Metadata: Being Discussed Beyond The Realm of Catalog/Metadata Librarians

Just the other day I attended the ACRL/NEC SCIG conference entitled, “New Roles for Supporting Digital Scholarship in Academic Libraries”. The program included Nick Shockey from the Right to Research Coalition/SPARC, Jean Bauer from Brown University, Jen Ferguson from Northeastern University, and a panel discussing open access policies in New England (representatives from University of Rhode Island, Wellesley College and Olin College of Engineering with Ellen Duranceau (MIT) as mediator). The dominant audience was a mix of librarians in the fields of reference or subject liaison, data services, digital humanities support, and digital initiatives. I saw that there were only a couple of colleagues that either still worked primarily in or had some remaining tasks in cataloging/metadata. I saw another familiar face from the IT side of supporting scholarship. Despite the lack of attendance from catalog/metadata librarians, I found it amazing that the word of the day was Metadata. The fact that metadata was strongly publicized in almost all of the presentations was not altogether new. Over the course of two years, in particular with the raising awareness of eScience or data management services and the digital humanities, webinars and other conference presentations on metadata have been appearing in venues such as user experience, subject librarian services or the academic college research experience (or whatever similar names you wish to give them). What is interesting is the emphasis on the importance of metadata, which is commonly referred to as “data about data”. Sometimes, presenters go further and say that the audience (mostly from the public side of libraries) should go meet their fellow metadata librarians to get in touch with their inner metadata. I guess that would be nice. However, the idea that catalog/metadata librarians are still very much an obscure back room operation that does magically things when people aren’t looking is an old and outdated perception. This was just one curious aspect to this conference as well as others I’ve attended where metadata is inserted into the mix of being a data services, subject, etc. librarian. Two other points that were prominent especially at this conference were that of “narrative” and instead of supporting digital scholarship, librarians should be doing digital scholarship. Let’s take a look at these.

1. Narrative: The first speaker, Nick Shockey, from the Right to Research Coalition/SPARC, was a vibrant speaker. His presentation, “The State of Open Access Advocacy”, did an excellent job of describing some of the issues faced when trying to find research today. Nick speaks with a number of people on the Hill and in publishing where he has to make the case for open access. He mentioned that you need a “powerful voice for open access to defeat vested interests”. In this way, formulating a “narrative is crucial, [one] that encapsulates data and statistics” where not only the value of open access is communicated but also a narrative that allows the listener to feel a part of the story. This remark really spoke to my situation of being a catalog/metadata librarian. At times, it seems that our field of librarianship is fraught with negative perceptions. As a result, many catalog/metadata conferences that I’ve attended over the past several years focus on “change”, “new skills we need to acquire”, “restructuring to meet changing needs”, “how to create better efficiencies”. Of course, these conferences offered great thought provoking points to bring back to the office. But as one person said to me at the (NETSL) New England Technical Services Librarians’ recent annual conference, “it is refreshing to hear something positive for once”. Cudos to NETSL. However that comment highlights much of the angst that many catalog/metadata librarians have felt recently. Services have been outsourced. Positions have disappeared. Staff hasn’t been replaced. Yet the work load has increased. From the networking grapevine, I’ve heard some complain that they don’t have time to acquire new skills and some administrations prefer to bypass their catalog/metadata librarians for programmers or someone else. What was refreshing about this SCIG conference was a very strong message to go seek out your friendly catalog/metadata librarian. Despite this, I asked myself: so, what is the narrative of cataloging and metadata? Are we to stick with what I consider the overly obtuse and useless adage of “data about data” that only a select few seem to understand? I began to consider, especially in regards to metadata, our listservs. There aren’t many and one seems only an outlet to notify people of conferences. There is no “Metadata4Lib” or “MetadataCAMP” or Meta -unconference. Of course, cataloging has a long history, much of which I learned at GSLIS school. But what about metadata? Even at my own workplace, we really don’t have a “narrative” that encapsulates data and statistics about metadata. It could be because everyone is now “doing” metadata so to speak: the programmers, those who work in databases, those who are submitting theses and dissertations, our volunteers, our work studies. And yet, when it comes to asking questions of data consistency, accuracy, content standards, or name authority, I typically find the crowd thins to just my fellow cataloging colleagues and a few librarians who were probably catalogers in another lifetime. There is a narrative there. There are also statistics and data to be uncovered. Actually studies has trickling out and have been for several years, such as NSCU’s “Evaluating the effectiveness of manual metadata enhancements for digital images“, done in 2011. What’s interesting is that this wasn’t published or referred to on national metadata listservs. It seems that cataloging and metadata need more of these types of studies that support a strong narrative that promotes the work we do as catalog/metadata librarians, a narrative that administrators and our community can understand and support. Some institutions have that and we can use their examples to help build a similar narrative where we work where metadata does not have just a strong narrative or might not have one at all.

2. Don’t support digital scholarship, do digital scholarship. Jean Bauer from Brown University is completing her Ph.D. as she works as a full time librarian. Yup, she’s busy. Her primary message to us the other day was very instructive in particular with respect to the digital humanities. We can try and support all the digital scholarship we can. However, it is only really being a part of the community and doing this scholarship within this community that we will be able to make headway. Jean admitted that the digital humanities is different from scientific data. A data set is not a product of an experiment. The data are not “produced” so to speak. They are created by hand. It is not so much a service that is required but a collaborator who understands the different nature of these data and the projects in the digital humanities. This is definitely something to consider with metadata. It is not so much the goal to document a data set but to create a document of a document or the metadata can be the document itself. This might seem strange. Take the example of TEI (text encoding initiative), which is not so much documenting a digital object as marking up this object so that it itself becomes the metadata. In this sense, how can metadata librarians join the digital humanities community? One way offered by Jean is to have brown bag lunches. This is a great idea. Where I work, we’re offering TEI in July. The play on words was intentional. We wanted to get the idea across that we’re having fun and learning as a community. It amazed me that this brown bag (actually a series of 3) is bringing together faculty and librarians to learn TEI! Fantastic.

3. Old perceptions of catalog/metadata librarians: We all know that most likely during your career, you’ll meet someone who will ask what you do and you’ll answer, librarian. Then they ask if you’ve always loved books and how it’s great to work with books all day. If the general idea of librarian is sometimes misunderstood, that of the catalog/metadata librarian can be worse. One problem is that a sometimes outdated image of cataloging and metadata is now competing with current ones. Unfortunately, the dust hasn’t seemed to have settled in many places (our lack of narrative). Hence, people are confused as to what we do. Many of my colleagues are somewhat familiar with the “old” perception. That pertains especially to catalog librarians who are not public service orientated. This old image consists of catalogers that sit in some back office and do things that we really don’t need to do in this day and age. Perhaps they deal with print or serials (don’t they all arrive in an electronic package). Who does maintenance when most of our records come electronically? I’ve also heard the perception that catalogers are hard to work with. They’re too detailed oriented or too attached to details and rules. Some are just inflexible. Granted this is the bad of the bad of the old perceptions. Of course we all know that this isn’t true. I have found that catalogers are some of the most flexible people and yes many like to cite rules. However, we have been learning new tools and skills for years. Many have lead their departments in new directions. And there is also the downside; many have been downsized to the point where work cannot be completed. I think this is in part because of some of these old perceptions and a lack of a unified, strong, compelling narrative that advocates for cataloging and metadata and our professional time has yet to appear.

I have to say that what this conference really brought to light for me was the need for a strong compelling narrative at my library. This doesn’t really exist. And until we come together to formulate one and get it out there, people will continue to misunderstand and unfortunately pass over the hard work we do. What’s your story?


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