Metadata is structured data about data, information that facilitates the management and use of other information. The function of metadata is to provide your users with a standardized means for access to digitized materials. However, it is not enough to use just any metadata standard.
Resources which are encoded using open standards have a higher chance of remaining accessible after an extended period than resources encoded with proprietary standards. A metadata standard appropriate to the materials in hand and the intended end-users must be selected.
Taking Care in Creation
Metadata can identify the name of the work, who created it, who reformatted it, and other descriptive information. It can also provide unique identification and links to organizations, files, or databases that have more extensive descriptive metadata about the archival asset. Metadata is a critical component of digital resource development and use and is needed at all stages in the creation and management of archival resources.
Archivists should take as much care in the creation of the metadata as they do in the creation of the data itself. The time and effort expended in recording quality metadata are likely to save users much grief and to result in digital objects that are sustainable. In my experience, metadata is the most effective tool for managing and finding objects in the complex world of archives.
Choosing the most appropriate metadata standard is only the first step in building a valuable information resource. Unless the metadata elements or data structure are populated with the appropriate data values, the collections will be ineffectual, and users will not be able to find what they are looking for, even if it’s there. There is no one-stop-shop for the appropriate vocabulary tool for any given project. Instead, builders of information resources should select from the menu of vocabularies most appropriate for describing and providing access points to their particular collections.
Some Rules of Thumb
When determining which metadata schema to use, take into account the needs and search preferences of your users, and leverage existing institutional indices and finding aids as a basis for your metadata. There is no point in recreating the wheel when you have perfectly usable information readily available.
Base the metadata schema on the existing published schema closest to the institution’s needs; depending on your collections, the right scheme to use may be obvious. Adapt the schema to your needs by adding or omitting elements, but use the same name and definition of each element as in the published schema to avoid confusion. Granularity is important to consider. You can subdivide elements into the smallest sub-elements needed, with the knowledge that elements can always be merged later.
A set of compatible cataloging rules should always accompany the schema. For example, if the schema includes elements drawn from VRA Core—a data standard for the description of artworks and the images that document them—the corresponding rules from Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) should be followed.
Set up editorial and quality control procedures to ensure that the cataloging records conform to the rules, and test the schema and the rules thoroughly before it is too late to change them. Discover early in the project if the metadata displays correctly on the institution’s website and if users are satisfied with the records. You will also need to plan where to store the metadata: embedded within the image file, in a separate metadata database, or both.
As always, be prepared for change as time passes, and design systems accordingly. For example, more metadata elements or controlled vocabularies may need to be added as the collection expands. Remember to remain flexible!
Many Ways to Access
Unfortunately, no single system has yet been widely adopted for tracking ‘data about data’ in libraries, archives, and museums. The prudent course for archivists is to understand the current challenges, emerging principles, and best practices before implementing any particular metadata solution. Use your judgment about the collection, and your users, to determine the best way to enable access to your holdings.