controlled vocabulary, tagging, and the structure of the ALA

The structure of ALA seems to me like a controlled vocabulary. Everything has its place on the org chart; every new term (subunit, committee) must be vetted and approved by deliberative process.

I appreciate the utility of controlled vocabularies — I use them regularly when I do research — but in my messy, information-novelty-seeking, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom heart of hearts, I’m a tagging girl. I think, really, I am part of a tagging generation, and when I see people (including, but not only, Gen Xers) talking about the disconnect between ALA and younger librarians, they’re talking about the divide between a slow vetting process and a system that’s nimble, fast, long-tail-friendly, decentralized — chaotic, uncertain, unpredictable, emergent.

To go on what may briefly seem a tangent: I’m working on a book chapter about leadership development through communities of practice, and one of the things that keeps coming up in the sources is you can’t control lightning in a bottle. (Communities of practice, in case you haven’t encountered the term, are informal groups that coalesce around some shared domain, and tend to operate independent of the formal hierarchy.) Some organizations, particularly in the corporate world, try to channel that lightning to capture and disseminate best practices and preserve institutional knowledge. And you can do that. You can, as an organization, create an environment in which communities of practice are more likely to flourish. You can support or neglect them in line with your strategic objectives. You can get a lot of mileage out of them. What you can’t do is decide, in advance, what kind of mileage you will get.

In other words, communities of practice are the tagging of organizational structure. They can spring up spontaneously, flexibly, in response to immediate issues, without waiting for any sort of process. They can adjust their domain and goals rapidly, as the environment changes (when was the last time you said “Cookery”)? They can be incorporated into your catalog — er, organization — in ways which augment, even bypass, traditional functionality — or create it where it wasn’t there.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the LITA streaming controversy. (Which I was present for; streamer-in-chief Jason Griffey is a dear friend and colleague.) I want to see virtual participation expand, not so much for its own sake (although I think that’s great) but as part of a structural shift toward a communities of practice ethos in ALA. I want to see the round table and interest group ideas expanded into much more ad hoc, dynamic, and empowered elements. I want to see the organization think of itself less in terms of agendas and more in terms of strategic goals and providing support for people who want to achieve them. I want to see the membership — which is already creating networked, grassroots initiatives — be able to look at ALA as the strategic ally with resources and reach, to whom you can turn right now when you have some scheme for changing the world — and which, insofar as your goals and theirs align, is excited to be a part of that.

You want to know what I spend a lot of time thinking about these days, it’s this: how do you cultivate the metaphoric parallels of tagging in a controlled-vocabulary world? How do you get there from here?

3 thoughts on “controlled vocabulary, tagging, and the structure of the ALA

  1. I’m reading Ann Blair’s “Too Much To Know”, about the invention of reference books in the century or two following the invention of printing. Yes, of course, reference books had to be invented, and authors and readers had to invent all sorts of tools to make them useful — indexes, tables of contents, taxonomies, etc. She has a fascinating discussion of the application of terms — very much like tagging, where an individual author would assign tags to the excerpts that they were collecting. Very useful for an individual (when you can remember exactly which term you used for what, and find the right balance between too many terms and too few), reasonably useful for a fairly close knit and homogeneous community of practice, increasingly less useful for you’re trying to share information for a broader community or other communities altogether. And so controlled vocabularies were invented. Always fascinating to me to see the current generation replaying, digitally, all of the things that we’ve learned and forgotten following the invention of print.


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