A treasure trove of tags

Think outside the box and develop your own system of keywords or labels

Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

We like to put documents – and people – in boxes. This type of pigeonholing tends to reduce the complexities of an item (or a person) down to one characteristic. A document, for example, will often only be stored in one place, whether it’s a physical box or folder or a digital one. For example, you might place a research paper in the folder “DM 2” on your computer. Years later it can be difficult if not impossible to remember what this abbreviation stood for, especially if you’ve long since forgotten that “DM” stands for “Discrete Mathematics” and that you created this folder for work done during the second semester of the academic year.

Instead of just relying on file and folder names, you make your later searches easier by using tags to describe and group your materials. Tags let you describe your documents both in terms of their contents and other attributes. Other names for tags are labels or keywords. In the library world, tags are known as “subject headings”, but we’ll come back to that later.

Tags also play an important role online. A webpage’s metatags describe its content for search engines, while hashtags are used on Twitter and other social media platforms. Hashtags are especially useful for helping others find a post on a particular topic. By using a hashtag such as #PhDChat for a post on dissertation writing, you increase its discoverability, since other users will then find it if they search for the term after the hashmark. Otherwise, only your own followers would see your post. By choosing good hash tags, you can reach a larger audience and employ an additional communication method. Furthermore, the frequency with which hashtags are used can help determine trending topics. Outside of social media, you’ll also see tags used in blogs, often together with a tag cloud that displays more frequently used tags in larger font sizes.

In all of the examples above, tags are employed to maximize the ability to find or discover content on a certain topic or with a certain characteristic. When you apply tags to your documents, you’ll have the additional goal of organization, but the main point is still to be able to quickly find the document again when you look for it. For this reason, it’s often most effective to assign each document multiple tags. This gives you a number of future access points to the document instead of just one.

With tags you don’t need to worry about nesting like you might need to with a system of folders. Tags are not arranged hierarchically and are much more flexible as a result: you don’t need to worry about whether the placement of an additional sub-folder makes sense or not. You can simply create another tag.

Developing your own tag system

When you assign tags to your documents, it can be helpful to think of how you would describe the characteristics of a person. For example, if you were to describe a work colleague who has brown hair and is a cheerful person, you might select the keywords “brunette” and “cheerful”.

At first glance that seems pretty easy, doesn’t it? However, the difficulty lies in finding the right terms.

You colleague has dark hair, but you find the term “brunette” more fitting. Why? Maybe another colleague also has dark hair, but since you want to distinguish between the hair colors, “black-haired” is the better description.

As this example demonstrates, you should spend some time thinking about how specific you want your terms to be. Is “dark-haired” sufficient or do you want a narrower term such as “brunette”?

The next question you should ask yourself is how to deal with synonyms. For example, instead of “brunette”, you could have used “brown-haired” or just “brown hair”  to describe your colleague. How do you pick which of these synonyms you want to use? Usually, you’ll base your decision on what term comes most naturally to you, but you can also check general or subject-specific dictionaries if you’re unsure.

If you’ll be using more than ten tags, make sure to keep track of them in a list sorted alphabetically. This list can help if you later no longer remember which tags you already used. You might even use cross-references to link synonyms to the term that should be used. Little by little you’ll build up your own personal treasure trove.

Even if you’re using a list of tags, you should still try to work with terms that are as easy to remember as possible. A consistent system can help. Ask yourself the following:

  • Should your tags use single terms (e.g. “brunette”) or are multiple-word terms, such as “brown hair” also okay?
  • Should tags be in singular or plural?
  • Should symbols or capital letters be used for special categories of tags?
  • Should you use longer, more descriptive tags or shorter, more succinct ones? In most cases, we recommend limiting tags to two words. For example, “straight brown hair” is probably unnecessarily long and it includes two descriptors in one term. You could break this tag into two separate ones: “straight hair” and “brown hair”.

If you later notice that you never remember to search for the term “brunette”, you can always change your system. The place where you record your list of tags should be flexible, and changes in spelling or a complete replacement of a term should be easy to carry out at any time.

When describing a person, you’ll often use adjectives. If we now turn to the description of academic sources, there are a number of attributes you might consider using tags for. For example, you can describe the type of book (“reference work”), the status of the full-text of a journal article (“ordered”), the country in which a study was carried out (“China”) or the research institute that did the study (“Langley Research Center”).

Sometimes, you might want to consider recording an unusual detail that will help you find an item again as a tag. For example, if you’re more of a visual thinker and remember the exact colors of all your books, you might add the tag “blue”.

For additional tips on how to add tags to your Word files or photos, this blog article from Zapier is very useful.

Working with an existing tag system

Librarians go through a similar process as described above when they catalog books and other materials. In addition to noting down an item’s information, such as the title, number of pages, publisher, etc., they also will assign the item one or more subject headings based on its content. Their goal is to help library users find the item when searching for works on a specific topic or with a specific characteristic. In addition to describing the content of a work, subject headings can also be names of persons or organizations, can refer to a work’s jurisdiction, can indicate the time period during which a work was written, or can describe the physical format of the work.

Librarians use what’s known as controlled vocabulary to make sure that the subject headings are consistent. Otherwise, it could happen that two different librarians used two different synonyms to describe the same topic. Academic librarians in the United States will typically follow this process when assigning subject headings:

  1. They examine the work’s physical characteristics and assess its contents
  2. They then search for subject headings that fit the contents in the Library of Congress Subject Headings
  3. They decide on existing subject headings.
  4. They then combine terms as described in the LCSH Subject Heading Manual.

If you also want to use controlled vocabulary for your own collection of sources, you can take a look at the Library of Congress Subject Headings. In the Life Sciences, an alternative system is the Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH terms, used by the National Library of Medicine in the United States. In any controlled vocabulary system, you’ll also see references to synonyms that you might decide to use instead.

While employing these standards for all of your tags may be overkill, they can serve as a good source of inspiration if you’re unsure what tag best fits a certain topic or how best to construct your own tags.

Tag systems in reference management software

If you are using reference management software to organize and cite your academic sources, it makes sense to assign tags to them in your program.

The major advantage of using a reference management program instead of an analogue system is that you can automatically search all of the reference information for a source. For words that appear in the title or for author names, you don’t need to save additional tags, since this information is already searchable.

When you import reference information from some catalogues or databases, you might notice that keywords are imported automatically. For example, after importing search results from PubMed into your reference management software, you’ll see that your records contain MeSH terms.

The advantage of this is that you can then make use of these tags for your own tag system. Once the terms are in your reference management program, you can easily make changes to them or add additional terms. However, if you want to maintain complete control of your tags and tag system, you can usually find an option to suppress the importing of keywords. For example, in Citavi you can change this setting in the “Search” options. All keywords in Citavi are saved in a list, which makes it easy to edit, merge, or delete them.

Other reference management programs offer some other options. For example, in Zotero you can color code your tags.

Now it’s up to you to develop your own treasure trove! Use an existing system, create your own tag list from scratch, or combine the two approaches. Remember that your system just needs to work well for you and your collection of sources, so experiment and then go with the method that works best for what you need.

How do you go about creating your keywords? Have you developed your own system or do you “recycle” keywords from library catalogs or databases? Let us know on our Facebook page!

Created by: Jana Votteler – Published on: 11/19/2019
Tags: Knowledge organization


About Jana Votteler

Jana Votteler, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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