Dear PennTags

Please don’t take this the wrong way. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s just that I was so excited to meet you — I had so many preconceptions, I had heard so much about you. And then when I actually met you, you seemed kind of standoff-ish and, I admit, sort of different from what I thought you’d be. But I still like you — don’t get me wrong.

When I first heard about you I thought: finally! A way for scholars to tag up an OPAC as well as electronic journals — a tool enabling social discovery by a defined community swimming through carefully selected resources. In short, I thought you’d be more sophisticated and more focused than I thought: finally, it will be easy for a specific class or a set group of scholars to sift together through premium resources: collaborative discovery centered on the information source most unique to Penn, the Penn library.

But when we actually met you were so confusing (and I’m not alone in thinking so). Your home page hit me right off the bat with pictures of birds and a big tagcloud, a cloud that seemed more random than representative:


What does it mean that Lauder_Institute_Area_Studies dwarfs united_states? I think it means that you haven’t gotten around enough to render a representative or even very interesting snapshot of the Penn community — so until you do, I suggest you don’t wear this raw data on your sleeve.

I know your type — you’re enamored of presenting data as it comes into your system — makes you seem extra dynamic. But until you get more play, you’re not delivering useful information with your overall clouds and ‘latest tagged’ lists. In fact, I doubt such look-ma-it’s-web2.0 features will ever be that useful to anyone, however big you get.

I guess my point is, first impressions are important — so you should use your home page to introduce yourself, rather than show off. I finally found my way to the “About” page (tiny button, my friend! why so shy?), a page that finally addresses the question, “What is PennTags”? And here you got kind of weird. You started pretending that doesn’t even exist. Or, to put it another way, you said almost nothing about yourself that couldn’t be said about You bragged:

Have you ever bookmarked a web page and then can’t find it again in your mass of bookmarks? The beauty of PennTags is that it allows you to organize your bookmarks/resources exactly the way you want and it lets you share them with others. It’s both personal and portable.

Well ok, but I thought your beauty, PennTags, would be that you would be different from — that instead of letting anyone tag anything just ‘out there’ on the open web, you’d let a defined community — namely, Penn and sub-communities within Penn — tag things that are available by virtue of being at Penn. Otherwise, why reinvent the wheel? Ignoring the popular kid & just pretending to be him won’t impress many who are likely to be drawn to you in the first place.

Jumping into some of your posts, though, I found that your users are in fact using you as I thought they might — they are tagging your library’s catalog records, and they are tagging articles available in your library’s database, as well as outside websites. Following these links put me on quite different adventures.

When the item tagged is in the OPAC

OPAC tagging is pretty darn sweet — and you pulled this off with Voyager, no less. When I clicked on a post referring to a book on Godard, I didn’t get to access the book (obviously), but I was routed to its catalog record, and I found that the user-contributed tag and summary had made the trip with me, and appeared in a yellow box right in the OPAC:


After seeing this trick, PennTags, I started to warm to you. People who know nothing about you or about tagging or even about bookmarking are bound to wonder what these yellow notes are on showing up on the bottom of OPAC records — maybe you’ll recruit more users this way, and get smarter. At the very least, you’re giving library records a sense of life; any way to enliven the OPAC with user contributions is a-ok with me.

But I wonder how you’ll manage any significant success — imagine ten such yellow PennTag records clinging onto a record in the catalog. You’ll have to be careful to keep a balance between authoritative metadata and folksonomy, between succinct official catalog records and long contributed summations.

When the item tagged is in a journal database

What about when someone posts and tags a journal article in you? I clicked on such a record, and, not to my surprise, got dumped at a Penn database log-in screen — which means that if I were affiliated with Penn, I’d go right to the article. Since I’m not, I see nothing — no user summations, no fun yellow boxes. This begs the questions again about who is using PennTags, and for what purpose. Frankly, I felt ignored by you here. If you are of, by, & for people behind Penn’s walls, then perhaps you should live behind that wall too — it’s not particularly interesting, for someone who can’t get at resources, to see how they’re being tagged.

That said, clicking on the title of another posted article, a JSTOR title, took me — much to my surprise — right into the article; I was ushered straight in thanks to my own institution. That experience started me dreaming again, PennTags, about an openURL world, filled with cross-institutional tagging of academic assets. At the very least it renewed my hope that I might find you of use while waiting for my own library to get tagging off the ground.

When the item tagged is an outside website

Then there are the outside websites that are being posted and tagged in you, just as they’re tagged in As you know, I think it’s redundant and a little silly to use you just for this purpose, but I’m also warming to the idea of tagging websites right alongside OPAC records and journal articles. You see, PennTags, I’m open to persuasion; you just haven’t taken the time to articulate the benefits of this mix. You’re actually allowing your users to bring resources into your library, in a way. Rather than reinventing a wheel, you’re melting a wall. That’s a big step, and it’s one to think about — not take for granted.

Yeah, inside/outside tagging has plenty of potential, no doubt about it, but here again I’m a little let down. Here’s the deal, PennTags: I think you could be a little more proactive about what academic tagging could or even should be. Could it be hierarchical? Might it be user-faceted? Are there ways to enforce best practices? By offering little firm guidance, you’re once again playing, leaving everything up to an undifferentiated swamp.

But look around, PennTags: you operate in a world full of productive distinctions. You even list some, shyly — they get buried in a section called “More Tagging Tips”:


How hard would it be to invite your users to think along these lines, gently, somewhere in the tagging process? Can tagging evolve to something beyond a single ‘fill in whatever you want’ open field? I know you don’t want to come across as bossy or proscriptive or — god forbid — librarian-like, but I wonder if just a couple of criteria particularly useful to your academic community (say Topic and Relevance) could be quietly promoted, just as already subtly promotes tagging uniformity through ‘recommended tags.’

The thing to keep your eye on is use: how these tags are used by actual populations, in actual classes or other sub-groupings, for actual purposes. I find it pretty weird that you’re asking people to think about tagging with an uncle in mind — unless this is an uncle at Penn. Relevance is a subjective and fairly meaningless call against a wide-open horizon (where many uncles live), but within the context of english242 students working collectively on a presentation about Keats’s illness, say, “Relevance” becomes a powerful way of characterizing a resource.

Imagine, too, if you allowed any kind of distinction among users — how interestingly instructors and students, say, could interact within a classroom framework as what they are (in the institution’s eye) through you. Or professors and research assistants. Or members of a class and those outside the class. Or librarians. Or alumni. These distinctions shape the day-to-day life of your campus, and though I suspect you imagine yourself to be leveling the playing field in exciting new ways, you don’t have to dumb the field down that much. Nor do user distinctions need to control the way people use you. Building them in would only help when it become desirable to browse or subscribe to the tagging work of a certain subset of the campus community. Here’s your advantage over you operate in a circumscribed world organized around definable purposes, roles, means, events.

I think you’d be even cooler if you presented yourself as not just another collective knowledge base, but as the way that only Penn could make the knowledge of the world work for definable ends. That’s why I think your most promising feature is ‘Projects’. Right now you only allow one owner post to a given project, but maybe in the future you’ll loosen up and let many users work on a given project — and maybe even specified classes of users. Then, I suspect, the RSS functionality you’ve already built in would start to be useful not merely to the curious, but to a much more involved user-base: the tasked.

Well, PennTags, you can guess by the way I’ve gone on here that I actually am pretty attracted to you, and I look forward to seeing how you mature. You’re raising awareness of tagging in academic settings — and you’re not just sitting around wondering about what that might mean — you’re actually putting tags into motion. That’s the only way any of us is really going to learn how this 2.0 phenom might work for us. So — way to be, & keep in touch.

Your PennPal,

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