Tuesday, August 02, 2005

To each their own "metadata"

I was introduced to someone today as the "Metadata Librarian," and received a reaction I seem to get a lot: "Oh, metadata, huh? Someday I'll understand that." On my optimistic days, I want to respond "Would you like to go get a cup of coffee and chat?" On my cynical days, "You've got an opportunity here to learn something new! Take it!"

Everyone has their talents and areas of difficulty. We're all really good at some things and equally bad at others. Me, I'm completely spatially inept. It once took me 3 hours to put together a futon frame (with instructions). I'm fine with that, because I know my talents lie elsewhere, although I do often think it would be nice to be handy. Despite my lack of innate talent in some areas, I've never thought I simply can't learn any of it. Little by little I'll learn to fix things around the house. I'll never be able to paint with any level of inspiration, but with a whole lot of practice I might be able to use color effectively or produce a still life that is recognizable. One might think metadata is uninteresting. That's cool. I find a lot of stuff out there uninteresting. But don't think it's unlearnable.

Part of the problem here is that "metadata" isn't a monolithic concept. Depending on one's perspective, it can mean virtually anything. To lots of people, all they need is descriptive metadata, and maybe even some version of qualified Dublin Core their content management solution provides them. GIS specialists delve deeply into an area of metadata many know very little about. For many, text encoding is the metadata world, of extremely rich depth and subtlety. I had an interesting conversation recently with a colleague about the definition of "structural" metadata. By some definition, TEI markup is structural metadata, indicating the stucture of the text by surrounding that text with tags. Does that same logic apply to music encoding? Music markup languages specify the musical features themselves, rather than "surrounding" them with metadata. But certainly there's some similarity to text markup. The boundary between structural metadata and markup isn't the same to everyone. Similarly, there are times when I use the word metadata to refer to something that might more accurately be "data," and when I use it to refer to something that might be "meta-metadata."

All of these views are valid. I'm constantly reminding myself of this. Often when my first reaction is that someone doesn't get it, it's really their view not quite meshing with mine. It's important that we have some common terminology and meanings, but I believe there's room for perspective as well. I can get better at my job if I listen more closely to these perspectives.

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