Kill, Hearts and Magenta: User Tags vs. Subject Headings

tag away

User tags or subject headings? Of course there is no such thing as a perfect system. Looking into the red hot category of young adult, the first book that I pick for the discussion is not even considered YA on LibraryThing or London Public Library most probably because two pages in, you are blasted with the following passage (pardon the language):

Fuck the brass and their fucking pathetic excuse for air support! Fuck the suits and their plans that aren’t worth a damn once the shit starts flying! Fuck the artillery for holding back on the left flank! Fuck that bastard who just got himself killed! And more than all of ‘em, fuck anything and everything aiming at me! Wield your anger like a steel fist and smash in their faces. If it moves, fuck it! I have to kill them all. Stop them from moving.

Given this kick-ass opening along with its manga-style book cover, its video-game premise of dying and learning, its graphic novel adaptation under the same name and the recent PG-13 movie adaptation of Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (translated by Alexander O. Smith) absolutely bleeds young adult under its full body armour. I as a LibraryThing user did try to game the system by tagging the book as YA myself but the tag never shows up in the tag cloud. Anyway, I could never become a school librarian…

Comparing its LibraryThing user tags and WorldCat subject headings (see Appendix A), while both classify the book as science fiction, the subject heading “Science fiction, Japanese” indicates that the story is originally written in Japanese but fails to clearly point out that the plot also takes place in Japan. The user tag “Japan” takes care of the plot location and a multitude of tags, such as “imported”, “Japanese Book”, “Japanese literature”, “japanese science fiction”, “translated” and “translation”, indicate that this is a translated work from Japanese. One could complain about the redundancy but this is a small price to pay I find when opening up the system for user participation.

What is more intriguing is the fact that with the title’s 240 members, none of them tag the book with reincarnation, which is by and large the underlying essence of the story. Is the term too religious? Instead, the users come up with “Repeating Time”, “solider back in time after dying”, “supernatural”, “time loop” and “time travel” to convey the same idea while the combined subject heading—subdivision succinctly index the book with “Reincarnation—Fiction”, labeling the work with what it is about while distinguishing this work of fiction from other nonfictions on the religious topic of reincarnation. Brilliant! The user tag “time loop” is appreciated though because it is the term actually used by the protagonists in the story. And here comes one of the advantages of user tags over cataloguer’s subject headings: the users most probably have invested the time to read the book before tagging it so the user tags have the ability to pinpoint minute details within the work. This could also mean spoiler alert, however, as in “doomed romance”.

For this book, the concept of alien is vital to the storyline and the user tags “aliens”, “alien contact” and “alien invasion” provide an important access point, which the subject headings omit. With the rapidly changing media landscape for young adult resources, the user tags “edge of tomorrow” and “graphic novel” could help users who only knew about those adaptations to find this original. Speaking of the graphic novel adaptation, a quick detour to its LibraryThing page highlights one of the potential weaknesses of user tagging. Because of its lower member count (12 compared to 240 for the original book) and lower popularity ranking (768,668 compared to 48,049), the graphic novel of All You Need Is Kill only garners 14 user tags (see Appendix B) and taken as a whole, they are not as insightful as the original book’s tag cloud.

Leaving the “Futuristic Warfare” of All You Need Is Kill and setting foot in the fictional “queer” community of “Montreal” in the “1990s” where the “Quebec” “referendum” is the backdrop, the LibraryThing user tags of Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall definitely do a better job in setting the scene than its plain WorldCat subject headings (see Appendix C). Aside from the aforementioned “queer”, the user tags are more inclusive and better reflect the story as well as the reality of the variety of contemporary homosexual labels to include “femme(s)”, “gay”, “glbt”, “lesbian”, “lesbians” and “LGBTT*” while only “Lesbians” is used in the subject headings. As a result, someone who subject-searched anything other than lesbians on the topic of homosexuality would have missed this fabulous title.

Close comparison between the subject headings and user tags in this case also reveals what Peter J. Rolla came across in a similar study, that subject headings often refer to classes of persons (i.e. nouns as in “Young women” and “Lesbians”), while user tags usually indicate abstract concepts (i.e. adjectives as in “gay” and “lesbian”).[1] While the subject heading “Young women—Québec (Province)—Montréal—Fiction” provides the social context around the book, the user tags “coming of age”, “heartbreak”, “relationships” and “romance” are more specific in terms of what the story is about.

Lastly, judging by the popularity of the user tags “Canadian” and “Canadian literature”, the cultural identity of “Canadiana” seems to be important to users while the same is completely ignored by the subject headings.

From fiction to nonfiction, the third book that I pick is Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. Like the previous two titles, there are more user tags on LibraryThing than WorldCat subject headings by a large margin. Meanwhile, similar to Bottle Rocket Hearts, the user tags of “glbt”, “intersex”, “lgbt”, “LGBTQ”, “LGBTT*”, “pansexual”, “queer” and “TBLG” are richer in scope and could serve as multiple access points for the users (see Appendix D). However, as one of the teens, Luke, being interviewed in the book reveals (“My family was okay with me being gay, but trans was a different issue for them.”), transgenderism is distinct from those aforementioned user tags. From this point of view, the narrower subject heading “Transgender people—Personal narratives” is more accurate in describing this young adult resource. Nonetheless, the user tags “transgender”, “Transgender & Gender Variance”, “transgender experience in school”, “transgender teenagers”, “transgenderism”, “Transkids” and most importantly, the everyday lingo “trans” are valuable redundancies while “gender”, “gender and sexuality”, “gender identity”, “gender roles. transgender”, “sex roles” and “sexuality” put the subject matter of transgenderism into a bigger social context and provide alternative angles and access points for the book.

Looking at the user tags on its genre, “Biography”, “collected stories”, “interviews” and “memoir” are more commonly known compared to the subject heading subdivision “Personal narratives”. Last but not least, a picture is worth a thousand words and one of the most important and powerful elements of Beyond Magenta is the transgender teens’ photographic portraits found in the book. In that regard, the subject headings fail to even mention the existence of any photographs while the user tags “personal stories and photographs of six trans teens” and “photography” highlight one of the book’s biggest accomplishments: putting a face on transgender teens.

“Tags are a simple way to categorize books according to how you think of them, not how some official librarian does. [They] are an informal organization system created on the individual level – but on the global level they become powerful search and discovery tools.”[2] Overall, besides the “unhelpful” personal user tags on time (“summer 2008” and “read 10/14”), task (“to-read” and “unread”), locality (“Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh” and “Lounge->Bookcase 1->Shelf 4”) and project (“Amanda’s Book Sale” and “english-lit-concordia”) as well as those ultra-important cryptic codes (“F99” and “2BB-BS5s3”), user tags have the ability to enhance subject access to library materials. In the social networking environment of reading, user tags could not only promote a shared sense of reading companionship, they could also lead to the discovery of new titles and authors. The system is intrinsically messy due to all its glorious redundancies but there lies its strength of multiple access points.

Beyond the practicalities of subject access, however, I wonder why there are not more user tags on emotions and sensibilities, like the jealousy that I feel reading Bottle Rocket Hearts, the positivity from Beyond Magenta and the “Kinda Fuckin’ Awesome”ness (an actual user tag; it wasn’t me!) from All You Need Is Kill. Emotions can be subjective but I think they have their place in a tag cloud and could potentially be more useful than cryptic codes like “stock090910”.



[1] Peter J. Rolla, User tags versus subject headings: can user-supplied data improve subject access to library collections? Library Resources and Technical Services, 53(3), 2009, 174-184.

[2] From the LibraryThing blog retrieved at



One response to “Kill, Hearts and Magenta: User Tags vs. Subject Headings

  1. Comment from my cataloguing prof:

    “The emotions issue is interesting. I’m wondering if—I can’t believe I’m typing this—emoticons are where this will happen. It’s difficult to articulate emotion in words. But I’ve just been reading about a study done at University of Illinois, where the researchers used emoticons attached to blog postings as a way of initiating text analysis of “happy” posts vs. “anxious” posts. If you had emoticons that were easy to add to the record of the book, and you had enough people participating, you might be able to get some neat data effects, all expressing emotional responses. I can even see this linking up with colour, and becoming conventionalized to the point where someone uses a colour palette to decide on the mood he or she is looking for, and it reads the emoticons to give a listing of all the “red” books.” – Grant Campbell


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