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The Greek prefix "meta", meaning 'after' or 'beyond', is often added to modern words to indicate that something is self-referential. For example, 'metahumour' is joking about jokes; 'metacognition' is the study and awareness of how we understand things (so, thinking about thinking). Metadata, then, is data about data: information that describes various aspects of a digital asset. Such assets might include photographs, documents, videos, web pages, etc, and metadata for those assets could include its title, date of creation, who created it, keywords, and any number of other details about that asset.

Cartoon illustrating the difference between using folders or metadata when organizing information: essentially, a folder structure restricts organisation to one scheme, and each asset is associated with just one category. With metadata many more organisational schemes are available, and can be changed between quickly.
Folders Vs Metadata by John Norris, CC BY-SA 2.0
John Norris has provided an in-depth explanation of the ideas depicted in the cartoon on his blog.

Metadata acts as a digital label and its key purpose is to enable efficient management, sorting and discovery of content. A self-referential example of metadata would be the labels associated with the article you are reading now: if you scroll down, just beneath the Further Reading section you'll see the word "Labels:" followed by some key words that relate to themes and topics represented in this article. Clicking or tapping on any of those words will take you to a list of all of the articles on this site that have been assigned that word as a label. In this context, 'labels', 'tags' and 'keywords' are all the same kind of metadata.

As large numbers of digital resources are created and stored they can quickly become unmanageable. Ensuring that each asset is tagged with relevant metadata plays a crucial role in ensuring that the time, effort and, in many cases, money that has gone into creating such resources is not wasted: good metadata enhances accessibility, improves search capabilities and facilitates the preservation and contextual understanding of digital resources, and all of this adds to its usefulness.

Exactly what metadata is required depends on the resources themselves and possible use cases and so it is not possible to provide a definitive list of metadata categories that works in all circumstances, but the following considerations may help you to decide what is required in your own context:

A useful metadata schema should contribute to all of the following:

Content organisation

Metadata enables the systematic organisation of digital collections. Assigning relevant metadata to each resource allows the creation of logical structures and categorisations that facilitate discovery and retrieval of resources on particular themes and topics. This can be useful for both educators and learners, especially where access to resource collections is provided for independent research.

Resource discovery

Metadata enriches search capabilities, making it easier for users to locate specific digital assets. Accurate, appropriate and descriptive  allows for the creation of effective search filters that allow resources and collections of resources to be easily discoverable by (for example) topic, time period, artist or author, or any other relevant criteria.

Contextual understanding

Metadata provides valuable contextual information about digital assets. For example, historical background, cultural significance and other information can enhance a viewer's understanding of the material and helps them to explore connections and delve deeper into the subject matter. Appropriate metadata provides opportunities for the curation of sets of resources on an unlimited variety of themes tailored to the individuals interests and purposes.

Collaboration and data sharing

Effective metadata can foster collaboration among educators and learners in various settings. Standardised metadata schemas and vocabularies ensure interoperability, making it easier to share and exchange data and resources between departments within and organisation and between platforms and institutions. Such a collaborative approach broadens the reach of educational resources and encourages (and enables) knowledge sharing.

Next steps

  1. A common place where digital assets produced by museums and galleries are stored but metadata  is neglected is the organisation's website, so:
    1. Browse your organisation's website. What digital resources can you find? Is a metadata schema apparent (i.e., are resources and web pages visibly 'tagged' with appropriate key words)?
    2. Try using the search features of the website to find information and resources on themes that you are interested in. Is what you find relevant?
    3. Are any of the resources you find missing important keywords? Make a note of the URL and any keywords that you think should be attached.
  2. Explore websites and online resource collections for other organisations (e.g.: the Wellcome Collection). Think about the same things as in step #1 above.
  3. Go back to your organisation's website having explored others in step #2. What features of your website make it easier or more difficult to find and sort information effectively? Can you think of any improvements to suggest?
  4. Discuss your thoughts and findings with colleagues within your organisation, and/or with other museum educators.

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