what is metadata, anyway?

What is metadata?

Metadata is just information about something.

Me: Hey, is that an apple?

You: Yeah, it’s red and round and crunchy.

Congratulations, you’ve created metadata!

In a place like a library or an archive, we create metadata about the things we own. This can get confusing for some people because a lot of what we own are just WORDS, wrapped up in a book jacket.

You: Wait, you are going to create words to describe these other words?

Me: …Yes.

You: Like….you are going to create information about other pieces of information?

Me:…Yes. Sorry.

Librarians avoid getting themselves confused by thinking of the materials in a library as OBJECTS, much like an apple. Except that it’s a book (or a CD, or an e-book, or a magazine). So, if *you* think of a book as an object, there is actually a lot you can say about it! You can describe its name (the title), who made it (the author), who made it into a physical thing and where that happened (the publisher and the city of publication), how big it is (page number and dimensions), what are some of its features (illustrations, the subject of it). All of this is metadata.

You (smugly): But what if the “object” isn’t an object? What if it’s a song in my phone?

Me: You can’t trip me up that easily.

Even electronic objects are still objects—you can think of them like virtual balls, round and whole and bouncing around the digital world as people upload and download and share. So the metadata for a digital object is pretty much the same as for a “physical” object, but the terms are a little different. You can describe its name (title), who made it (author/songwriter), who made it into something for others to use (recording company/hosting website), how big it is (file size), what are some of its features (file format, bit rate, playing speed).

Metadata is not *too* scary, because you create metadata all the time (tell me what that thing is you are holding, tell me about your car, tell me about your day). And the best part about creating metadata for things is that when you get a lot of things together in one place (like a library! Where you might have thousands of things in one small place!), you can take all the metadata and put *it* in one place too (like a library catalog), so that anyone who wants to find an object doesn’t need to look at everything to find what they need—they can look in the catalog and be directed to wherever they need to go to find the object they are looking for. And this is why metadata is so important.