How to Develop a Metadata System

There are two ways to approach creating a metadata system that will work for you. Either approach may end up leading to the same outcome eventually, but the process and thinking might be different.

1. Start with your purpose

For this approach you will start by deciding what you want to accomplish with your metadata, or part of your metadata. This could be an archival project where you want to properly describe and label older content that is no longer in use before you put it into storage. Perhaps you want to increase your discoverability by improving your SEO metadata. You might decide to do a cleanup and reorganization of your working files.

Once you’ve decided what your goal is then you can move to the next step of choosing which metadata you need and how to organize or deploy it.

2. Start with what you have

This approach is the opposite. Rather than first considering what goal you want to accomplish, you will do an inventory of your files and information to see what metadata you have that might need organizing. This approach will help if you are generally having difficulty finding things or figuring out how to organize them but you don’t have a specific measurable goal in mind.

Basic Metadata Schema Development

Developing a standard for your organization for metadata capture and recording will mean that you will always have the information you need at hand.

It is good to refer to standardized metadata schemas when designing your own to allow for interoperability and extend the use. Metadata schemas can also be customized. In many cases you will find that you only need to use part of a schema because the complexity is unnecessary for your purpose. Dublin Core is a recommended multi-purpose schema to use for arts organizations because it is fairly ubiquitous and well understood, yet simple for humans to understand.

Dublin Core has 15 basic elements, and you can use elements multiple times in the description of one object (for example when you have multiple creators). The 15 basic elements are:

  • Contributor – “An entity responsible for making contributions to the resource.”
  • Coverage – “The spatial or temporal topic of the resource, the spatial applicability of the resource, or the jurisdiction under which the resource is relevant.”
  • Creator – “An entity primarily responsible for making the resource.”
  • Date – “A point or period of time associated with an event in the lifecycle of the resource.”
  • Description – “An account of the resource.”
  • Format – “The file format, physical medium, or dimensions of the resource.”
  • Identifier – “An unambiguous reference to the resource within a given context.”
  • Language – “A language of the resource.”
  • Publisher – “An entity responsible for making the resource available.”
  • Relation – “A related resource.”
  • Rights – “Information about rights held in and over the resource.”
  • Source – “A related resource from which the described resource is derived.”
  • Subject – “The topic of the resource.”
  • Title – “A name given to the resource.”
  • Type – “The nature or genre of the resource.”
  • For example, if your organization holds a number of different kinds of visual content then your taxonomy for the element of TYPE (list of controlled vocabulary allowed in this category and the hierarchy of their relationships) might look something like this:
  • Image
    • Moving
      • Animation
      • Film
        • Feature
        • Musical
        • Animation
        • Documentary
        • Silent
        • Short
        • Staged
        • Performance
        • etc.
      • TV
        • Drama
        • Serial
        • Documentary
        • News
        • Current Affairs
        • Performance
        • Comedy
        • Children’s
        • Review
        • Interview
        • etc.
    • Photograph
    • Graphic

Also, the flip side of all the metadata that powers the internet and electronic resources we use, is that those very systems can and do pervasively generate, collect, store, and share metadata about us. The metadata data that is collected and shared about us is aggregated by large companies who then know a lot about our internet use, our preferences, our digital tools, our purchases, and our health, among other things. The decisions about what metadata to collect and how to use it are made by the people who control the tools.

Metadata can also be used for negative purposes. Google will not index, or will de-index, websites it deems inappropriate, thus making them difficult to discover. Zoom has recently cancelled academic presentations that it claims violate the terms of service without notifying the event hosts. One event featured a speaker on Palestinian human rights. Many of the spaces that we treat as public are not, and our public discourse happens mostly in private spaces under corporate control. Sharing metadata can sometimes put an organization or activity at risk of being cancelled by corporate interests, and can also put individuals in harm’s way by facilitating targeted harassment and abuse.

Metadata is not neutral

If you approach it with critical caution, you can benefit from the effective use of metadata to keep your content organized and discoverable without unintended consequences.

Next, Sara Stang looks at how to manage metadata on your website.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts

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