Tuesday, May 09, 2006

On the theoretical and the practical

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.


Mark said...

Seems you've run up against the century plus debate within cataloging education. Maybe there truly is nothing new under the sun.

I am not making light of this issue btw, and I think you have addressed it clearly and succinctly. In fact, far better than the many, many articles I've been reading for my own enlightenment and to put in my bibliography of materials on cataloging and metadata education.

You might find something of value in some of that literature, though. It is a perpetual dichotomy and I imagine that most of the issues and/or strategies that arise in traditional cataloging education/training apply to metadata training. In fact, I have had enough of both theory and practice in both traditional cataloging and metadata to say they probably *are* the same issues. Metadata's, though, are larger because there isn't one monolithic structure and content rules as there (pretty much) is in cataloging.

My (very limited qualifications) point of view is go with a solid dose of theory. As you said, you simply cannot cover much in the way of issues of practice, and some things simply must be learned for oneself in practice.

Dorothea said...

For me it's pretty simple. Without practice, I cannot learn theory or the reasons behind theory. I just can't. It doesn't make any sense to me, because I don't understand the problems at a gut level.

When I teach somewhat theoretical stuff, I *always* start with the problem and walk people through potential (though sometimes wrong) solutions.

It's easier to see how theory solves a problem if I've been presented with the problem first.

80/20 is another truth about metadata. You can teach people to deal with 80% of what they'll see in 20 minutes. :) I tend to go ahead and do that -- when they run into that last stubborn 20%, they come back for the theory IME.

anne beaumont said...

I think I want to have a bit each way. I find it very difficult to deal with people I describe as 'push button A, push button B', who only want to know what to do, and are not interested in why.
However I also tend to tell stories to give concrete examples - usually immediately after I have tried to make a theoretical point - as I have found in the past that using analogies can be helful.
Different people have different learning styles, and certainly if you are constrained for time, cheatsheets or checklists (given at the end) may help those whose other learning experiences do not prepare them for a large dose of theory.

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