists.

Gartner IT Glossary. “Folksonomies.” Accessed June 2015.

Smith-Yoshimura, Karen. 2011. Social Metadata for Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Executive Summary. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Research:

Mike Bolam

Mike Bolam works as the Metadata Librarian in Digital Scholarship Services at the University of Pittsburgh. His primary responsibilities metadata management for digital collections and metadata support for research data management. In his spare time, Mike plays a lot of games and watches too much pro-wrestling.

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