An Introduction to the World of Metadata – Master of Information

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What is metadata? The average person may have heard the term on the news, perhaps, but has little knowledge about how metadata affects their lives. In the most general sense, metadata is information about information. Virtually every type of information resource has some metadata associated with it, no matter whether the resource is for the use of technical experts or lay users. Pursuing a Master of Information Degree from Rutgers Online will help you get one step closer to understanding the world of metadata.

Metadata entails both structure and content – it provides an organized way to clarify, retrieve, utilize, or manage an information resource. Think of a common HTML page: The summary one sees of a Web page in search results is drawn from a field called meta description. The data associated with the meta description is always there, but it is not usually visible to the average Web surfer looking at the page: Instead, it is used by software for purposes of organization.

An Introduction to Different Types of Metadata

A search engine is simply an information management system with a vast number of resources, so it makes sense to begin an exploration of metadata with this common and familiar tool. That said, there are many different types of metadata. Likewise, different professional communities use the term “metadata” in varying ways.

Some of the most common types of metadata include:

Descriptive Metadata

This metadata provides description information to aid in later identification and recovery. The development of the ISBN system represents one early effort to centralize metadata information for the organization of traditional library resources. Information such as the author’s name, the date and location of publication, and the publisher can all serve in a descriptive capacity.

Structural Metadata

Structural metadata helps to define the internal relationships between different data objects. In modern information systems, these relationships can be highly mutable and complex, changing based on the user’s inputs and needs. The most common and easily understood form of structural metadata is the page number – providing order and structure to the internal contents of that fundamental resource, the book.

Administrative Metadata

Administrative metadata is focused on the future management of a resource – the transformation of information assets into long-term operational investments. It can include information such as when and how a file was first created, its file type or encoding, and the access rights associated with it. Administrative metadata can be the most challenging to interpret, and has at least two sub-types:

  • Rights Metadata: Rights metadata is bound up in the management of intellectual property and access rights. Rights metadata for a digital resource can be extremely complex and, in networked environments, can update in real time to match usage conditions.
  • Preservation Metadata: Preservation metadata provides for the long-term archival of a resource. Preservation metadata can appear anywhere from a national museum, where it might describe provenance, to a corporate finance or compliance department.

It is important to point out a distinction that can apply across all these categories:

Machine-Readable Metadata

Some forms of metadata are natively understood only by other components within the system generating the data. In order for this machine-readable data to become human-readable, some additional processing must take place. In our search engine example, the meta description is primarily used by the search engine, but it exists in a human-readable format and can be accessed digitally by users. Rights metadata often appears in a machine-readable form and is interpreted to users so that only the contextually relevant details appear.

No matter what format metadata is in or what its primary application may be, we call a collection of metadata elements that serve a defined purpose a metadata scheme. Within the scheme, the definitions applied to the individual elements are the semantics. The values that represent each informational resource are the content. For information systems to be efficient and effective, the metadata scheme applied to each type of resource must be appropriate, consistent, and coherent.

The Importance of Metadata for Information-Driven Organizations

In a world with an ever-growing treasury of information resources, metadata plays a key role in ensuring resources endure into the future. In addition to its obvious applications in discovery and organization, metadata is increasingly important in ensuring interoperability. Thorough and well-structured metadata helps to ensure digital resources can be accessed across a wide variety of systems and identified when changes must be made for compatibility reasons.

As new technologies become available, new metadata schemes and element sets illuminate their products within larger and more complex information systems. Metadata must use standardized, and indeed, somewhat specialized, vocabularies in order to adequately reflect the defining characteristics of each data resource. At the same time, each object’s metadata must itself display structure and authenticity: It should serve as the authoritative guide to functional interactions with the asset it relates to, and lend itself to uniqueness, archivability, and persistence.

From the end user perspective, accurate metadata reduces the time spent in the early stages of the information-seeking behavior cycle and allows users to focus on the assets they wish to engage with. That is, it helps ensure rules and norms of the information system are consistent and compatible with the time, effort, and resources the user brings to the process. By producing superior user experience, organizations facilitate the ultimate goal of conserving their resources safely while making them available for all legitimate purposes.