By Brian Thomas, Electronic Records Archivist
Metadata is a confusing word that is very often stated but is either not defined for users or ill-defined. The meaning of the term isn’t common knowledge, and references to the importance and popular understanding of what metadata is usually lies with references to the Edward Snowden public release of classified NSA documents. This comparison is great, if you know who Edward Snowden is and paid close attention to the details of the 2013 scandal involved. For the rest of us, it is important for libraries and archives to explain what metadata is and why it is so important.
Metadata is such a big (yet straightforward) concept that an explanation of what it is usually results in conversations that sound like philosophy. Put simply, metadata is descriptive information about stuff. For better or worse, the stuff is what it is. The stuff could be events, things, people, etc. Metadata provides information about what that stuff is. This is incredibly useful for people (and computers) that need to know what that stuff is but cannot see or experience it. For example, if a person is unable to see colors properly, how would they know what color a blue box from an online retailer is? If the person is unable to see anything, how would they know about the logo on said blue box? Someone would need to describe it to them. That description is metadata about the box.
Metadata in libraries is most often seen in the library catalog, which gives details about books so users can know whether a book is the right book for them and where to find the book. Metadata in archives is most often seen in the finding aid, which gives details about what records exist in the collections. All of this is very powerful information, and is one of the currencies of the information age we live in.
The most powerful part of metadata as it exists today lies with metadata standards. Using metadata standards, computers are able to manipulate information to enhance accessibility of the content you want to see. For example, it enables functions like filters and facets to fine-tune a search. The most common example of a filtered search is shopping for something online, and using options provided by the seller to narrow the search results. An example of filtered searching at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission is in the Texas Digital Archive (TDA). Using the Texas Digital Archive to complete a simple search for a picture of someone with the last name Smith might yield 3,499 results. Knowing that the photograph was taken by the Department of Public Safety, and using the filters available, the search results suddenly could drop to 68 results. There are a great number of metadata standards in the various information professions. Dublin Core is a common standard that many other metadata standards incorporate in their core requirements. The Library of Congress provides a good list of current metadata standards for libraries and archives.
To illustrate the importance of good metadata: In the Stargate universe, lack of metadata about a galaxy far, far away led to contact with the Ori and two more seasons of good v. evil conflict (arguably the worst or best seasons of the show). Lack of metadata about the Romulans in Star Trek enhanced the tensions between the Romulan Empire and the Federation. In Star Wars the midi-chlorians…well, you get my meaning.
Having good metadata enhances our understanding of the things around us, leading to better management and discovery mechanisms. The stuff is out there, metadata helps us find and work with it.