tagging in the medical library

David Rothman asked me to write my perspective on the following question that he got from a medical librarian friend:

I’ve been wondering what the point to tagging is in the clinical field, when we have (as I see it) a really useful controlled vocab… maybe consumer health or somesuch? Just don’t get it. (rhetorical question)

I’ve got a bit to say about this topic. 🙂 I am going to start by responding to what David already covered/suggested.

First, one could use MeSH terms for social bookmarking tags if one chose to. If an individual medical library wishes to index various Web resources using MeSH, I can think of no more convenient way to do it than with del.icio.us or a similar social bookmarking tool.

There are a few number of people who are using MeSH, other controlled vocabularies, and standard metadata for their tagging in del.icio.us and other tools. It is of course not actually “tagging” at that point, but certainly David is absolutely correct in saying that using social bookmarking tools to index web resources is incredibly convenient, whether with MeSH or another controlled vocabulary, or with actual tagging. This is particularly easy to do in Connotea, where you can import subject headings directly into your tags. Here are a couple of examples: San MateoPublic Library using Dewey, OCLC Top 1000 books using LC for language designations (I think), and PeteJ using Dublin Core for authors.

What if one wants to categorize Web resources based on the roles or positions in the hospital to which they might be of most use? Once could create a series of tags like staff_development, ED_docs, ED_nurses or RNs. Each of these tags can output its own RSS feed, so this would be an incredibly quick and efficient way to recommend particular Web resources to particular segments of the library’s clinical patrons.

This is not as common, but I think David makes a good point–tags don’t have to be for the SUBJECT of a post. That is the beauty of tags. They can be personal; task-oriented; describing the author, subject, content type, date or time period, or audience; or practically anything else. There have been whole research papers written about how people are using tags in interesting ways that we can’t begin to do with subject headings and controlled vocabularies.

One of the biggest types of tag that can’t possibly be represented by controlled vocabulary are the subjective ones–those tags that express how someone feels about the content. How many times have you remembered something that was funny, cool, or scary? Probably more times than you remember something that evoked no emotion at all. Now maybe you think that libraries have no place in assigning subjective, feeling-based tags–and maybe they don’t. To be frank, I avoid them like the plague because I pretty much just have a bias against using too many adjectival tags. I have “amusement” as my one concession, but it is of course a noun. I often regret not having tags for insane, or awesome, or cool, or perfect, etc, simply because that is how I often remember things–more than the actual content, just the feeling I got from something.

So, after all that, why do I think that having “feeling”-based tags could be useful for a medical library? For one, book recommendations. I have to do a lot of book recommendations in my library, both for finding course-oriented books and for lighter reading. For the medical education books and medical humanities books and media, I have set up a BlinkList account, where I can not only tag the books in ways that make sense, but where I can also rate them to give faculty a better idea of what the books really worth their time might be.

But the audience-based tags and other “task” tags are the most commonly used by medical librarians. One of the rock stars of the medical library del.icio.us world is Patricia Anderson at the University of Michigan. She set up an account for the University of Michigan Dentistry Library (which hasn’t been updated since February, sadly) that exemplifies exactly what tags can do to target particular audiences. She has tags like 4clinicians, 4alumni, and 4patients. Just think what having those kinds of tags in the library catalog could do! If I was going to do something similar, I might do this on a class basis–2ndyearobgyn, 1styearmicroanatomy, etc. You could even add tags like outline, studentslove, studentshate, obgynwannabeslove, etc (I was having fun coming up with weird ones). Many teachers, school librarians, and library school faculty are already doing this. For example, Steven MacCall’s del.icio.us account is all broken down by course and assignment.

I frequently use del.icio.us to mark items for later follow-up, using tags like blog_this, try_this , or read_later. When I stumble across something that would be useful in reference to something I’m writing, I’ll even use tags likeMLANews_article

I’ve recently started using the toblog tag myself, but I know that this is particularly useful in a number of cases. Let’s say your 1st year medical students have to do a history of medicine project–you could create a tag particular to that assignment. Many students and others already use this kind of task tagging–to create their own bibliographies through just one tag.

You see this quite a bit in Connotea, too, ever since Ben Lund et al recommended it in their D-LIB article on Connotea. Having these bibliography-specific tags enables a couple of things. For one, the author can keep track of their bibliography as they are writing. Secondly, others can access that bibliography and its links more easily after it’s published. Third, the authors can keep adding to that bibliography as they see more resources that fit. And, fourth, and perhaps most importantly, other people can use the same tag to add resources they think are important to be joined to that paper as they see them, whether it is a paper that builds on the findings of the original or is otherwise relevant. This Connotea method has been used in a couple places in the medical library world, too–or at least in one Journal of Hospital Librarianship article I’ve seen recently. I’m not a big CiteULike user, but I suspect it is done there quite a bit as well.

I at one point in my life was in the middle of writing an editorial to Nature suggesting that all articles in Nature have Connotea bibliographies. It would be great–people could track articles in a whole new way, beyond citation searching! So, Nature, if you are out there listening, here’s your chance. Start requiring Connotea bibliographies and start creating unique tags for every article published. Perhaps it would only be research articles or a featured article at first, but wouldn’t that be interesting?

On your library’s intranet site, do you organize links to internet sites of clinical interest to your patrons by MeSH? Most that I have seen don’t. However, you can adapt social bookmarking tags to suit whatever organizational schemes your intranet uses, and have them populate to the page as soon as you tag them in del.icio.us.

David has a very good point here. Why is tagging getting such a bad rap for organization when in fact I would bet very, very few libraries use MeSH to organize their web links? I bet that keywords, course names, audiences, etc. are ALREADY what medical libraries are using on their web sites. And why is that? Because keywords are useful. And tags are even more useful, because they can be manipulated in ways static web pages could never be.

But these are just a few ideas- how else can social bookmarking be used in a medical library? Which social bookmarking tools are best suited for clinical purposes? I’ve played with Connotea and CiteULike, but not enough to have useful thoughts about them.

Well, I think all of David’s thoughts are useful. What applies for del.icio.us applies to Connotea and CiteULike, except that Connotea and CiteULike are much, much better for handling citations and organizing scholarly references. Here is some more about what I think.


I’ve already talked about del.icio.us at length, so to finish up, here are links to some medical libraries and medical librarians I know about that are using del.icio.us.


Connotea was slow to be picked up by medical librarians and librarians in general, but I think it is starting to become more prevalent. The Duke University Libraries are encouraging people to use it, and in fact have their own Connotea group for librarians. Interestingly, they are using your basic tagging for their lists (and they are rolling the links on their blog), but what I liked the most was their tag that indicates a primary source. How often do students in particular have to find a primary source? Well, if they take historiography like me, just a few. 🙂 Finding a primary source is not exactly intuitive in the library catalog. Sure, if you are a librarian, you could look for archival materials or possibly autobiographies, but even with those types of term, you could be very limited.

Connotea is a good way for scientists to connect with one another, too. There is also a script to include Connotea links for PubMed, meaning it can be very useful in the medical library world. It captures full citation information from dozens of resources, including PubMed and of course Nature, plus many blogs. As I mentioned before, it also can import subject headings (yay, MeSH) from MEDLINE, Scopus, etc. I am not going to go into the nitty gritty of what Connotea is or how it works, but here are some links to where you can read all about it.

Here are some examples of medical libraries or others using Connotea:

Tagging in the OPAC

A lot of the same principles apply to putting tagging in the OPAC. Now whether a folksonomy will be generated in the OPAC, that’s pretty unlikely in the short term. Nevertheless, tagging can help users and librarians put together resource lists, designate materials for certain audiences, and put in even more specialized terms or terms for consumers.


16 responses to “tagging in the medical library

  1. Pingback: davidrothman.net » Blog Archive » Why medical librarians should care about tagging

  2. Jens De Groot

    I’m a medical librarian tagging on delicious as well. 🙂 But in my bookmarks you will find all kind of pages and websites – not only medical. And not necessary all in English. But all my tagging is done in English (my mother tongue is Dutch).
    Oh, and three people you mention in your list are also in my network. 🙂

  3. Thanks, Jens! Let’s hear from some more del.icio.us medical librarians!

  4. Thanks so much for the kind words and highlighting our del.icio.us sites! The DentLib site is still active, and I was embarassed enough to go add all the new links that have been waiting in my “for you” box. I didn’t have any current active projects involving that collection, so had been waiting.

    The dentlib account and the umhealthscienceslibraries account serve different audiences and feed to different websites. You are correct that the broader site has to some extent replaced the more specific site for many purposes. We also have another del.icio.us account — faceit — which supports a consumer health website we maintain. I have trouble remembering all the passwords, with so many accounts! I tend to stick to my main account, and then tag things for the other accounts, all of which are shared with other librarians on campus.

    Other delicious accounts that I know or suspect to be from medical libraries or librarians include several of those mentioned above (Hi, Jens!), marvelwoman, pmartin420, jnargis, hardin_md, hardin_md_etc, ericrumsey, enflilibrarian, ehealthtayside, and deanhendrix. I’m sure there are more, and I know some of my other network buddies are, but I’ve forgotten the RL names that go with the accounts, so can’t find them.

    Thank you so much for doing this! It is great to try to get folks collaborating and connecting this way!

  5. Nice post. When you suggest that we require Connotea bibliographies for each paper in Nature, do you mean that the authors submitting should provide us with a tagged set of articles in Connotea that is the bibliography of their paper?

    At the moment we are putting all Nature Clinical Practice papers onto Connotea, and we are using subject headings from those papers as tags in the Connotea bookmark. I’m keen to extend this kind of content in the Connotea db, and would love to begin auto pulling in articles from the nature journals, but I think I’m hesitant to make it a requirement from authors, when it might be something that we can manage to automate ourselves.

  6. Have a look at http://iNeedSomebody2tag.com/welcome/en . There is a web experiment regarding to folksonomies and collaborative tagging systems.

    Maybe it is of interest for you.

    Tobias Kowatsch

  7. Hi Ian-

    I did mean that, yes, authors should put their bibliographies in Connotea, though I do see where it could be an added burden Nature may not want their authors to suffer through. (I have to say, though, that this is NATURE we are talking about–people want to publish there and are likely to walk through any number of hoops to do so!)

    I wasn’t aware of the Nature Clinical Practice papers being put into Connotea–that’s great! I think it is also a really cool idea to automate adding the bibliographies for each paper to Connotea, though who would be the “owner”? At least even assigning a unique tag to each article might be a good start.

  8. HI,

    The ncp articles are put under an ncp account: http://www.connotea.org/user/NatureClinicalPractice (it takes a while to load the page at the moment, but that is something that we are working on at the moment 😉

    There are two approaches that I could see working for getting a general set of bibliograpies ointo connotes.

    One is to create a ‘user’ for each paper, and have that user bookmark the bibliography. The other is to have a journal as a ‘user’ and to bookmark all biblographic entries in the journal, and tag each article which the journal paper that the article is citing.

    I admit that I’ve not given a huge amount of thought to this. A couple of good questions to think about:

    Which method would best support navigating through the citation network.

    If I am tagging an article with a tag that is describing another paper, i.e. a resource such as a doi, do I dilute the value of doi’s by doing this. Is there a reasonable clear nomenclature that avoids this.

    If I have tags that are the same as usernames would that be a problem?

    Hmm. I think I’ll give this one some thought over the weekend and see how I get on.

  9. Interesting questions! I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “tagging an article with a tag that is describing another paper”–but here is my guess. Correct me if I am wrong! You mean that if there is a tag to indicate all articles that belong to the bibliography for a certain paper, does it make sense to use the same tag for materials NOT in the bibliography, right?

    That’s a good question, which I think to some extent has been solved in different ways. I’ve seen some people who make 2 tags (this would the D-Lib articles on Connotea), one for just the bibliography and one for continuing thought on the topic. I’ve also seen people who have a single tag for both, but who tag individual items “bibliography” if they were actually in the original bibliography (see user “socialsoftware” for example). This second method is not that great, though, because of the real limitations Connotea has in building tag combinations. Unlike del.icio.us, which is really designed to have you use multiple tags at once (hence the plus signs before intersecting tags), Connotea makes it near impossible, unless you know the syntax.

    For the first part of your post, I would be inclined towards creating a “user” for each paper method.

  10. Pingback: comments and del.icio.us medical libraries « omg tuna is kewl

  11. The University at Buffalo’s Healoth Sciences Library has recently created a del.icio.us account: http://del.icio.us/UBHSL

    We plan to use our delicious site as an instruction tool linking to individual resources we may want to highlight in course-integrated instruction, and by using tags, generating unique course specific pages. For example, UB Medical School’s summer outreach program, MEDSTEP has its own page: http://del.icio.us/UBHSL/MEDSTEP

    We also see it as a easy way to maintain links on certain topics (physician directory queries, for example) as a quick ready reference resource especially for our graduate student workers.

    We also see it as a way of sharing unique resources, such as our nursing librarian’s Cultural Competence Page, that are buried on our site.

  12. Pingback: Mini presentation on Web 2.0 technologies « content divergent

  13. The librarians at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital grabbed on to del.icio.us as soon as we left the MLA CE course “Geeks Bearing Gifts.” It is a great way to share websites for use at different locations. My most recent project has to do with adding links for CE credits for health care workers. If anyone else has done such a project I would love to see your list. It is a big project!

  14. Pingback: Week 4– social bookmarking « The Un-Doing and the Re-Working

  15. I would like to hear from anybody using del.icio.us to deliver content to targeted groups of medical staff via RSS. Are they generally receptive to getting content pushed to them? Have they shown any interest in tagging things themselves?

  16. Catherine Voutier

    Fantastic conversation – my head is full of ideas. I run a blog using WordPress for decision-makers at our hospital (largest hospital network in Victoria). At the moment I’m not using tags as I was unsure how to use them. Instead I had pages for ICD10 headings (evidence listed under broad headings) and used the categories for specialities, clinical setting etc. But it is looking clunky and hard to navigate. Is anyone using MeSH in tags? What about UMLS Metathesaurus?

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