When I do metadata training, I make a point to talk about theoretical issues first, to help set the stage for why we make the decisions we do. Only then do I give practical advice on approaches to specific situations. I’m a firm believer in that old cliché about teaching a man to fish, and think that doing any digital library project involves creative decision-making, applying general principles rather than hard-and-fast rules.
Yet the feedback I get from these sessions frequently ranks practical advice as the most useful part of the training. I struggle with how to structure these training sessions based on the difference between what I think is important and what others find useful. I learned to make good metadata decisions first by implementing rules and procedures developed by others, and only later to develop those rules and procedures myself. It should make sense that others would learn the same way.
The difference is that I learned these methods over a long period of time. The training sessions I teach don’t ever claim to provide anyone with everything they would need to know to be a metadata expert. Instead, their goal is to provide participants with the tools they need to start thinking about their digital projects. I expect each of them will have many more questions and ample opportunity to apply theory presented to them as they begin planning for digital projects. This is where I see the theoretical foundation for metadata decisions coming into play. I can’t possibly provide enough practical advice to meet every need in the room; I can make a reasonable attempt to address theoretical issues that would help to address these issues.
I realize the theory (why we do things) can be an overwhelming introduction to the metadata landscape. Without any practical grounding, it doesn’t make any sense. Yet I know it’s essential in order to plan even one digital project, much less many. I and many others out there need to continue to improve the methods by which we train others to create consistent, high-quality, shareable metadata, finding the appropriate balance between giving a theoretical foundation and providing practical advice.