I almost named my last post the “Shiny New Metadata That Could”. Instead I focused on some of the highlights of the ACRL NE get together at Northeastern. But I kept thinking about the increase of the word “metadata” especially in forums outside of cataloging and metadata. These forums seem to be linked to digital scholarship in one way or another and involve scholarly communication, data services, data management plans, digital humanities and many other subtopics. I went to a conference about 2 years ago for subject liaisons in the sciences where the keynote speaker was Diane Hillmann of all people; she even spoke a little bit on RDA! What is intersting in many of these venues is the message that metadata is essential. This is where it gets tricky because there’s a brief attempt to define metadata and why it’s essential.
Some of the attempts:
- It’s data about data.
- It’s the stuff that your catalogers do.
- It’s a way to document your digital object so that it’s searchable.
- It’s a process where you provide information about an object.
- It’s a record that describes a resource.
- Information is metadata.
- Metadata is just data and not information.
- Metadata is information generated as you use technology.
- Metadata helps you find stuff.
- Metadata helps fight against “orphan” works by providing information on the creators, rights and other information about the resource and thus giving these individuals credit for their work.
Already it’s apparent that there are several definitions of what metadata is or “are” and why it’s important. Much of this depends on who the audience is and also who is creating whatever this metadata is or “are” (computer or human) in addition to where the digital object ends up (your desktop or on the web). The problem I see here is that metadata becomes a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing. Perhaps this explains why many people just don’t understand metadata in this very abstract way. That is also why when explaining metadata, people tend to either use lots of examples as in the funny video from EDINA Data Center or relate metadata to the work done by colleagues (it’s the stuff catalogers do). The latter case is becoming more prevalent in many of the library conferences on digital scholarship, eScience, or digital humanities in my region or the description that metadata is what your catalogers do. Being a catalog/metadata librarian, I asked the wisdom of this relation. There are several points that came to mind that made me pause.
- Many of my colleagues don’t know what I do.
- Many catalog/metadata departments might not do this work as it might be part of a digital initiatives group and/or programmers.
- Some of these work might be done by volunteers because there are no technical services staff.
- Some departments might want to do it but aren’t sure how to proceed.
I’m sure there are many more scenarios out there. One might think that all of these are a bit exaggerated. However, I’ve spoken to people who work in similar situations. The trend in technical services has been to outsource work and reduce staff. I was surprised to learn that this affects even large operations such as the University of Chicago that has seen a 60% reduction in their cataloging staff in the last 10 years. Of course not all of this bad. Cataloging work has changed tremendously over the years. We can do much more in batches and more efficiently with better technology. However, there is a trend where the work done in cataloging and metadata is seen as not as important as it once was. The problem with this statement is that it is loaded with a preconceived notion of what cataloging was and in some cases continues to be. This is due to a misguided perception of cataloging and catalogers. Another problem is that in some cases the work that is done is closely associated with technology. There seems to be an equation that goes to the effect that the more impressive technological solutions we have the less catalogers should be doing. What is missing is that the work has shifted. Now much of the legwork can be accomplished through technology. However, that doesn’t mean that catalogers are simply doing less overall. First, there is still a lot of metadata that cannot be generated automatically through technology. Second, metadata as is apparent from the variety of catch all definitions comes in all the flavors one wants depending on how’s working with it. This variety is hard to map for a computer alone. In fact, a person is needed to create the initial mappings and work out what the metadata is to be and how it is to be organized. Hence, to ensure that this “data about data” is interoperable, discoverable, re-usable and generally will make sense to someone in the future, the metadata needs to be manipulated and perhaps even partially created to meet at least a minimum of standards, international, national, and local. This requires of our catalogers a knowledge of various technologies, various standards (of all sorts), how to turn non-standard mess into shiny interoperable and shareable metadata in a variety of systems, and much more. in this sense, we’re asking our catalogers more at the same time there are pressures from the outside to downplay the role played by catalogers. Some of this is due to our lack at promoting ourselves and our value as catalogers. Another problem is the lack of a more unified and shared narrative that our colleagues and communities can not only participate in but also be party to the value and importance of library cataloging and metadata because it supports digital scholarship. We need something more than a lifeless xml4lib and metadatalibrarians lisetservs. We definitely need something more than discussions on whether there should be a period after the MARC21 264 field. Certainly there is nothing wrong with discussing issues of punctuation. But let’s face it, our colleagues don’t understand these particulars. And I’ve never really understood the silence on the xml4lib and metadatalibrarians listserv. There’s a lot that metadata librarians are doing but it seems to trickle out in different venues. Why is it that there is no shared narrative? Is it because metadata is so disparate of a term that not only it’s definitions vary widely but the work being done in libraries also varies so widely as to inhibit a shared narrative. Whatever the case, I’ve found that metadata is neither new nor shiny but quite muddy and sometimes difficult to navigate in waters where everyone seems to have an investment on the shiny new world of metadata.