Purpose � The purpose of the paper is to provide an overview of the collaborative tagging phenomenon and explore some of the reasons for its emergence. The paper reviews the related literature and discusses some of the problems associated with, and the potential of, collaborative tagging approaches for knowledge organisation and general resource discovery. Design/methodology/approach � A definition of controlled vocabularies is proposed and used to assess the efficacy of collaborative tagging. An exposition of the collaborative tagging model is provided and a review of the major contributions to the tagging literature is presented. Findings � There are numerous difficulties with collaborative tagging systems (e.g. low precision, lack of collocation, etc.) that originate from the absence of properties that characterise controlled vocabularies. However, such systems can not be dismissed. Librarians and information professionals have lessons to learn from the interactive and social aspects exemplified by collaborative tagging systems, as well as their success in engaging users with information management. The future co-existence of controlled vocabularies and collaborative tagging is predicted, with each appropriate for use within distinct information contexts: formal and informal. Research limitations/implications � Librarians and information professional researchers should be taking a lead role in research aimed at assessing the efficacy of collaborative tagging in relation to information storage, organisation, and retrieval, and to influence the future development of collaborative tagging systems. Practical implications � The paper indicates clear areas where digital libraries and repositories could innovate in order to better engage users with information. Originality/value � At time of writing there were no literature reviews summarising the main contributions to the collaborative tagging research or debate.