Without a doubt, anyone remotely familiar with the term, can at least give a simple definition for it, stating the obvious, that metadata is basically data about data. A tedious aspect of most digital heritage projects, or any kind of digitization or preservation scheme. To give a more concise explanation as to what metadata is, as Sarah Higgins from Aberystwyth University states, it is “the backbone of digital curation. Without it a digital resource may be irretrievable, unidentifiable or unusable. “ (Higgins 1) For centuries, even millennia, ever since humanity has started creating everyday objects and works of art, metadata has existed in one or another form. Whether inscriptions on the shelves in libraries, boxes filled with precious documents in archives, or a few scribbles on the back of a photograph, we have always recognized the importance of preserving certain information that is not inherent to or contained within the physical object itself. It undoubtedly gives contextual and descriptive information about the object itself, its resource, even similar pieces associated with it.
However, in the “current environment of global access to the universe of electronic resources, the importance of metadata has only increased. ” (Baca, “Introduction to Metadata” 4) As the significance of and need for well composed metadata grew, it brought into question the issue of standardising metadata. A few decades ago, before the Internet had permeated our lives, whether on a personal or institutional level, the type of documentation a library, a museum or an archive created, was not that easily traceable or not that significant on the grand scale of things. As information started to be more easily accessible and the need to share information on a global scale increased, the need for establishing standards for metadata creation accrued proportionally. Today, we have countless standards, each usually serving “specialized knowledge communities” (Baca, “Introduction to Metadata” 4), developed for a specific purpose or type of documentation, while some are bare minimum standards, that are simple and easy to use. Just to name two examples, the Dublin Core Metadata Schema falls into the former category, it has only a small set of elements that can be easily adapted to any work of art, while the MPEG Multimedia Metadata (Moving Picture Experts Group) is a set of standards for the coded reproduction of digital audio and videos. It is important to note that there is no one universal standard applicable for all types of curation and preservation projects. There are as many schemas, as purposes they are needed for, not to mention the fact that there are different types of metadata within these standards, for example descriptive, administrative or technical metadata (like the EXIF information contained in digital photography).
“Individual institutions, or communities of similar institutions, have created shared metadata standards that organize this content. These standards might include metadata elements or fields with their definitions, codified rules or best practices for recording the information, and controlled lists of terms to populate access fields. “ (Baca, “Introduction to Metadata” 4)
As Murtha Baca formulates, currently “there is no “one-size-fits-all” metadata schema or controlled vocabulary or data content (cataloguing) standard. ” (Baca, “Introduction to Metadata” 6) The main focus is the significance of the interoperability across metadata records from the different sectors, disciplines, institutions, countries and so on. (Higgins 2) There are definitely positive and negative aspects to standards from either end of the spectrum: the so called bare minimum standards are simple, easy to use, cheaper to implement, most systems support it natively and are therefore easily transferable, and they are also simple to understand not just for the specialized staff, but for non-expert users as well (Fear 27); more subject-, or field-specific schemas might suit the one purpose very well, but because of their specialized set of element and strict application rules, the transfer or cross-referencing of metadata with other systems is tricky and also less user-friendly. As long as “each community maintains its own structure and rules for fields of access, description, and vocabulary control (if any) that best serve it” (Baca, “Introduction to Metadata” 4), there will always be certain issues that arise and hinder accessibility and the reuse of information for purposes different than the original which will lead to further issues.
In their ideal state, metadata standards improve consistency and interoperability between systems, as they help in working toward the goal “to act as full participants in the current networked information environment and to remain relevant in a progressively more distributed world.” (Riley and Shepherd) However, often there is a certain discrepancy or mismatch between schemas, some elements don’t fit in the set required by the other standard, one might have extra elements, that are not easily adapted to a a more restricted set, and information contained within doesn’t seem to correspond to each other. Fortunately, these standards are in a constant state of flux as they are trying to accommodate information sharing models of the future. (Baca, “Introduction to Metadata” 4) As long as these standards are applied with care, and there is a certain consistency when entering the relevant values into the fields, mapping them to one another should prove to be a relatively straightforward task, in particular when the types of information that they store are of similar content (for example descriptive data about artefacts, architecture, or material culture). (Baca, “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: Metadata for Art Objects and Their Visual Surrogates”) What does it mean to apply a standard with care? How can metadata remain relevant in the near or distant future? To answer these questions, the simplest way is to outline the concept of good metadata. To ensure long lasting success and usability, any project must build up qualitatively satisfactory metadata, that can truly act as the backbone of the venture. This means that content-wise it must be up to standard to fit other aggregations; it must be consistent, so that the records can be more effective in batch processing; it must be coherent, as often the metadata is used without access to the original resource, so it needs to make sense on its own, without knowledge of the materials or the repository; there must be enough context for it to be understandable, without overloading the relevant fields with data; lastly, it must conform to certain standards, be they metadata structure standards, mark-up languages, encoding or vocabulary standards. (Riley and Shepherd)
The number and size of online resources increases at an immense rate daily, and therefore the ability to refine searches and use controlled vocabularies both when creating the metadata and when searching and cross-referencing it is steadily becoming more and more relevant. An unmistakable and common goal of cultural and governmental institutions that is slowly emerging, is the creation of shareable metadata, because the “creation of consistent, standards-based, continuously refreshed and updated metadata enables institutions to publish information about their collections and other resources and activities in a timely, efficient manner and to more broadly disseminate that information.” (Baca, “Introduction to Metadata” 4)
Baca, Murtha. “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: Metadata for Art Objects and Their Visual Surrogates.” Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
—. “Introduction to Metadata.” InteractiveResource. N.p., 20 July 2016. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Fear, Kathleen. “User Understanding of Metadata in Digital Image Collections: Or, What Exactly Do You Mean by ‘Coverage’?” The American Archivist 73.1 (2010): 26–60. Print.
Higgins, Sarah. “What Are Metadata Standards | Digital Curation Centre.” N.p., Feb. 2007. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Riley, Jenn, and Kelcy Shepherd. “A Brave New World: Archivists and Shareable Descriptive Metadata.” The American Archivist 72.1 (2009): 91–112. Print.