Tags and academia

Since we all read so much it can get quite tricky to remember what we’ve read, or to find relevant stuff when we want it.

Part of the problem is that written material is multi-form. You have image-based pdfs, full-text pdfs, the printed page (especially likely for articles collected or published before the early 1990s), photocopies of archival material (lots and lots in my case), and so on. Obviously you can’t just search for say “Foucault” or even “race” as that would return too many hits.

For straight references you can use something like Endnote, which is fine. I actually also paid someone to compile entries in my Endnote library of two filing cabinet drawer-worth of photocopied archival material. This worked to an extent (“race” returns 25 out of 1,250 current references–one response to this is to split the Endnote library up).

But people are now starting to consider the power of tags, or metadata. There have been developments along these lines for a couple of years now. (A good intro post is here.)

Think of Google mail in which you don’t bother filing your email, just let it pile up. I’ve got 328 “conversations” since October 2005 and I’ve never tried to order them. Except, I have tagged (“labeled”) certain email correspondents so I can find them easily. When I was organizing something I tagged those emails (went to different people).

Google desktop can find lots of things on your desktop and can search inside documents. Of course, it’s inherently surveillant!

Flickr uses tags very nicely to find photos. And in general Web 2.0 has exploited tags. Blogs usually use tags.

There are two downsides to using tags. They have to be manually applied (say in the bottom of each post, or in the properties window of a file). Second, not everything can have a tag (a photocopied piece of paper for example). Both of these are actually quite severe problems.

Academics still need more full-text search capabilities and something that can take at least typescript pages of variable quality (and photocopied at that) into full-search.

But, a system of tag-as-you-go is at least a start. I’m tagging this with “tag” and “archive”!


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