Last week, our group participated in an activity on Metadata Standards, where we had some great conversations about the important role of metadata in facilitating better end-user experience. The topic is a rich one that connects together museums from all over the United States. But before I recap our conversation, I want to get down some thoughts about the role of metadata in digitization in general, and some potential future directions.
Metadata can be a tricky concept to explain. It’s an abstract idea, even though many people use it every day. Boiled down: Metadata is data that describes other data. Museums need metadata to find, organize, and clarify data. Visitors need metadata to find what data they are looking for. In museums, objects are given metadata such as a title, creator, accession number, etc. This data is constructed by human sources. This information gives us ways to talk about the objects. This descriptive metadata helps museum professionals organize, exhibit, and care for the objects. In museum digitization, metadata not only organizes the objects into a database but helps end-users find what they are looking for on the museum’s website. If museums want to harness the power of digitization to expand their audiences they must apply metadata standards in their digitization workflow.
Why should museums use standards?
Standards assist museums in recording and retrieving records efficiently. As one of the “Cataloguing Cultural Objects” authors, Murtha Baca notes, “Standards guide data structure, data values, and data content, which lead to good descriptive cataloging and increase end-user access. Good data standards enumerate a set of categories or metadata elements that can be used to create a structure for a database.”
Here is a helpful breakdown of the different kinds of metadata standards:
Metadata Element set: set of elements used to create a structure for a database. Example: Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA)
Data Values: Standards that govern the words used. Example: Thesaurus for Graphic Materials, Art and Architecture Thesaurus
Data Content: The selection and organization of the data values. Standards guide the choices of terms and define the order, syntax, and form in which data values should be entered into a data structure. Example: Cataloguing Cultural Objects, (COO)
Supporting metadata standards is certainly important—they create a roadmap for users to find their way through the digital collection. Our class participated in an activity to jumpstart our conversations about metadata standards. We broke into three groups with tasks to look things up on Amazon.
Group One: wanted to watch an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”. They searched for the episode “The Night Shift” and recorded the metadata they used to find it… (season, original air time, Channel)
Group Two: Was interested in the filmography of actor Terry Crews (stars in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), they used Amazon’s website to search all Terry Crew’s films and recorded what metadata they need to find it…
Group Three: Loved watching all of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and wanted to watch another show with the same style of humor. They used “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” page on Amazon to find a new show and recorded what metadata they used to find it…
We found that using information that describes the data we were looking for provided a better end-user experience but also exposed us to new data. While one user may be interested in binge-watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or viewing Starry Night, another user may want to find other shows starring actor, Terry Crews or other paintings by Van Gogh. Both users need metadata to find what they need. Like I mentioned earlier, metadata is constructed by people, not inherent within the data or object. Metadata is most useful when it emphasizes the needs of the user. Here is where standards become necessary; users need to be oriented in the right direction to find information. Standards structure metadata into hierarchies and categories to help users find their way. So “The Night Shift” is put up on Amazon with the episode title, season, and actor’s names to guide the user through the website to find the data they are looking for. This metadata is only a representation of “The Night Shift” episode, but it is useful precisely because it contextualizes the data in a binge-watching centric view. The metadata encourages the user to watch the next episode. Similarly, if a museum visitor goes to MoMA’s website to look for Starry Night, they can search using the work’s title, the artist’s name, or post-impressionism based on their reasoning for looking for the object. Maybe they are interested in Van Gogh’s later work or an example of post-impressionist work. The metadata creates a standardized roadmap that allows us use the objects, for educational, scholarly, or aesthetic purposes.
Molly Noah, Graduate Student, Museum Science & Management Program, Curatorial Track
University of Tulsa, April, 2017