I woke up this morning thinking about tags … and buckets.
Probably because I had reorganized my Picasa albums last night. Actually I collapsed all my public photo albums into one and applied more tags to individual photos. For some reason — most likely habit — I had originally created several albums for different subject categories: Bugs, Animals & Birds, Buildings & Places, etc. It worked fine, since I could easily pick one “bucket” in which to put each photo. And then I could apply tags, too. I guess I thought of tagging as a secondary means of organization, an optional sort of extra goodness. But I encountered a situation where I wanted access to all my public photos using a mechanism that dealt only with individual albums. I was stuck. Then I realized that by using tags instead of separate albums to create subject categories I would have a more flexible structure, and not just for this one application.
Since I work in a library (although I am not a librarian by trade or training) I frequently deal with systems for organizing objects (principally books and other written materials) and metadata. Of course, prior to the existence of computer networks, the library was the premier information storage and retrieval system. And the techniques libraries use for managing metadata for effective and efficient retrieval of objects were largely developed to meet the needs of a physical collection. Without automated indexing and searching, information tends to be organized hierarchically. Having used this strategy with physical objects, it was natural to do the same with “virtual” or electronic objects. Hence we organized our email and documents by creating folders. The problem, of course, is always, “What folder did I put that thing in?” When I switched to Gmail I felt a bit insecure at first because there were no folders, just “labels”. I wasn’t accustomed to the paradigm, but I went with it. Gradually it has dawned on me that the impulse “to put each thing in its place” isn’t always necessary in the digital world, and it’s sometimes not the best organizational strategy.