Sound and vision blog

17 October 2007

Sharing content

At the bottom of every item page on the ASR site is a clickable box containing the words View Full Metadata. It’s possible that even experienced users of the site haven’t noticed this, and still more possible that they’ve noticed it, clicked the link, and been baffled by the result: a very long document full of XML tags, embedded Excel spreadsheets, and machine code.

This is, as advertised, the Full Metadata for the item.  But that statement itself begs some questions.  What is metadata?  How is it different from other sorts of data? Why have we made it available on the site? And who wants to look at it anyway?

First things first. Metadata is the complete descriptive information about an item in a digital repository, such as a website.  An item’s metadata thus contains all of the information you expect from a standard library catalogue record (title, author, year of publication, etc.), but fits this information into a dynamic, hierarchical structure that takes into account the different ways a user can interact with it. To give a practical example, a user streaming a recording on ASR will be listening to a Windows Media file, whereas a user downloading it will listen to an mp3; the metadata record documents and controls both possibilities.

The really exciting thing about metadata is that its functions extend beyond its use on an individual website. To this end, every item page of the ASR site has been assembled using a hierarchical structuring standard known as METS. Without going into too much detail, METS gives each record a uniform structure, in which each aspect of the digital item can be identified, interrogated for further information, and potentially reused in another context. For instance, an artist interviewed on ASR may want to host the interview on their own site, and our complete METS record could be repurposed to fit his or her needs.

This idea of repurposing material, and making our records uniform and interoperable, is one of the reasons we’ve published the records in full. Another (related) reason is that we’re working towards making the ASR service Open Archives Initiative-compliant, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.

When the ASR service went live last year, we held a launch event at the British Library’s Conference Centre. Among the invitees were groups from other JISC-funded digitisation projects. When the presentations were over, and people had a chance to use the site on their own, the ASR team was intitially surprised at how many of our JISC partners made straight for the View Full Metadata links, barely pausing at the user interface. But perhaps this is as it should be.  Imagine if all future digitisation projects worked from an interoperable platform: instead of having many dozen discrete learning resources, you would essentially be building a single massive resource – perhaps the foundation of the truly global library.

And lest you think I’m getting ahead of myself, take a look at PictureAustralia, which harvests image data from Australian libraries, universities, museums and galleries, and then provides a single search point to access all the images.  This is the future, and it’s already here.

Niall Anderson, ASR Metadata Editor


From this I take it you mean 'Sharing information in the form of metadata about content': descriptive metadata at that. Confining a definition of metadata to 'complete descriptions' of items (not sure if any description could be considered 'complete') reinforces one of the perennial misunderstandings about metadata. Yes, it encompasses descriptions (who, what, when and where) but metadata is used, created and made visible (in different forms) at many points in the life cycle of an item: when it's ingested to a system, when it's repurposed, when it's re-licensed, when it's linked to other items, when preservation planning determines its format has to be changed,when the item is rendered (played back) on a range of players, etc., etc. This is what makes metadata really challenging, and, dare I say, exciting.

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