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Thursday, July 28, 2011

I call it Pop, You call it Soda

There are legions of diligent catalogers in institutions across the world working to classify and arrange things in a systematic order so that users can find what they need, when they need it.  These catalogers in museums, archives, and libraries exert authority control over the style and language used for each catalog record which is designed to make the searching process easier for users.  This authority control makes wording consistent, eliminates spelling errors, and provides clarification for homonyms (same word, different meaning) and synonyms (different word, same meaning).  One example is how different regions use “pop,” “soda,” “cola,” “coke,” or “tonic” to describe the same thing!  Visit The Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy for a fun look at the issue.  (For the record, the Library of Congress Subject Heading is “soda pop”.) 

Map comparing term used for soft drinks by county, 
created by Matthew T. Campbell and Professor Greg Plumb of East Central University in Oklahoma

Problem Solved?
This sounds as though catalogers have solved the problem of determining the “correct” term and have tamed the unmanageable languages of the world, but they haven’t quite accomplished this yet.  For one, the types of materials that cultural institutions hold are so broad that sometimes these square pegs must be prodded to fit into the round holes.  As technology and materials evolve it sometimes takes longer for the established systems and vocabularies to catch up.

Even with the continual improvement of metadata schemas, there is still going to be a gap between the language used by professional catalogers and the language of the everyday user trying to find an item.  Controlled vocabularies are controlled – everyday language is not.

“Soda” and “Pop” Can Coexist

What if the public could add descriptive information in their own words as opposed to the institution’s language?  Several museums and other cultural institutions (including those associated with Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project) have begun testing the possibilities of public tagging.  Users contribute descriptive terms, keywords, or short phrases, also known as tags, to an item’s record to enhance searching.  If users describe and tag an item in the same way that they would search for it, then public tagging ultimately helps retrievability.  For each tag that is added, an item has another access point – another way for other users to discover that item.  Many users may already be familiar with tagging if they have used sites such as, which allows users to tag their own bookmarked websites, Flickr or Facebook

The Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center has recently launched a pilot project that implements an experimental tagging feature for records of participating Smithsonian museums, archives and libraries including the Archives of American Gardens.  Public tagging is not perfect and some traditionalists may be leery.  However, tagging is not meant as a replacement for established cataloging methods but rather as a complement that adds a helpful element of user engagement and interaction.

Get Tagging
Visit the Archives of American Gardens Virtual Volunteer page to get started on tagging images.

Kayla Burns, Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens


  1. I love the idea of "soda" and "pop" can coexist and how tagging can work the same way!
    Thanks for the post!

  2. What a cool post! I have to wonder what the one isolated county in Minnesota refers to soft drinks as? Any clue?

    I find that this is really insightful. As we become increasingly more standardized in our language (due to the web) I can't help but think that these differences might disappear.

    Has anyone done a study on places that refer to the shopping cart in a grocery store as a "buggy"?

  3. I generally use both terms inter-changeable, but when I was in Germany everyone said coke. If you ordered a coke, you normally wouldn't get a Pepsi or Coca-Cola. I generally get a Fanta!

    I really like the idea of tagging. Visitors have the opportunity to join in on the fun and museum professionals get to learn how visitors think and how they would describe objects--which ultimately helps in search processes.


  4. They don't even mention "tonic" which is how they refer to it in Boston.

  5. "Tonic" likely comes under the "other" category in the soda versus pop survey.