What is metadata? The dictionary describes it as “a set of data that describes and gives information about other data”. In more basic terms it’s the digital equivalent of the penciled note you are delighted to find on the back of an old family photograph.
For digital files, the metadata is embedded in the file. Often, you don’t even know it’s there. For example, today’s digital cameras add metadata like the date and time the photo was taken, details about the camera and settings used to take the photo and even possibly location information. When you look at the photo, all you see is the image, but as soon as you upload it to Flickr or import it into a photo-editing/organizing app on your desktop, all that information is right there for you to see. Your software, services and platforms know to look for it too.
Many everyday applications also work with metadata. The first time you open office-type apps like word-processing or presentation programs, you are often asked to enter information about yourself. Don’t skip this step. Why? Because once it knows who you are, it will embed that information into each file you create. In other words, it’s automatically establishing provenance for the documents and presentations you create.
Another very interesting thing about metadata is that it’s very search-friendly. Search engines love it. That goes for the search feature built into your computer too. For societies wanting to make their digital collections easily accessible, metadata and the search feature on computers is your new card catalog.
There are two challenges here. First is to develop a metadata standard for your archives and insuring it’s included in all items added to your collections. Second is educating your members so they get in the habit of adding their own metadata to the documents, images and other files they create. Once everyone knows what it is, why it’s important and where to look, your digital archives become a valuable resource offering easy access to us all.
Finding the metadata editor for your apps isn’t difficult. Getting into the habit of including it will take a bit more work. Most photo-editing apps with organizing features put metadata front and center.
Here is a photograph in iPhoto with the Info panel displayed on the right. The information at the top was embedded into the image file by the camera, as was the date and location (shown as a map). The title, description and keywords were added manually. iPhoto is one of many apps that offers tools to bulk edit this information – making it even easier to incorporate metadata into your photo management workflows.
This is a pedigree chart created from the Mac Family Tree app and saved as a PDF document. The box floating over it is the inspector panel in Preview, the PDF reader app included on Apple computers. The information displayed in this view comes from the app used to create the file, but the other panels (see icons at top of panel) can be used to manually add keywords, permissions and other information.
My Microsoft days are fading into the past, but I remember using a File > File Info command to access similar information in MS Office applications. I’m not familiar with the “ribbon” so you’ll need to look around.
You’ve probably been adding metadata – especially to your photographs – without knowing it. Most of us are comfortable adding tags (yes, that’s metadata) to photos, Evernote notes, blog posts and any number of other files. A little more poking around and you’ll see even more metadata opportunities.
We’re just getting started. Now that you know what metadata is, upcoming articles will show you how to incorporate metadata as you build and organize your society archives.