Understanding metadata for history and general research

What is metadata and why does it matter when studying history?

The following video (which is short) explains metadata in pictures: https://youtu.be/L0vOg18ncWE

In other words, metadata is information (data) about other information (data). For example, the location that you took a picture on your phone, will be attached the picture file. We also call metadata “tags.”

There are a couple different sub-types of metadata, but we will work with descriptive meta-data and structural metadata. Some people put a hyphen in the word, others write it out. Consider the following examples:

1. Two Music Albums

In this image, we have many songs. But only have the length of the song as descriptive metadata. The metadata describes that the song on the file is so long. Is that useful metadata? Organizing an album by the length of its songs tells us very little.

Two Music Albums
Two Music Albums

2. Music Folder with full metadata.

What can you do with this metadata?

Here we have both descriptive and structural metadata. A song title is descriptive metadata. Song titles tell us about something in the data (the song.) Artist and album is (mostly) structural metadata: it lets me organize the data (songs). Many metadata can be both descriptive or structural, depending on how you use it?

What other metadata might you want if this were your music collection?

Music Folder with full metadata.
Music Folder with full metadata.

3. Metadata from Office 365 Files

Metadata is also used to organize computer files, such as in Office 365.

What metadata do you see?

Look at the numbers in the circles.

  1. Does this field have more than one metadata in it?
  2. We don’t know if this date is created or accessed, but we assume it’s 2022 because there’s not year.
  3. This field is “Owner” which often means who wrote it, but technically means who created the file and saved it.
  4. This field is activity.

What metadata do icons communicate?
Metadata from Office 365 Files

4. Journal articles have metadata

Most of your readings also have metadata attached.

Metadata and Tags are the same thing. Tags is a shorter term.

Journal articles have metadata
Journal articles have metadata

REALLY IMPORTANT POINT: All history digital systems (like historical databases, museum websites, search engines) use metadata to organize information. Understanding how metadata is vitally important to becoming a good researcher in any topic.

5. Files in folders are actually metadata

Your computer is organized with metadata too, even though it uses the icons of folders to suggest that your files are located in a series of folders.

In this image, you see a series of image files in a file called “imageslessonplan2” which is in a file called “images” which in another folder called “world_history_1” which is in the folder “GitHub”

To the computer, those things called folders are just metadata. You don’t need to organize your information in many folders, but you do need to tag it appropriately to ensure you can find it again.

Files in folders are actually metadata

6. Prepare Assignment

A. Chose a digital system you feel comfortable sharing that uses metadata.
B. Take a screenshot of your metadata.
C. Explain in a paragraph what you find useful about this metadata system and what you would change if you could.
D. Identify which metadata in your system is descriptive and which metadata is structural.

Only share what you are comfortable with me knowing. The point is to practice evaluating metadata systems.

If you don’t know how to take a screen shot, do a web search for “screen shot” and your operating system, such as Windows 11, Chrome, or Mac. You do not need to use a new application to take a screen shot: all computers have software that lets you do it.