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I Made Metadata Fun: A True Story

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The following is a guest post by Madeline Sheldon, Junior Fellow with NDIIPP.

Most of you who follow this blog have an interest in digital preservation and will already be familiar with the following information. This particular post is more for the individuals who are just beginning to understand the implications of their digital footprint and what it means to store/preserve and retrieve their data.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine asked about the progress of my research, curious to learn more about the nature of my work. I did my best to relay some of my recent findings about digital preservation stewardship, but when her eyes started to glaze over, I knew I had to employ a different approach. I tried to think of topics that would translate easily into popular culture without losing my friend’s attention, or confusing her with technical jargon. I had the most luck with metadata, mostly because this person had heard mention of its existence in the news and wanted to hear more about how this “new” term existed within her own life.

In order to make metadata relatable, I explained that she inadvertently created metadata every single day by logging onto her favorite social media site, sending an email, text or even taking photos with her digital camera. I used a metadata guide that I found online, followed by real-time demonstrations to further illustrate my point. Together we looked at source code from her newest social media update, pointing towards the time stamp and text of her most recent post:

In the same way, I explained, emails and text messages create metadata which highlights sender/receiver information, such as location, and the day/time a person sends/receives a new message. When taking photographs with a digital camera, the resulting image often has data encoded into the file, such as size, resolution and camera make/model.

This revelation piqued her interest, though she still didn’t fully comprehend why I needed to relate metadata to my research with digital preservation planning. I did my best to keep my explanation as simple as possible, using digital photographs as a relatable example. Digital material, I explained, is not a stable medium, eventually degrading or becoming obsolete. Cultural institutions dedicated to digital stewardship work to prevent this by creating policies or strategies within their organization to plan for long-term preservation of this material. The use of metadata is a major component in this process because it holds valuable, descriptive information, which allows the digital object to be accessed or discoverable in the future.

After our conversation, I felt a sense of accomplishment because I made metadata fun and relatable to a person completely outside of my profession, which rarely happens. Despite this, I think the conversation went so well because metadata appears to be a hot topic at the moment, though that may (or may not) change in the future.

Whatever the case may be, I can revel in the satisfaction that I successfully brought a new convert to the (meta) side.

Comments (3)

  1. I regularly use Adobe Photoshop to add and edit info associated with historical images that I have found over the years on the internet.

    I typically add add notes to the description field
    with back ground info about the image, where I found it.

    This only works with jpeg format. When I have tried with other formats such as png or tiff or gif that data is lost when image is saved and later reopened. I may save a two versions of an image such as highest resolution tiff and jpeg,

    To edit metadata in Adobe Photoshop (I am still on version CS2) select File then File Info on an open image. That brings up a dialog window which makes the rest easy. Some image viewer programs let you click and see image metatdata by looking at its properties.

    Web pages have meta data stored in the html code. You can typically select an option to show code associated with any web page to see meta tags. This is the meta data in this web page.

    In astronomy which I do quite a bit with comets and asteroids, or any other field of interest, you can create templates of meta tags for embedding image data. In the astronomy community they typically use an image or file type called .fits which stores all kinds of meta data about the image as it is processed. Fits can be used to store tables of scientific data. It is extensive.. All the NASA data is stored like this and is available to anyone on their data nodes such as their PDS: Small Body Node

  2. I’ve had luck with comparing metadata to the information that used to be put onto the cards in a library’s card catalog. Now, of course, that works best for folks who are old enough to remember what a card catalog is!

    Another example, I have used is to talk about the attributes of a sports card collection. The idea that you could sort and retrieve the card you want by searching for the manufacturer, e.g. Topps; or the sport, e.g. baseball or basketball; the athlete’s name, etc.

    Or another one I’ve found to be helpful is to show them a website like Zappos where you can search by and limit your search based on a variety of different attributs, such as size, style, or color. I explain that each of those attributes could be considered to be the metadata for those shoes.

  3. Thank you for your comments!

    I appreciate hearing about the ways in which different communities, like NASA, store their data. Using popular consumer sites to provide examples of metadata is another great suggestion, to which I think everyone can relate.

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