As mentioned in the Foreword, the topic of metadata is not discussed in-depth in this document. However, its complete absence in this section would be conspicuous.


Who has not had the experience of looking through a parents’ photo album and finding a potentially interesting photo with a frustrating lack of notes of who is in the photo or when/where it was taken (i.e. metadata)? Metadata is sometimes described as “additional” information, whereas in many cases the metadata is of equal importance to the content itself in the interpretation of the object. An image of a primitive cave painting is of greatly diminished value to someone researching the early origins of artwork if it lacks metadata describing its location and information on any carbon dating.

Perhaps one day in the distant future Artificial Intelligence will advance to the point of reliably analyzing a PDO based on its image content alone. Imagine an algorithm analyzing a photo from a presidential inauguration and identifying each individual based on facial recognition and an automatic search of news accounts and social media posts of that day, or scanning Picasso’s Guernica and identifying it as an oil on canvas depicting a scene of human suffering, painted in a cubist style – without manual entry of metadata. Until this fanciful future occurs it falls on the technicians and project managers of Cultural Heritage Institutions to ensure that PDOs have the appropriate metadata to provide context and facilitate a deeper understanding of an object.

Finding Aid

Primarily, metadata is often thought of as a way to provide a viewer additional context to an object. In fact, it is the ability for an object to be discovered by a viewer for which metadata is indispensable. Digitization is only useful if the end result, a digital collection, can be efficiently used, and metadata is not just an aid to this use, it is the most important means by which that use will be effected.

As the world’s digital collections continue to become increasingly centrally accessible, the total size will be measured with storage prefixes which we are only abstractly aware of, like exabyte, zettabyte, and yottabyte. In such collections there is no ability to search or organize manually – all organizational operations take the form of searches. A PDO without proper metadata in such a collection is like an unlabeled box in an unfathomably massive warehouse. While this guide does not include extensive information about Metadata, it is of unquestioned value to a digitization program.

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