Thursday, August 09, 2007

The "M" word

There are some words that cause excitement, fear or dread, and that cannot be spoken. For example, we often say w-a-l-k in front of our dogs, because we don't want to get them excited about the possibility of taking a walk. The "M" word is one that causes people's eyes to glaze over and it inhibits them from understanding why it is important.

No...not marriage, but metadata.

For those unfamiliar with metadata, the word is meaningless and the definition -- data about data -- makes matters worse. If we correlate it to cataloguing or indexing, it sounds like tedious, complex work that is best done by someone else. ("No, I'm not doing that!")

So how do we get people to care about metadata, especially those people who may need to help create it? Don't use the "M" word! Instead talk about how people will want to search the materials. What terms will people want to use? What will their expectations be? Get that all out on the table, then talk about what will be needed to ensure that information is there and ready to be searched. (BTW This might lead you to talk about the software that will be used, and that's good.) For example, if people will expect to search on items that appear in a photo, how will that information be made available for them to search on? And if the answer is "they should just call and ask...", then counter with the question of "and what happens when that person is no longer working here?" You might suggest that you attached to the materials the wisdom that the staff has collected so that it is there for the next generation to use.

This is a conversation that may take more than one session to complete, since you're trying to lead the person (or persons) to understand the "M" word without actually using the "M" word! Be patient. Finally, when you have agreement on what the users' expectations and needs will be, and you agree on what information will need to be there in order to satisfy those needs and expectations, then ensure you obtain agreement on who will be responsible for providing and/or inputting that information into the system. Perhaps now you might use the word "metadata" or perhaps you've found that the word is not important now; maybe no one needs to know that they've agreed to do something they dreaded.

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