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.


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