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Metadata for Describing Digital Objects: Getting Started

A guide for Appalachian State University faculty, staff and students who are creating metadata for a digital project

". . . metadata essentially acts as a surrogate for the object it describes, and allows users to interact with the resource and perform certain functions (searching, browsing, etc.) without having to inspect the physical item."

Getting Started with Digital Collections: Scaling to Fit Your Organization (Monson, 2017, p. 89)

Questions to Consider

Before beginning work on your project in a content management system (such as Omeka), spend some time thinking about the questions below. How you answer them will largely inform your project's metadata development.

Who is the user?

Considering who is likely to use your digital project and how they will use it are important first steps in developing your project's metadata. Consider how familiar users may be with your content, terminology, and subject area. Their level of familiarity will help guide your selection of metadata vocabularies and schema.

Also, be mindful of your users' familiarity with digital tools; some users may be very practiced in navigating digital collections, archives and libraries and may have a strong command of technologies as well as commonly used terms (e.g., still image, rights holder) while others may not.

Putting the user at the center of your project's development early on will help ensure that you build a digital project that users will be able to access, use, and understand easily and seamlessly.

How will users search for your content?

Consider how users will search for your content. Which words and phrases will they use?

What descriptions of the object are necessary not only in identifying the object (e.g., a 3x5 postcard of downtown Boone, N.C.) but also in distinguishing it from other similar objects (e.g, it's a 3x5 postcard of downtown Boone, N.C. in 1940.)

It's important to think about every facet of the object--its name/title, shape, size, length, color, date, subject matter, creator, contributor, size, genre, time period, geographic location, and so on--and how important that aspect will be to the user.

Thinking about how users will search for, discover, identify and use your content is a great step in figuring out how to craft your metadata.

What are you describing?

At the heart of metadata is the digital object itself. What kind of object are you describing? For example, is it an oral history, a video recording, a photograph? What is the medium? How will users need to interact with the objects? The type of objects and the subject matter involved will largely drive the metadata schema (e.g., Dublin Core, MODS) and controlled vocabularies, thesauri and encoding schemes (e.g., Library of Congress Subject Headings, Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus) you'll choose to provide structure and consistency for your project's metadata.

Also, don't underestimate the value some users may assign to seemingly uninteresting or immaterial aspects of your content. For example, if your digital project involves digitized travel magazines from the 1950s, don't assume that the advertisements for toothpaste appearing in the magazines are of no interest to the user. Some users may value your content not only for its obvious content (i.e., travel in the 1950s) but also for other data or source material that the object provides.

Where and with whom will you share your content?

Determining where and with whom you will share your content is a first step in developing your project's metadata. Many institutions have specific metadata schema and guidelines in place that content contributors need to follow in order to share content. Check with the institutions to find out more about their metadata requirements and preferences. Similarly, consider any requirements or specifications of the content management system where your content will be hosted.

If your project is grant funded, does the granting agency have any metadata requirements?

If your project is funded by a grant, you may also need to consider the granting agency's metadata requirements. Some federal agencies require plans for metadata sharing and preservation.

What resources do you have for metadata creation?

Before you dive into creating metadata for your project, consider how much time and help you will have to devote to this aspect of the project. It's better to chart a consistent albeit less ambitious course for what can reasonably be accomplished.

For these reasons, aim to determine the scope of your metadata up front and consistently use metadata for each object in your digital project. Metadata consistency not only helps you plan and manage your time and expectations, it also helps users navigate your project and make sense of its contents more easily.

What is your backup and long-term storage plan?

You'll need a plan to save, backup and store not only the digital objects involved in your project but also the metadata that describes those objects. Consider saving your metadata on a spreadsheet with copies in several different places. It's common practice to save metadata on comma separated value documents, or .csv files.

Need guidance on your digital project?

Digital Scholarship and Initiatives (DSI) at Appalachian State University Libraries engages and collaborates with library partners, campus, and community to support new scholarship in a rapidly changing digital landscape. DSI service areas include:


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Ashlea Green
Subjects: Metadata