Metadata: Multilayered Data About Data

Just the other week, the listserv Metadata Librarians posted a link to Rob Karel’s post entitled, “Metadata, So Mom Can Understand”. This was a good article that included many easy to understand examples. The best part about this article that it was a good start to one of the many layers of metadata.

To explain this better, I need to take a detour to the DCC Curation Lifecycle Model from the folks at the Data Curation Center. Perhaps you are familiar with their model for research data.

DCC Curation Lifecycle Model

This model outlines the various routes that data can take during a research project such as the data on invasive plant species in Long Island Sound, the effect of ice melt on glaciers, … you get the idea. Suffice to say that data does not just appear or have a single point of existence. Data come into being through a research hypothesis proven through data collection and analysis.

Metadata shares many similarities with this model. Before the similarities, it’s worth noting the differences. Metadata does not come into being through a research hypothesis so to speak. Metadata do not exist to prove or disprove theories. Metadata exist to describe these data that do arise from research hypotheses or primary source content/objects (such as books, DVDs, devices, etc.). Metadata describe these resources such that anyone can understand  a hypothesis, a theory, or object in terms of how to access that data or object, fees associated with access, any technical information (such as this plays on MACs only) or other key points such as re-use or sharing of the content or any other information pertinent about the data or object (resource).

One of the similarities is that metadata like data can be used to support a hypothesis. Think of the recent news about the NSA’s metadata program or collection. Metadata are data used to describe a primary resource such as a DVD, phone conversation or digital image. If you need to prove that the phone conversation took place at a certain time and place, this can be achieved through metadata. In other words, the description of the phone conversion includes information about when that conversation took place, where and further who were the people in the conversation. Think of other ways we use metadata. We create interactive maps or timelines thanks to metadata in the form of coordinates and dates that describe the resource. In the case of the phone conversation, are metadata relying to others what was said or the exact conversation? No. The metadata are describing that conversation, the resource, in such a way that this description is unique enough to distinguish it from other conversations. It is this uniqueness that allows metadata to support a hypothesis. Hence, metadata are also data just a different type than your regular research data or the DVD you have in hand.

As data, metadata also have a lifecycle. Indeed, as in the post that I referenced above, there is a step of description. This occurs normally when the resource being described had already taken shape and has been created and/or published etc. But there are other steps to this cycle.

What is interesting is that sometimes a resource can stand on its on. Think of a poem on a piece of paper. We might not understand it right away and need time interpreting what this resource is. But hopefully we can at least guess that it’s a poem on a piece of paper. Metadata rarely stands on its own. Metadata accompany a resource. It is because of this relationship that metadata have a similar lifecycle.

There is a need just like with data (or a resource such as a book or DVD or a device) to:

  • Conceptualize
  • Create and/or receive
  • Appraise and select
  • Ingest
  • Preservation action
  • Store
  • Access, use and reuse
  • Transform
  • Dispose
  • Reappraise
  • Migrate

In the next post, I’ll take a look on these actions and how it relates to metadata and a possible lifecycle.


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