Understanding Metadata: The Basics

One of the most challenging aspects of archiving information is knowing how to enter the metadata used in large online library collections. Metadata is difficult to understand because it is written in a complicated manner and used for many functions by databases. In this blog post, I will answer three main questions. First, what is metadata? Second, why do we need metadata? And finally, how do we make metadata? This post will specifically address the expectations for metadata and archiving used by CONTENTdm.

So, what is metadata? Metadata is data about data. Essentially, metadata is information that describes an information package such as a video or an audio recording. Metadata is used by the search function on Google to find interviews, or more specifically interviews about women in WWII. This is a simple version of metadata usage but more complex metadata (e.g. metadata about compression rates) is used in the complex algorithm of search features all over the internet. Metadata about WWII is categorized differently than that of compression rates. There are six main types of metadata: descriptive, administrative, structural, technical, security, and preservation. Each type serves a specific purpose for curators and researchers.

What are these purposes and why is metadata important? Metadata serves three main functions. It allows curators to organize information, helps people access the information in an archive with ease, and validates information as credible. The descriptive and structural metadata identify the information packages and show how they relate to other packages with similar descriptions. This helps both curators and researchers to find information in an archive about a specific topic. The technical information can also help researchers/curators to find a specific file with a specific format or software footprint. Administrative and security can validate the package because they show who owns the package and how difficult it is to edit or corrupt the information. Finally, preservation metadata allows curators to protect the physical copies of metadata and locate them at any time.

How can we create metadata? Most metadata is created while the interview is being recorded. This information, like format and bit rate, are embedded in the files. Additional metadata, such as descriptive metadata, can be written into files using software like that on CONTENTdm. Metadata is written into files using extensible markup language, or XML. There are different systems used for writing XML. CONTENTdm uses the Dublin Core system, which can be created by following the chart linked here.

This system might extremely complicated but it is essentially the same as creating a bibliography. There are different styles of citation like Chicago and MLA. Dublin Core is a system for writing metadata and the chart linked above is the Bedford Handbook.

It may not be absolutely necessary to understand all of this information about metadata but it is useful information none the less as metadata becomes increasingly prevalent in the professional world. Metadata is used to organize everything on the internet so understanding the basics of metadata is an ever more important aspect of technological literacy in the professional world.