The most recent report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project provides a first glimpse of the growing importance of tagging by American Internet users (for reasons related to their mission, Pew only surveys Americans, so this glimpse is limited to Americans). Their data tell us that more than one-quarter (28%) of all American Internet users have tagged some sort of Internet content. The report includes a brief interview with David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, due out in May. Weinberger argues that tagging has become so popular so fast (del.icio.us launged in 2003) for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that tagging is a useful tool for organizing your own small portion of the vastness of Internet content and the second is that, as Weinberger puts it, there is “an altruistic appeal to tagging as well. Tagging at public sites can give you a sense that you’re adding to a shared stream of knowledge.”
Both of these points, simple as they sound, have incredible importance for historians as we create more and more digital content. Right now, very, very few digital history projects (including ours here at CHNM) offer site users the opportunity to tag the content they find on our sites. Of course, those visitors can use a service like del.icio.us to tag our content, but few do. For instance, only 140 people have bookmarked our homepage in del.icio.us, only 95 have bookmarked History Matters, and only 12 have bookmarked World History Sources. Just to give you an idea of the traffic on these three URLs, in January 2007 more than 235,000 unique visitors hit one of these three addresses. Obviously, we need to figure out ways to incorporate tagging into our projects, especially those with a lot of content that users might wish to self-organize. But it takes time and money to retrofit existing projects…money we don’t have sloshing around in our budget.
At a minimum, those creating new digital history sites must take into account the growing popularity of social bookmarking of Internet content. So, for instance, the Library of Congress just announced that it has received a $2 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to digitize brittle books in its collection. One would hope that as part of this effort, the Library would make it possible for users to tag content in these books. But I’m not holding my breath.
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