Librarian things: metadata & tagging

So, you know about hashtags but do you know about metadata and tagging for research purposes? My brother has just started a Masters degree and one of the first courses he had to do is on conducting good research. As part of this course he learned about the ways in which librarians set up catalogues to ensure that end users get access to the best possible resources. Furthermore, he was gob-smacked at the idea that librarians spent time adding tags to resources to help users when they conduct searches. His words were “so, did you know that librarians spend time hashtagging resources in catalogues?” He went on to say that he couldn’t think of anything more boring than spending time on that. Meanwhile, I got all excited and essentially started to lecture him on the importance of tagging.

I will admit, when I was just starting my Master of Education, majoring in Teacher Librarianship I was completely overwhelmed by the terms metadata, MARC records, tagging, and some very old school cataloguing program that I still don’t quite understand. However, since working as a TL I would not be able to do my job without a good catalogue. For those that don’t know, I’ll briefly explain these terms below in very simplistic language that is specific to library use. If you know what they mean already then skip to the next paragraph.

  • Metadata = data about the data… Basically, metadata provides you specific information about the creation of the data. For example, when talking about a book the metadata is the information about the author, publisher, editor, date, etc…
  • MARC records = Machine-Readable Cataloguing. This harks back to 1960s and has been industry standard for cataloguing resources in libraries since its creation. It essentially creates a record of the metadata that is then translated by the catalogue and displayed in a user friendly way.
  • Tagging = adding additional words that do not already exist in the MARC record from the metadata to help users find the resource when conducting a search.

These days, resources tend to come with their own metadata and MARC records attached to them through their ISBN. Modern technology has certainly made cataloguing and finding resources much easier for both librarians and library patrons. I personally never experienced the card-catalogue system but I know that my job has certainly been made easier since the advancement of technology.

You may still be wondering why we bother assigning additional tags to library records if they already come with metadata that is fairly comprehensive. Well, let me put it this way. Have you ever been searching for information on a topic in a library catalogue and coming up blank but when you go the librarian for help they take you to the shelves and start pulling books off saying that “this book has a really great section on that topic” or “check the index in the back of this book to see if they mention your specific topic.” While we always welcome library patrons coming and asking questions, we as librarians also know that not all patrons can speak to a librarian in person and that some of our resources are online. We want to teach our library patrons to be self-sufficient and take ownership of their education so we do what we can to help them without having to have direct access to them. Enter tagging.

When teachers tell us that they are about to do a research topic with their class, we ask them the specifics of the task and types of areas that students may be investigating. We then audit our catalogue by performing a quick search on the topic to see what comes up. We go beyond what a typical high school student would look for by using our well-honed research skills to find other resources in our collection that might be relevant and then add a tag to that record so that when a student looks it’ll now come up for them. For example… Our senior Study of Religion (SOR) classes look into different religion types; they often choose between Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. When students first started doing this task 3 years ago (with the dawn of the new QCE system) we noticed a lack of resources returned when a search was performed in our catalogue. We used this as an opportunity to think about and improve the usability of our catalogue. We spent time finding and tagging our existing resources and it was a really interesting exercise. Other schools have also taken the time to do the same thing in their collection. I know of one school that has added tags in their catalogue for each and every one of their physical non-fiction books based on the index. While I applaud this tremendous effort, we at my school have certainly not achieved that level of tagging, yet. We are slowly chipping away at it though and are ensuring that any new resources have good tagging added to them. It will take us a while but that is the nature of libraries. We have so much in terms of resources and we’re constantly adding to our collection. All we can hope to do is to continue to work at improving our catalogue and ensure that our library patrons are getting the best possible service.

I hope you can now understand my excitement around tagging. There is nothing more satisfying than library patrons being able to search, locate and use good research. It’s even more satisfying when I get to watch my students do it by themselves. So, the next time you’re using a library catalogue for something, take a moment to think of the librarian that is actively working to make your experience more pleasant. It’s our greatest joy, helping patrons find what they’re looking for, and we will continue to adapt and evolve the way in which we do this to continue meeting the needs of our communities.

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