Last week when I was at the Visual Resources Association’s annual conference, I was struck by the number of sessions that had metadata as their main theme. Even in a number of sessions that did not address the topic of metadata directly, the dependence on the availability of metadata was clear. As someone who has been a strong advocate for all things metadata, it was rewarding to see that metadata has finally come into its own. Metadata does matter.
Metadata has multiple uses beyond its original function of description (and by extension retrieval). For example, I have just begun working on different ways of visualizing the contents from the Henry Ford (THF) collections. This involves working with the metadata records associated with many thousands of items they hold. As I peered into the datasets THF so kindly provided, I started thinking about the various ways that the metadata could be used to examine their holdings. The metadata recorded for these items can be used to show where the collection’s contents were created (e.g., Detroit, MI; Boston, MA; Paris, France; etc.), what types of items are in the collection (e.g., furniture, clothing, photographs, etc.) and the proportional holdings of these items, what materials were used (e.g., silver, paper, steel, glass, etc.), and the dates associated with their creation and, or publication (e.g., 1820, 19th century, 1920, 1953, etc.).
These sorts of analyses undertaken with the basic metadata description of collection holdings offer a new way of looking at cultural heritage collections. What this offers collection managers (and others) is a completely different view onto their collections. While examining where items may have been made may not seem important, if you are a cultural heritage institution trying to preserve a representative example of what a particular culture has produced, visualizing holdings based on place of production will show collection strengths and areas ripe for potential collection development.
Facets of knowledge recorded for items held in a collection offer an intriguing glimpse into cultural institutions and our cultural legacy. I am looking forward to what comes out of this project. In the process, I am giving metadata a much deserved tip of my hat.