Thursday, January 12, 2006

User-contributed metadata failure?

In November's D-Lib Magazine, there is an extensive article describing the development of the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE). I was interested to learn more about this project, and delighted to see they had put in a method for end-users to provide descriptive information into their system. Unfortunately, the DLESE staff felt user contributions weren't the right way to go:

One approach that did not work well for DLESE was "community cataloging." The idea behind community cataloging was that educators would contribute to the library by cataloging a few of their favorite on-line educational resources through an easy-to-use web interface. In spite of considerable effort spent on developing the web-interface, guidelines and best practices documents, this approach yielded few resources and the community-cataloged metadata often turned out to be incomplete or incorrect. The community cataloging functionality has been replaced by a simple "Suggest a Resource" web form.
I'm disappointed to see an example of this approach actually put into practice and then rescinded. I haven't seen the "community cataloging" interface they used, so I don't know what sorts of tools existed to assist the user in providing accurate and complete data. But I do wonder how closely the community cataloging tool resembled a professional cataloger's tool. Today's library catalog systems are designed for use by experts. They don't assist in data entry in any meaningful way, and they rely on catalogers to make use of a vast amount of outside resources in order to create quality records. If a system for user-contributed metadata followed the same model (some empty boxes and a dense set of instructions on what to put in each of them), I'd predict that system would fail.

I believe in order to make good use of our users' expertise, we need to build interfaces on new models. These interfaces need to make it easy to do the right thing. Users don't have to create entire records, for example. Interfaces for user-contributed metadata could allow those who believe they have supplemental or corrected information to a resource to target their efforts to the bit of information they possess, rather than asking them to provide a complete descriptive record. Interfaces could limit the fields users are allowed to contribute or edit, or enforce strict datatyping for small bits of metadata in order to prevent simple data entry errors.

User-contributed metadata is not just about shifting the effort from catalogers to end-users. It's really about supplementing our current practices with new models, in order to start to get a handle on the vast information landscape we face today.

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