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Digital Projects Toolkit: Metadata


What is Metadata?

Metadata is data that gives information about other data. It is data about data. Basically, metadata is the information about a digital file (such as the title, date, format, description, etc.).

  • The Society of American Archivists defines metadata as "information about data that promotes discovery, structures data objects, and supports the administration and preservation of records."
  • The American Library Association defines metadata as "descriptive information about a particular data set, object, or resource, including how it is formatted, and when and by whom it was collected. Although metadata most commonly refers to web resources, it can be about either physical or electronic resources. It may be created automatically using software or entered by hand."

Importance of Metadata

Metadata is very important. Arguably, it is just as important as the file itself. For example, if a photograph is digitized but no information (or metadata) is retained (such as who is in the photo, where it was taken, and when it was taken), the image does not serve much of a purpose to future generations. It will just be a mystery or unidentified image. Metadata captures important information and provides context. Not all resources are self-describing, so they need metadata.

Metadata: General Tips

Here are some tips for working with metadata:

  • Create an inventory for your digital files
    • This can be as simple as using Excel or a Google Sheet.
    • If you already have an inventory for your physical collection (recommended), any digital metadata could be added to it.
  • Make sure to always include some type of date.
    • Even a date range is better than nothing (like "1925-1935" or "late 1940s")
    • Consult the Dating Photographs page for more information.
  • Use full names
    • Avoid things like "Mom" or "Grandpa."
    • Someone going through your collection in the future may not know who "Mom" or "Grandpa" are.
  • You may also want to consider consulting this metadata creation process.

Metadata: Tips for Institutions

If your using a content management system and/ or your digital collection is going to be accessible online, there are a few things to consider:

  • Choose a metadata standard
  • Think about how people will access your stuff and choose metadata fields accordingly.
  • Be consistent with data entry.
    • When possible, use controlled vocabularies so terms/ subject headings remain consistent.
    • Consult the "Controlled Vocabularies" tab to learn more.
  • Use appropriate formats for dates and rights.
    • For dates, Digital Initiatives follows W3C (YYYY-MM-DD).
    • For rights, Digital Initiatives has adopted the rights statements provided by for its digital collections. Consult the Rights Statements page for more information.
  • Additional information and guidance is available on the Metadata Guidelines page.
  • You may also want to consider consulting this metadata creation process.
Metadata: File Properties

If possible, it is a good idea to add/ tag/ embed as much information into a digital file as you can. This information will then become searchable. Embedding as much information as possible will help record the information and ensure that it stays with the file. This process is equivalent to writing information on the back of a photograph.

The properties of a digital file is where this can be done. To get to the file properties of a digital image, for example, follow these steps:

  • Find the file on your computer
  • Right click on the file
  • Click on "Properties"
  • Click on the "Details" tab when the properties box opens

Identify the who, what, when, and where as you are inputting information into the properties. Also add any additional keywords that you deem relevant.

This process may be tedious, but it will be worth it in the long run. You don’t have to do it all at once. That could be overwhelming. Dedicate time to chip away at it.

To learn more about adding metadata to the file properties of a digital item, and the importance of it, consult these resources:

Metadata Guidelines/ Standards

Consult the Metadata Guidelines page for more information on guidelines and standards.

Controlled Vocabularies

This section will cover the basics of controlled vocabularies.

What is a Controlled Vocabulary?

Controlled vocabularies are standardized and organized lists of words, phrases, terms, names, etc. that provide a consistent way to describe and/or tag data. Essentially, they are a list of terms that have been preapproved for use for a given metadata field. According to the University of Texas Libraries, controlled vocabularies "are standardized and organized arrangements of words and phrases and provide a consistent way to describe data."

Importance of a Controlled Vocabulary

The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative website says when there is a lack of "basic terminology control, inconsistent or incorrect metadata can profoundly degrade the quality of search results." This is why controlled vocabularies are so important for certain fields. Metadata creators can use controlled vocabularies to assign appropriate, predetermined terms to records to improve information retrieval. Controlled vocabularies provide consistency and can also reduce the likelihood of spelling errors when recording metadata.

Using a Controlled Vocabulary

Using a controlled vocabulary for a title field, for example, would generally not be feasible because titles often vary. However, for a field like location, controlled vocabularies come in handy so you do not accidentally use a different variation of a term (like using "No. Dak." instead of "North Dakota").

Controlled vocabularies are useful for metadata fields for personal names or organizations. You want to make sure that you are using the correct version of the name. So instead of using:

  • "Nixon, Richard" would instead use the official version (official according to the Library of Congress Authorities) of:

  • "Nixon, Richard M. (Richard Milhous), 1913-1994"

ND State Library

The purpose of a controlled vocabulary is to keep metadata consistent and accurate, and many metadata fields require them. The ND State Library frequently uses controlled vocabularies for certain metadata fields, such as:

  • Bit Depth
  • Contributing Institution
  • Contributor
  • Creator
  • Decade
  • Format
  • Hardware
  • Language
  • Location
  • Organization Name
  • Personal Name
  • Printer
  • Publisher
  • Repository Collection
  • Repository Institution
  • Resolution
  • Rights
  • Software
  • Subject
  • Type

How does one know what the appropriate/ official versions of a name or subject are? For its digital collections, the ND State Library follows the metadata guidelines set by the Digital Horizons consortium, which (for certain fields) relies on the Library of Congress Authorities. This database is used to determine the appropriate and official titles/ headings of subjects, organizations, individuals, etc. Consult the Library of Congress Authorities Guide for more information on its use.

Examples of Controlled Vocabulary Schemas

Collection Statements
  • Rights Statements
    • says standardized rights statements "can be used to communicate the copyright and re-use status of digital objects to the public."
    • If your digital content will be made publicly accessible online, it is best practice to provide a rights statement that clearly identifies and explains the copyright status of the item.
  • Content Statements
    • In some cases, digital collections will require the use of a content statement or warning.
    • A content statement is a message for a digital collection (on its website or within the collection's metadata) that alerts users about potential materials that may be deemed offensive or harmful.
Additional Resources

To learn even more about metadata, consult the resources below.

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Many of these resources and programs are funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.