Here’s the thing about LibraryThing. I love their tagging options. I enjoy browing tagmashes. I enjoy looking into my tag mirror. I enjoy poking around other people’s profiles and admiring their extensive tagsystems.
What I don’t enjoy much is tagging my own books.
The trouble, I think, is that tagging does too many things, and optimizing for one screws up the others.
The Solipsistic Approach
For example, I could focus on the characteristics of my own books – this one’s a hardcover, that one’s a softcover, this one is inscribed, that one cost between fifteen and twenty dollars, and that one over there has an old library sticker that doesn’t reflect the classification I’ve assigned it. This might be handy, but to me it feels bad because it doesn’t contribute to LibraryThing’s tag ecosystem: it doesn’t add universally applicable metadata about subject and genre – the same metadata I so appreciate when other people add it.
The Seemingly M.O.R. Approach
So I could focus on subject and genre. But this runs into lumping/splitting problems. If I want to separate out my crime fiction, for example, that seems easy enough. Night and Fear is crime. The Long Goodbye is crime. But what about Lord Peter? To me, that’s outside the crime genre: it’s mystery. The Long Goodbye is mystery, too. But Night and Fear isn’t.
If lump these two closely-related genres together, do I (misleadingly) use only the name of one genre or the other? Or do I (clunkily) go with something like “crime and mystery”?
If I split them, what do I do with The Long Goodbye? Do I pick only one tag, or do I assign them both? The latter seems like the natural approach – in fact, the great thing about a tag system is that it lets you build up meaning accretively from just such discrete scraps of data.
But combine those two tags with enough other scraps of genre and subject (PI, murder, Mexico, alcoholism, friendship, noir) and the whole thing bloats. While each individual tag may still be valuable, the book’s tag fingerprint as a whole is just the ground-chuck version of what might otherwise be a decently written blurb.
Another Problem With Tagging By Subject
Where do you stop? I mean this two ways. Where do you stop in terms of the subject’s importance to the individual book? And where do you stop with the proliferation of subject tags in general?
In my previous tagsystem (I recently dismantled it), I had tags for “cinema” and “psychology.” It happens that An Incomplete Education has chapters on both of those subjects. But I was loth to apply the tags, because that would give a misleading impression of the book’s contents: since I wasn’t using, frex, “art history” or “political science” as tags, I’d end up tagging An Incomplete Education the same way I would tag something like From Caligari to Hitler.
This could be solved through dilution: creating tags for art history, etc., so that An Incomplete Education had a tag for each chapter. But, since I have few or no other books on those subjects, this would leave me with a wide-and-thin tags page, full of tags that only apply to one or two books.
That isn’t technically wrong, I guess. But I don’t like it. For me, part of the aesthetic value of a tag system is the opportunity to view my own books by tag, to contemplate what, say, my three books on masochism (which are catalogued under three different MDS headings) have in common. A one-book tag doesn’t provide that pleasure. So I’d like to keep such tags to a minimum.
Don’t Even Get Me Started…
…on whether The Screwtape Letters and Marius the Epicurean should be tagged as novels or not.
One Last Thing
Just to show you what a poopsie-bell I am: I briefly considered populating my tagsystem by manually cloning my tag mirror. Remember that in case you’re ever tempted to listen to anything I say.