Organizing Our World

When considering how to approach the management of digital collections, several important questions arise. How can we, as digital curators, begin to impose order on the endless (and exponentially growing) amount of data that exists in cyberspace? Who determines how to organize it, and will the system even reveal the data once it has been queried?

It seems that every organization who may have data to catalog has a different set of system standards. Elings and Waibel throw so many acronyms at me that I can’t even begin to sort them all out. And with each standard having different parameters, one would have to be super human to master all of them. This begs the question of how usable – and searchable – all these different database systems are if they exist exclusively and cannot be cross referenced. If a library and a museum have the same rare first edition book in their collection, will both systems produce a hit on the item if users do not know how to search the database? Or what if they are only familiar with one and not both? Systems must be able to be cross-referenced, and items are best cataloged using the standards meant to describe the particular type of media, not the standards meant for the institution that happens to be housing that media.

Sometimes, to work for humans, the system needs a bit of the human touch. Enter folksonomies. The layman’s catalog that discards the systematic tree branches of organization and labeling and instead shifts to the use of clouds and trails of tags. While only slightly less efficient at imposing order and producing search results, it democratizes the cataloging system and allows everyone to tag items, not by some strict and meticulous set of standards, but based on what the thing is most akin to. To simplify even further, like is tagged with like, and we  choose which tags are most useful by collectively using them the most. Based on the statistics of search results, it seems unfair to call one method of cataloging far superior than the other, and best to say they benefit each other when used together. Can a system that operates without  defined parameters and fundamentally lacks a systematic approach be tailored to produce results for the computers that are combing the database, or is there simply too much out there to be cataloged by hand? With the excess of items waiting for their metadata, it makes more sense to value quantity over quality. Curation can be outsourced to the internet, and a less rigorous system of cataloging allows media to be added to databases that may have sat indefinitely in backlog limbo. The details can be fleshed out later.

It was not so long ago that little internet elves managed the card catalogs of the internet for search engines such as Yahoo and the like. For a brief moment, this method was superior – but the internet has outgrown our ability to wrangle it into submission. Now, it seems that the best approach is a combination of methods. A shotgun blast may not be as precise as a sniper’s aim, but it will cover more surface area. The results might be a little spread out and disjointed, but with some extra effort, you’re more likely to be able to find a number of sources that are valuable to your research, and your job is to hone in and filter out the hits that fall outside your scope.

Pam Enlow


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