Thomas Mann (no, not that one) has a fascinating and important article about why tagging, folksonomies, and the rest of the hip Web 2.0 stuff is inadequate to meet the needs of scholars looking for information. It is, at least informally, a response to the Calhoun Report.
His example of trying to find information about “tribute payments in the Peloponnesian War” is classic and convincing: Finding what the scholar needs requires smart human guides and the smart guides that humans have created for scholars.
But, of course that doesn’t scale:
I would be the first to agree that the inexpensive indexing methods of term weighting, tagging, and folksonomy referralsâ€“none of which requires expensive professional inputâ€“are entirely appropriate for dealing with most of the Internet’s Web offerings. With billions of sites to be indexed, it is out of the question to think that traditional cataloging can be applied to all of them. No one in his right mind would say otherwise.
But there is a crucial distinction that is being swept under the rug: the difference between quick information seeking and scholarship.
And, he says, scholarship requires books. Thus, the labor- and intelligence-intensive scholarly information clustering techniques will continue to work because the flow of books will continue to be relatively slow:
The universe of books published every year is much smaller, and much more manageable, than the universe of Web sites; this is the “niche” of sources to which professional cataloging should be primarily devoted. … Most of the billions of Web sites do not merit this level of attention to begin with; they are too inconsequential and too ephemeral. If we are going to promote scholarship, it is not enough to simply digitize the books for immediate retrieval if term weighting of keywords, tagging, and folksonomy referrals are the only mechanisms we provide for finding them. It is not at all unrealistic to propose that research libraries fill the niche of providing the best, most systematic, access to books…
He later says that systematic cataloging should not exclude all non-books.
As an argument for maintaining human expertise in manually assembling information into meaningful relationships, this paper is convincing. But it rests on supposing that books will continue to be the locus of worthwhile scholarly information. Suppose more and more scholars move onto the Web and do their thinking in public, in conversation with other scholars? Suppose the Web enables scholarship to outstrip the librarians? Manual assemblages of knowledge would retain their value, but they would no longer provide the authoritative guide. Then we will have either of two results: We will have to rely on “‘lowest common denominator’”and ‘one search box/one size fits all’ searching that positively undermines the
requirements of scholarly research”…or we will have to innovate to address the distinct needs of scholars.
My money is on the latter.
We need to make the best possible use of our principles, our experience, our tested practices, and our technologies, and not yield to the temptations to let either the technologies themselves or transient fashions constrict our vision of what needs to be done to promote scholarship of the highest possible qualityâ€“and that is a goal very different from striving to provide ‘something quickly.’
(Thanks to Bradley Allen for the link.)