Metawhat?: Understanding and using metadata

I’ve done some reading on metadata and even participated in a webinar on metadata for archivists, and personally, it is one of those things that I have a hard time grasping just from reading and hearing about it. To understand metadata and how it is made and used, I find it much more helpful to look at examples and try to see the structures and relationships for myself.

Metadata provides information about other data. When looking at a single piece of data, such as an image, the metadata tells us what type of data it is, where it came from, how it connects to other data, and other information that helps us understand what we are looking at. Metadata also provides ways to find the information we need. Any time you cite a book in a paper, you are providing metadata for that book. When creating metadata online, there are various standards that organize the information to make it readable for computers and helpful to humans using computers.

I first learned about metadata while working at the Women and Leadership Archives, so let’s take a look at one of their online exhibits. In the Legion of Young Polish Women exhibit, clicking on an image brings up a page containing the metadata for the image. Included are the title, source that tells you where in the archives the file came from, and the date of the document. The Rights section tells us who owns the copyright for the photo or document. When comparing this exhibit to older ones created by the WLA, I noticed that the inclusion of the rights metadata and other sections seem to be part of the archives’ effort to include more metadata.

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The first portion of the metadata page for an image on the Legion of Young Polish Women exhibit

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The bottom portion of the metadata page for an image from the exhibit

Providing viewers with access to as much information as possible is a desirable goal. However, the way it is presented here might feel annoying to viewers who expect to see an enlargement of the image when they click on it instead of another page of data. When creating our own exhibit using WLA collections, my project team will try to include the same kinds of helpful data in a clear way, although it will be helpful to explore the different ways that this information could be presented.

To compare the structures of other sites, I searched the Internet for other online exhibits. I found that many, like this cool exhibit from the Smithsonian American History Museum, Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction, 1780-1910, present metadata in a simpler format. Under each image, there is a short entry that includes a title or short description, date, and source. While this may not provide as much information as some researchers might want, the information is presented clearly and makes it possible to find the original source if needed.

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Here, metadata is listed under the images within the pages of the exhibit.

From a viewer’s standpoint, the right amount of metadata included and the best way to present it in an online exhibit might depend on if the visitor is using the exhibit as a simple learning tool or as a jumping-off point for further research. As a public historian, I would think about the way each of my projects is meant to serve guests when deciding on the metadata format (as I would when considering each aspect of the project). However, we can creatively explore the opportunities provided by virtual tools in order to share as much information as possible in useful ways.

Designing Digital History:learning to use the web effectively

Throughout the course so far, we have explored the many ways new media can be used to share information and engage people and organizations. This week, we read portions of Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenweig’s Digital History, which  discussed how historians can use the World Wide Web’s many possibilities to create websites that present history in useful ways. The book discusses everything from amount of text to color schemes to give historians a practical guide to constructing websites.

With these recommendations in mind, I took a look at a history website from my home state, The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. A joint project of the Tennessee Historical Society and the University of Tennessee Press, the website was created to be a “fully searchable version of the print edition of the encyclopedia originally published in 1998.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 9.17.29 PMTurning the book into an online resource has the advantages of increasing accessibility, allowing for continuous updates and additions of entries, and linking text to other forms of data.The site homepage contains text promoting the enhancements made in “Version 2.0” of the site, although I can’t find the date the new version was released.

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Entries can be found in several ways. The search box function seems to work very effectively, and visitors can also explore entries alphabetically or by category. Headings at the top of the page also allow the exploration of images, audio, and video files. Under audio, there are only two files, leading me to think and hope that plans to expand the online collection are underway. Another tab is labeled “interactive” and offers slideshows on a variety of topics.

As far as design, the layout and colors used for the website are simple and cohesive. The site does not have an artistic design, but it successfully avoids elements that Cohen and Rosenweig warn can distract from a site’s information and purpose. Because of its nature as an encyclopedia, the history site does not shy away from long passages of text. the authors of Digital History would applaud this, as they discourage historians from following the conventions of the web that say text should be kept to a minimum. It is important we do not underestimate our audiences’ interest and understanding by limiting the knowledge we share with them.

However, when perusing the Encyclopedia, I found many entries that had no accompanying visuals (including a page about African American decorative arts with no images of decorative arts. seriously?) and none that had more than one on the page.  For what the site was originally created for, this isn’t too surprising. Each entry has links to the side to any related images, slideshows, etc. However, I think the site misses opportunities provided in converting from a print form to a digital one by not integrating text and visuals into the same page. Cohen and Rosenweig warn against going overboard with photos and maps and visuals that do more to distract than to add info. Nevertheless, public historians should use websites not only to share their research, but to connect audiences with primary sources to enhance the learning experience and the understanding of the discipline. I hope that this encyclopedia and others like it continue to explore the possibilities of sharing history in creative and thoughtful ways.

I also noticed this message on the homepage:

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I could not find these guidelines online, but it indicates that historians everywhere are discussing strategies for presenting history online.