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Metadata for Describing Digital Objects: Key Terms

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

". . .metadata is often created, stored, and acted upon largely as though it is data. Indeed, the distinction between metadata and data is in actuality solely one of semantics. . . . metadata is all structured to some degree. The metadata is collected so that it can fulfill a useful purpose . . . It is this notion of structure that turns raw information into actionable metadata."

Understanding Metadata: What is it? What is it for? (Riley, 2017, p. 4)

What is metadata? (video, 3:57)

In this short video, Seurat's painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte" is used to illustrate what metadata is and why it's helpful. (Please note that Appalachian State University is not endorsing Canto by use of this audiovisual content.)


Digital Object is any object that exists digitally, or "an abstraction that can refer to any type of information. The object may be simple or complex, ranging from values used in databases to graphics and sounds. ...Objects are not necessarily self-contained. For example, a graphics object may require an external piece of software to render the image." (Society of American Archivists)

For the purposes of this guide, a digital object might be but is not limited to a digital surrogate of a physical object, such as one of the following:

  • oral history documents and recordings
  • photographs, manuscripts, maps, sheet music
  • audio content which might include music performances, radio broadcasts, etc.
  • video content which might include documentaries, performances, ceremonies, etc.
  • 3D models

Digital Surrogate is "any digital copy of a record on any analog medium, such as paper, parchment, motion-picture film, analog audio, and analog video." (Society of American Archivists) For the purposes of this guide, Digital Object and Digital Surrogate may be used interchangeably.

Metadata is "...the information we create, store, and share to describe things, allows us to interact with these things to obtain the knowledge we need" (Riley, 2017, p. 1).


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Ashlea Green
Subjects: Metadata