Thursday, June 13, 2013

30th Year Reflections/48: Metadata

“Each time, making minor electronic adjustments to documents aired juicy details not meant for public disclosure — such as the true author of a file or sensitive data hacked from a final draft. The pitfalls of such hidden ‘metadata’ have been long known in computer-savvy circles, but these high-profile leaks are driving new efforts to keep a lid on metadata.” — Associated Press

Metadata is the new buzz word, at least for the news media. In the midst of all the reporting on the latest security leak, compliments of Edward Snowden, reporters and correspondents right, left, and center have uttered the word “metadata” in almost mystical tones. I have found their newfound reverence somewhat amusing. I would be tempted, given the chance, to put fifty reporters in a room (or better yet, the “talking heads” of television) and give them a very short quiz: define “metadata” and describe its use and importance. I’m almost certain the answers would be all over the map and many of them incorrect.

I’ll set aside my critique of the news media, but note their correctness in attaching a sense of awe to these hidden bits of the electronic world. Metadata is very important. It is part of the (sometimes) hidden infrastructure that orders our automated world. It helps drive and feed vast search engines, allowing us to discover (and be overwhelmed) by all the items that land on our desktop day in and day out.

Consider, for a moment, the metadata attached to this post. It was created using Microsoft Word 2010; named “Post48.doc”; exists in the “backward compatible” format of a Microsoft Word 97-2003 document; located in a certain sub-directory structure on my laptop’s hard drive; 32,768 bytes (for the moment) in size; created June 13, 2013; modified and accessed at certain times since creation; attached to various groups or usernames; contains 315 words (at this point in composition); took 29 minutes of editing time (to this point); allows or denies certain permissions; includes other metadata fields such as: subject, tags, categories, comments, authors, last save by, revision number, version number, company, manager, last printed—all metadata provided simply by viewing the properties attached to this document. Opening other features in Word such as “Track Changes” would provide another realm of metadata. And all this before I cut and paste this post into my blog software, at which point another raft of metadata will be added to this text. Welcome to the relatively unknown and unexplored world of metadata.

I am not a metadata expert. But I have some sense of how important this “data about data” is for our brave new world. As I write, at another work station in our office, metadata is being manually attached to scanned images uploaded into a data management system. Some of this data relies on controlled vocabularies, providing a uniformity of use and understanding. Even before arriving at that workstation those images were automatically tagged with metadata by the scanning program used to create the electronic file (and by the network on which those files were saved). Our manually entered data (and perhaps some of the automated data) provides additional information and points of access to each of these images. Using correct descriptive metadata will insure better results when researchers enter their search terms into a search engine. We want people to discover our stuff. Metadata provides a key to this discovery.

For those in the profession, there’s not a lot that is new here. We’ve lived and worked with metadata since the beginning of library-land time. What is new, and something we might tap into, is this sense of novelty expressed in the popular media. Snowden, the NSA programs, and earlier manifestations of public surveillance such as the Patriot Act, give us a conversational opening, a way to do what libraries and librarians have always done: provide the ways and means for developing an informed citizenry on the meanings, threats, and promises of metadata in our daily life together.

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