I remember learning the term “meta” as an undergraduate when a history professor first explained to me what a historiography was. However, “history about history” was an easier concept for me to grasp than “data about data.” As I gained practical experience working to catalog museum objects and process archival material, I came to understand metadata as the important information which helps users to identify objects or documents that are relevant to their research or interests.
Anne J. Gilliland writes in An Introduction to Metadata that “cultural heritage information professionals such as museum registrars, library catalogers, and archival processors often apply the term metadata to the value-added information that they create to arrange, describe, track, and otherwise enhance access to information objects and the physical collections related to those objects.”
The readings this week challenged me to think about the connections between metadata, access, digitization, and shared authority. Public historians often talk about digitization as a magic tool that automatically increases access to resources. However, online resources with poor or no metadata are almost completely useless to users who know nothing about the objects or documents they are viewing. An archive that isn’t searchable is not very useful, even if it is available to everyone.
The concept of “social metadata” as defined in Karen Smith Yoshimura’s summary of social metadata use in archives, libraries, and museums was highly intriguing to me. I often think of metadata as a carefully controlled, back-end generated terms that must be tightly controlled in order to keep material discoverable. However, the idea of users creating their own metadata is highly intriguing to me. I wonder how public historians might use this concept to challenge traditional classification hierarchies and create resources that truly reflect concepts of shared authority.
I compared two exhibits that use metadata in different ways to investigate the relationship between metadata and functionality.
The first online exhibit I looked at was “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”developed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exhibit contains three main components: A timeline, themes, and gallery. The gallery component contained over 300 thumbnail images, and was easily searchable by format, theme, and year. This functionality made this online resource more than just an exhibit I would view once.
In contrast, an exhibit on the Smithsonian Museum of American Arts’s website, a retrospective of Irving Penn photographs titled “Beyond Beauty,” did not use metadata in the same way. This exhibit also had a gallery component, however it was not searchable and the only metadata displayed was the title of the photograph and year.
These different uses of metadata illustrate how its inclusion can vastly change the way visitors experience exhibits and think about the functionality of online resources.