Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Metadata is still not understood

The word metadata is not new. There are graduate classes in library schools about metadata as well as workshops and conference sessions. The word metadata is also being used in museums and archives, yet there are still professional and technical people (e.g., librarians, archivists and their staff) who don't know what the word means. Why is this a problem? Those who don't know what metadata means are:
  • Not being involved in conversations about what is happening in information retrieval now. Perhaps they are excluding themselves from those conversations or maybe those conversations just aren't happening at their institutions.
  • Not positioning themselves to work implementing a digitization program or federated search software. They may use the resultant web site, but they won't be on the project team.
    • This also means that they are limiting their job/career options.
  • Not good role models for new employees who need to know that continual learning is part of job.
Metadata is described as "data about data." I often describe it as cataloguing, since the librarians I talk with understand what cataloguing is. Yet most of us don't like cataloguing, so we avoid things that seem like cataloguing. But we cannot avoid metadata. Metadata is how the Internet is being described for easier access (embedded on web pages). Metadata is also how digital assets are being described in content management systems. Metadata has become a necessity.

If we exchange the word "indexing" for metadata, then we can talk about the indexing that people are doing on the Internet with, tags/categories/labels in blogs, and tags in other sharing sites like Flickr. People do understand that this type of data helps with information retrieval. Of course, with folksonomies, there are no rules. Not so with metadata. Metadata -- as we think of it -- has rules and guidelines, which -- like cataloguing -- must be followed.

What can we do to make metadata more understood?
  1. Forget workshops and conference sessions. The conversation needs to happen locally in staff meetings, in front of computer screens and at the coffee pot.
  2. Show people what metadata looks like. Seeing it can make is less mysterious.
  3. Demonstrate that metadata does not need to be complex. Let people learn about adding metadata to a web page and how it helps with search engine rankings, then move on to thinking about the role of metadata in a content management system.
  4. Talk about cataloguing as "creating metadata." Do short sessions about what's in a catalogue records and how it is created. Talk about the need to create original metadata, just the way we used to create original catalogue records.
  5. Challenge your staff to talk about metadata and ask questions about it. Even if the conversations are basic, they will be helpful.
By the way, I describe myself as a non-cataloguing librarian. I don't like cataloguing at all. But once I became involved in digitization and life on the Internet, I recognized that metadata was something I needed to understand. I am not an expert in metadata (and never will be), but I have to know what it is, how it is used, what the standards are, etc., in order to be a part of the conversations about digitization and life on the Internet. Let's hope that more of our peers will see that they also need to understand metadata in order to be part of the conversations around them.

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Anonymous said...

Actually equating metadata with cataloguing can be limiting - particularly in the context of METS - we need a way for staff to see beyond the descriptive to the structural, technical and administrative - including Digital Rights Metadata. The descriptive is the (relatively) easy bit, the rest is probably an order of magnitude harder.

Jill Hurst-Wahl said...

Your correct. Metadata is much more than cataloguing. I equate it to cataloguing because cataloguing describes something, which is also what metadata does. And you are correct too about the description only being part of the task at hand. Metadata can and should do SO much more than that.

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate you shining a light on metadata's broader role.