Metadata FundamentalsEpisode 11
Rachael Cristine Woody: I think the number one thing that I would love for people to take away especially our hero historians, is metadata can seem intimidating and so I just want to affirm that while it seems somewhat intimidating, it’s just the information about the item. Even the most basic information is important to capture while you’re putting your family collections together. So my advice would be don’t wait or feel like you have to get it perfect right away. Just start somewhere, capture what you can and you can always go back and refine add things edit things. You’ll learn more as you go, as we all do when we’re working on collections. The more you get to know it, the more you’re able to find meaning, more context. So I think that’s what I want people to take away, is that metadata is essentially the meaningful information about our items and just start somewhere because even just a little bit of something is better than no data.
Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with Permanent.org. This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks and I’m the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent and also your podcast host. Our theme this episode is metadata, which is a topic that comes up fairly often here at Permanent.
Metadata is an important part of personal digital archiving and in this episode, you’ll learn a little about why that is from our guest, Rachael Cristine Woody. Rachael is the founder and director of Relicura LLC, a firm that provides services to archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations.
She specializes in collections management systems, digitization technology, and digital usership. Previously, Woody was at the Smithsonian Institution and the Oregon Wine History Archive at Linfield University, where she successfully launched multiple digital collections that included advanced digitization technology, collaborative portals, and the migration of collection information into collections management systems.
She received her Master of Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives Management from Simmons University and has more than 15 years of experience in the museum and archives field.
All right. Hi, Rachael welcome to Our Digital Futures and thank you so much for being here.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Absolutely, thanks so much Amanda.
Amanda Meeks: So let’s get started. I just want to hear a little bit about how you’re doing first and foremost.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Doing pretty good, we are entering into the slower autumnal season for our projects which is always a great time for us to not only catch our breath but start thinking about the next year what we may want to focus on. It’s a lovely period of reevaluating everything and thinking about the year ahead. So, it’s one of my favorite times of year for that reason.
Amanda Meeks: That’s awesome. Yeah, it is nice to start thinking about the year ahead, although I am not quite sure I’m ready to think about the year.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Yes.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, it is that time though.
So we are specifically talking about metadata today, and I’m really excited to learn a little bit more from you about metadata since this is an area that Permanent has collaborated with you on in a number of ways, and we just always really value your opinion and your expertise. And our members are always excited to learn more about metadata, but, let’s start with the basics and let’s just hear how you define metadata.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Sure. So the catchy phrase typically, at least in like the archives museum circles, are metadata is data about the data, which essentially boils down to it’s the information that we want to capture that helps tell us and everyone else what is this particular item or object or photograph that we’re looking at, what is being portrayed, who took it like or created it. So it’s all of that essential information that belongs with that item and helps to convey, that item’s meaning that item’s significance. And so metadata can be just any and all information, aka data about the thing we’re talking about and there’s standards and such for those in the field, but at its core it’s really just the significant and meaningful information about the particular item that we’re talking about.
Amanda Meeks: That’s great. I often will tell people that it is the data about data, but also that it gives whatever you’re looking at context. It fills in all of the blanks. I really like your definition. And I think that the information about the object is so important, which leads into my next question, which is, what’s the purpose behind adding metadata to your digital files?
Rachael Cristine Woody: Absolutely. So at the dawn of the digital era and especially with the birth of the internet our impulse as human beings has been to put things online and for usually the express purpose of sharing those things. And that has really transcended and gone into museums and archives where their functions, because of course museums and archives have been around for centuries, their core functions is we help keep meaningful stuff but the reason why we’re keeping it is to also make sure this stuff is around for generations to continue to access and enjoy. And so with that moving to the internet, it really broadened the audiences that could access the archives and museum items. However, it also added this layer of how does one even find, going to whichever archive or museum or collection that they’re trying to find, it’s not as simple as just traveling to the town or city and visiting the favorite museum and taking the tour. So data has really helped us in this profession put the things online, but putting it online with data that can assist people in finding things that they maybe don’t even know that they’re looking for specifically, but through looking and doing searches for subjects or for people or for particular topics or moments in history. The data that we’re able to capture and pair with what we’re putting online helps people find those items while they interact and engage in that online arena versus you know the more traditional like going to the museum in person and looking at the galleries.
Amanda Meeks: Hmm, that is a really good point that I hadn’t thought of that, we kind of created a seven headed monster with the internet and just being able to have access to all of those things that aren’t within our proximity, which is wonderful. Like you said, it’s really nice to have access to collections that we may never see in person.
But yeah, how you go about searching those collections, finding the right piece of information or objects, items, et cetera, can be really tricky if the metadata isn’t there.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Yes.
Amanda Meeks: So, yeah. How do you go about creating metadata systems that support that discoverability that we’re talking about here?
And also a second part to that question is, maybe you want to answer that, but also walk us through your own process for your personal archive projects that you’ve completed.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Yeah, absolutely. So in our profession when we’re putting things online, we’ll typically select a CMS which is collections management system, or now we have a second option a digital asset management system which is in our vernacular we’ll call it DAMS. Regardless, the core functionality that we’re looking at in either of those systems is ability to capture metadata, which is information, and have that be paired to in this case a digital file. And usually those digital files are surrogates, they’re the digitized format of whatever physical item. However, the more and more that we create digitally, sometimes it’s a born digital item. So whether born digital or a digital surrogate, in museum and archives worlds we want to attach data for each of those files to help people find those items and be able to interpret and engage with those items.
And so when we’re looking at trying to put a collection online, digital exhibit, any of those sort of flavors of providing and presenting these items with data, we’ll need some sort of system to do that. And so working with a platform whether that is Permanent or one of the dozens of others of platforms that museums and archives have access to, the concept is the same which is being able to upload those digital files of the items that we want to share online and have the ability to pair each of those digital files with the information that we want to make sure is attached to each. And then with and via that platform, being able to then do the next step which is to publish those items with their information online and at you know basic simple presentation level is good like depending on the project or it can get more complex if you’re working with different museum partners, maybe there’s a collaborative portal.
So there’s really a range of once you get to the publish online part depending on the system you’re using and how big the scale is of your collections. It can look a little different in terms of what that outside product looks like, but regardless of size, on the back end it’s all pretty uniform in terms of whether it’s Permanent or a different platform. It’s all about uploading those items and attaching that information, and so that makes my job easier in the sense that the process that we put in place, while we may augment it depending our clients’ needs and scope of project, the steps and the flow of those steps are usually always the same.
In terms of if we’re digitizing an item because it’s not born digital that happens first, there’s the information capture typically at the point of digitization because as you’re digitizing that particular item, most of the information you have at your fingertips while you’re doing that and so that information capture happening during or right after digitization is usually the most efficient. And then through the digitization and information capture you’re then ready to start putting it into the platform. And so whether that is done in the flow of like digitize, information capture, and then into the platform one by one, or doing a bulk upload. Like maybe you digitize and capture information for like the first 100 items and then you’ll do like a bulk upload situation and then focus on the platform work for those 100 items.
So depending on team size and what have you, but it’s usually those steps digitize, information capture, put it into the platform and then there may be some sort of review process depending on what sort of steps are in place for that particular museum and then the fun part which is the publish button usually, which is to put those items that you’ve been working on online with the information and finally seeing people engage and enjoy those items based on that hard work that you did to get them there.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, you’ve mentioned the museum and archive context and teams and I would say that a lot of folks who will probably hear this are just individuals who are doing their own family history. So I’m curious if you have tips and recommendations around like creating your personal archive with metadata in mind and how it’s different from the professional context.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Yes that’s a great question. I have definitely worked on some family projects within the last couple of years and find it interesting to observe myself, because I do have the background of working with collections and putting them online but then once you start working on your own family’s collection, what remains the same or what changes?
And so my experience when working with my mom’s side of the family, her collection, the process that I ended up finding worked the best was digitizing the items and while I’m digitizing, you get to know the faces because the photographs. It was the collection I was working on and the photographs were taken from the 1930s to like the 1960s, so before my time and of people that, for the most part, had passed away before I could meet them.
However, when you work with a collection whether it’s your family or not you start recognizing faces and you can start recognizing things to context like the locations, and so for me, even though I was somewhat removed from those images when they were taken, I was able to capture at least some basic Data information which I ended up doing in a spreadsheet first. I recommend to any person who’s doing a solo project like this, capturing all the information into one place, regardless of what you want to do with it next can be incredibly helpful, especially if you’re doing sort of a iterative work in progress.
And an example of that is while I could only capture the basic data in that spreadsheet I was then able to like at the next family dinner, show all the photos on my laptop. And while you know my more older senior family members were looking at the photos and they actually knew and had been with those people, I was able to capture even more notes as they were talking into my spreadsheet. So I was able to do a 2nd layer of additional data, adding additional meaningful information about the individuals. And so if it’s a family project especially and you’re the chosen historian who is diligently documenting your family photos and putting them online, I think that can be incredibly helpful where you take at least like the basic data down and then having conversations with some of your other more senior family members to get some of those stories or that additional information that you may have never heard before or only once 20 years ago and having that extra information to add to what will end up being your family’s digital gallery.
So that part of the process, you know when you’re in a museum or archive, you don’t have the luxury of usually reaching out to whatever the collection was about or whoever had created that particular item. And so when you’re working on that family project you should hopefully still have some family members that you can reach out to and just spend an amazing afternoon looking over all the gorgeous photos or the letters that you’re scanning, which is an additional bonus part of the process that museums and archives usually don’t have access to.
So that’s how I think part of the that process flow would differ, the personal collection and the historian versus the museum or archive collection going through that process.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, that’s a really wonderful distinction, because I think that there’s also opportunities for connecting with your family over doing their digital archives. Even if you’re the chosen family historian, as you said, I’ve heard from some of our members that can feel like they’re doing it all by themselves.
But I think what you’re describing is a really wonderful way to involve other people and be able to enjoy the process a little bit more through that connection through learning from them and hearing their stories and hearing about the relatives that you never got to meet, but who are an essential part of your family history.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Yes absolutely. I definitely want to affirm you. In part of your comment you had mentioned being the family historian sometimes it can feel like it’s all on you and so it’s both an honor that you’ve been trusted with what is quite literally the family legacy, it can also feel a bit overwhelming too, absolutely, to be charged with being the steward of that collection. So I just want to shout out to all of the self-appointed or family-appointed historians doing this important work because if you aren’t doing it - like I often go to antique stores like of course, because I love history, and it it just makes me so sad every time when they have the old family photos and photo albums that are just like orphaned at this antique store because there wasn’t a family historian or a family left to continue to hold onto and treasure those items. So that was a very long story to say good job family historians, I applaud you. Your work is important even if you may feel like you’re a lone person doing the good work.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I’ve definitely seen those orphaned albums and photos and it’s an interesting experience to come across those because it’s a really intimate look into people’s lives that you hope somebody is stewarding those materials after, after you’re gone, but yeah, it can be disheartening to see those lying around collecting dust.
I’m right with you and really appreciate our family historians on Permanent and elsewhere. So let’s see, can you tell us about a time when metadata saved the day?
Rachael Cristine Woody: Oh so metadata is the information about the items that we capture does a lot of heavy lifting just on the daily, because as you said Amanda, it conveys the context, it conveys the meaning or significance of that particular item or what the item represents or is conveying, and so every day metadata is a hero from my perspective.
However, where it is particularly and perhaps quite singularly pivotal is the data that we’re capturing, whether it’s the description of an item or we’re using like subject tags to help identify the item or what it’s about or where it’s from, that data in pretty much every platform available at this point is searchable. And the ability to search, because so many of the people who find their way to collections online it’s usually through like Google or Bing like that’s where we start as human beings currently is like “let me just Google to try and find photos of Paris in the 1920s” or or what have you. And so you may not already have a destination in mind, you may not already know like “I’m looking for this particular photo” and because most of our audience members don’t know that they’re looking for a specific item, their Google searches will end up leading them to the museum website and digital collections or if they’re on Permanent and they’re searching for a particular like “I want to see the photo archives from this particular organization” then being able to use like “Oh now there’s subject tags I can click on or “ It pulled up this item and it’s because in the description, part of my search was in that in that description for that item.”
So being able to facilitate discovery is perhaps the most important like “save the day” kind of work that our metadata does. And in terms of like a particular example of that is when I was still working in a traditional job at a museum, a lot of our collections were online and it was one of those where between staff turnover and just the sheer size of the collection, like we know a lot about our collections but we certainly don’t know like everything about the collection or what’s in it, certainly not if you’re a new staff member. And so you would often have like repeat researchers or even new researchers come in and say “Oh I’m looking for this one piece of information” and it’s one of those where like you think it should exist and you’re not for sure.
But one of the stories was this person they had been a researcher previously but it had been like five years or something, and so the researcher had come in and she’s like “I know I was looking at this letter. It was in this collection, but the collection was like 200 boxes.” Through conversation we got at least a couple, like okay we know it’s a letter, and so part of our ability to search through the data is because we’re capturing what is the item. Okay so letter, and then we know the collection so we can limit it down to what we’re searching for for the collection. And then she just knew it was like “oh the person who read the letter mentioned this specific place” and so in having that place name and knowing it was a letter we were able to sleuth and narrow it down to just this one box of correspondence.
So it was one of those with very minimal information but like it should exist kind of memory, we were able to use and leverage the data that we had captured to at least get it narrowed down and eventually find the letter that the researcher had remembered. It makes our jobs easier as museum and archive professionals, but it also makes the people who use those collections it makes it easier for them too. If she wrote it down before like it was five years ago like nobody - no reasonable person would expect like “Oh you’re going to remember where this specific thing was” so that only helps us in our jobs but also helps the people who enjoy the collection.
And the metadata definitely saved the day for all of us that day so that we did not have to go through all the boxes of the collection to try and find it.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah, what you were just describing reminded me that, essentially, we have our physical collections that we hope people steward, take care of, and digitize and we see the ones that end up in antique stores and auctions and whatnot. And digital files without metadata might as well be lost to an antique store, because if you can’t find the things that you’re looking for, you have no context for them, then they’re just photos and without meaning. So I think that that story really illustrates that even a minimal amount of metadata can really help you find what you’re looking for when you want to find it. And even if it just narrows it down to one box, that’s still better than a whole sea of photos online.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Absolutely, yeah. What you described Amanda, made me think of in the profession we refer to physical collections as unprocessed, so in archives that could be like a box of correspondence but none of us have been able to look at it let alone organize our inventory or for museum objects like the objects are in storage but they’ve not been tagged, written down, or accessioned. And so there’s absolutely a digital version of that where “okay the digital file exists we created it” but if there’s no data to go with it, it’s essentially unprocessed. And if you have no data you can’t actually access or find what you need in it because the information just doesn’t exist yet.
Amanda Meeks: Yeah. This is our last question, but what’s the number one thing you’d hope folks take away from this conversation on metadata?
Rachael Cristine Woody:Hmm
Amanda Meeks: Especially individuals who are our family historian champions, we’ll call them.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Yes! Yes, I think the number one thing that I would love for people to take away especially our hero historians, is metadata can seem intimidating and so I just want to affirm that while it seems somewhat intimidating, it’s just the information about the item. As with our last story, even the most basic information is important to capture while you’re putting your family collections together. So my advice would be don’t wait or feel like you have to get it perfect right away. Just start somewhere, capture what you can and you can always go back and refine add things edit things. You’ll learn more as you go, as we all do when we’re working on collections. The more you get to know it, the more you’re able to find meaning, more context. So I think that’s what I want people to take away, is that metadata is essentially the meaningful information about our items and just start somewhere because even just a little bit of something is better than no data.
Amanda Meeks: Yes definitely. Thank you so much for all of your thoughts and expertise. I hope people enjoyed this and are inspired to start adding metadata to their files at least. So thank you.
Rachael Cristine Woody: Oh you’re so welcome Amanda. Thank you for having me.
Amanda Meeks: Thank you for listening to this episode of Our Digital Futures. Metadata is an important part of digital storytelling and archiving for individuals and small organizations alike. We are always improving our metadata features and love feedback from our community on this topic. We hope this episode inspires you to consider how you might use metadata to tell the story of your files on Permanent.
What do you hope others will learn from your archive in the future? Metadata can certainly give the context and details that preserve the stories most important to you. Permanent has robust and ever-growing metadata capabilities. You can add a title, description, date, location, and keywords to files and folders.
You can also add custom metadata which allows you to add additional fields that Permanent doesn’t have to your files. We also try to read certain embedded metadata from your files and input them into Permanent metadata fields. The mobile app allows you to bulk edit your metadata to make it easier to edit multiple files metadata all at once.
The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations. Our web and mobile app Permanent.org is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely, without recurring subscription fees.
Your generous donations to our endowment ensure long term sustainability as an organization while also securing your legacy.
Special thank you to our editor, Emily Sienkiewicz.
Rachael Cristine Woodyshe/her
Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.