Metadata is a hot topic in digital humanities. We have metadata repositories, metadata standards, metadata schemas, metadata registries, and even metadata games! But metadata is also scary. Sometimes, metadata is seen as something obscure and difficult to understand. And it is! Muddled definitions, ambiguous descriptions, and outright incorrect statements have contributed much to make metadata a complex topic. However, it doesn’t need to be so. Also, I must say that, after 30 years working in software engineering, I may have heard the term “metadata” in this field just a few times. Metadata does not seem to be a specially important concept to the engineers building the information systems that sustain our planes and guide power our computers. Digital humanities, however, seems to have overdeveloped a suspicious keenness on this concept. In this post, I will clarify a few concepts, I will provide a simple and affordable definition of metadata, and I will make the bold but perhaps true claim that metadata does not really exist.
Informally, metadata is often described as “data about other data” [Oxford Dictionary, Wikipedia]. But what does this mean? In practice, I have observed that “metadata” is often employed to refer to two different things:
- The structure of other data. For example, imagine that we create a database to store information about people. The specific fields such as FamilyName or DateOfBirth that we decide to employ would be metadata. The data types of these fields, such as text for FamilyName or datetime for DateOfBirth would also be metadata.
- A description of other data. For example, imagine that we want to document not only the name and date of birth of every person in our database; we also want to record who and when entered those pieces of information, so we add LastUpdatedTime and LastUpdatedBy fields. The data that we enter for these fields, such as 8 June 2016 by Alice would be metadata.