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Defining Metadata

Defining Metadata

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Chapter 1 of the Library Technology Report (January 2010; vol. 46 / no. 1) Understanding the Semantic Web: Bibliographic Data and Metadata, by Karen Coyle
Chapter 1 of the Library Technology Report (January 2010; vol. 46 / no. 1) Understanding the Semantic Web: Bibliographic Data and Metadata, by Karen Coyle

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Published by: American Library Association on May 06, 2011
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Chapter X
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Understanding the Semantic Web: Bibliographic Data and Metadata
Karen Coyle
Chapter 1
This chapter o “Understanding the Semantic Web: Bib-liographic Data and Metadata” explores the history o library data and where it stands in a modern context.The rise o a new inormation environment—the World Wide Web—has revealed the downside o the long his-tory that libraries have with metadata. The question that we must ace, and that we must ace sooner rather thanlater, is how we can best transorm our data so that it can become part o the dominant inormation environ-ment that is the Web.The larger the library is, the more you must distinguishthe books rom each other, and consequently the moreully and more accurately you must catalogue them. . .When I come to a great and national library, where I have the editions or works o “Abelard,” I have a right to fnd those editions and works so well distinguished rom each other that I may get exactly the particular one which I want.
—Sir Anthony Panizzi
e can trace the origins o modern library cata-loging practice back to the 1830s and AnthonyPanizzi’s 91 rules. Panizzi’s singular insight was that a large catalog needed consistency in its entriesi it was to serve the user. The years that ollowed brought waves o change that transormed the world socially,technologically, and intellectually. These changes werematched by a related evolution o libraries and librarycatalogs. The card catalog came about at the time o the industrial revolution, which was marked by a great increase in the production o printed materials. The truemechanization o the catalog was not possible until muchmore recent times, when advanced computer technologyallowed the creation o the Online Public Access Catalog(OPAC) in the 1980s. Some might say that the term
 already sounds quaint to the ears o twenty-rst-centurylibrarians.With each era, conceptual changes to the cataloghave come in response to related changes in the catalog’scontext. Some changes in cataloging rules have addressedthe new types o material that libraries must catalog, orinstance, the changes that came with the emergence o recorded sound and lms. Changes in the workfow o cat-aloging have been necessary to respond to the increasedproduction o inormation resources. Technology itsel has oered opportunities or change.I there is one constant, it is that throughout thesenearly two centuries, the modern library has continuallytransormed itsel in an eort to respond to the needs o its contemporary user.Today, we ace another signicant time o changethat is being prompted by today’s library user. This userno longer visits the physical library as his primary sourceo inormation, but seeks and creates inormation whileconnected to the global computer network. The changethat libraries will need to make in response must includethe transormation o the library’s public catalog rom astand-alone database o bibliographic records to a highlyhyperlinked data set that can interact with inormationresources on the World Wide Web. The library data canthen be integrated into the virtual working spaces o theusers served by the library.I all o this sounds otherworldly and vague, it isbecause there is no specic vision o where these changeswill lead us. The crystal ball is unortunately shortsighted,in no small part because this is a time o rapid change
Library Data in a ModernContext
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Understanding the Semantic Web: Bibliographic Data and Metadata
Karen Coyle
in many aspects o the inormation ecology.The ew things that are certain, however,point to the Web, and its eventual succes-sors, as the place to be. For libraries, thismeans yet another evolutionary step in thelibrary o our catalog: rom metadata tometaDATA.
Defning Meadaa
The most common denition o 
is“data about data.” This short, catchy deni-tion is worthy o a successul advertisingcampaign. Unortunately, it doesn’t reallyhelp us understand metadata, and is actuallysomewhat incorrect. A more useul deni-tion is decidedly less snappy, but can helpus understand the helpul role that metadatacan play in acilitating inormation access. Inact, a unctional denition gives us a viableroadmap or our own studies o metadatautility and quality.So here it goes—metadata is con-structed, constructive, and actionable:
Metadata is not ound innature. It is entirely an invention; it is anarticiality.
Metadata is constructedor some purpose, some activity, tosolve some problem. The prolierationo metadata ormats that seem similaron the surace is oten evidence o di-erent denitions o needs or o dier-ent contexts. We may dream o a uni-versal set o metadata or some set o things, like biological entities, printedbooks, or a calendar o events, but arelikely to be disappointed in practice.
The point o metadata is tobe useul in some way. This means that it is important that one can act on themetadata in a way that satises someneeds.From this rather lengthy denition, it is undoubtedlyevident that the creation o good, unctional metadatadepends greatly on an understanding o the potentialuses o the metadata and o the needs that the metadatamust be designed to satisy. It’s not uncommon or peopleto approach the creation o metadata as a philosophicalactivity, attempting to dene some kind o perect uni-verse or the things to be described. Metadata developedon theoretical, religious, or philosophical principles may
Figure 1
Ma f the earth with n Metadata.
Figure 2
Ma f the earth with Metadata—latitude and lngitude.
be intellectually pleasing, but is unlikely to get the jobdone. Instead, the metadata that we nd ourselves usingevery day is the metadata that we can use to accomplishsome task. For example, gure 1 shows the earth.Figure 2 is how we see the earth with the metadatao longitude and latitude.The use o longitude and latitude is so amiliar tous that it’s almost easy to orget that the earth does not really have lines running along its axes. There are no lines
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Understanding the Semantic Web: Bibliographic Data and Metadata
Karen Coyle
marking points on the earth. Longitude and latitude wereinvented because these measurements were essential orthe navigation o a vast ocean that provided no visualpoints o reerence that humans could use. Longitude andlatitude are a good example o constructed and construc-tive data. This metadata is also actionable; initially youhad to have a clear sky and a sextant. Today we are ortu-nate to have sophisticated global positioning systems totell us, with considerable accuracy, where on the planet we are currently located, yet these systems still use theplanetary metadata that was developed over two thou-sand years ago.There are other navigation systems, however, that aren’t based on longitude and latitude. As a matter o act,in terms o earthly location they are airly inaccurate. Yet,they serve their users.Figure 3 is a typical subwaymap. I you were to superim-pose this map over the city it represents, you’d nd that thesubway map isn’t “true,” in thesense that it is neither to scalenor are the stations locatedwhere they would be on a mapbased on longitude and latitude.This, however, isn’t a deect o the subway map, because that isn’t the purpose or unction o the map. The map is intendedto help us navigate the subwaylines, oten underground. Weneed to know where to changerom one line to another, andin which direction to take thetrain. These maps leave out agreat number o details that a geographer would consideressential in a map o the area.And yet they perorm their jobincredibly well, to the point that one can arrive in a city or therst time, perhaps even withonly a limited understandingo the local language, and ndone’s way. These maps are agood example o unctionalityin metadata.Metadata can also servethe unction o substituting orsomething we cannot otherwisework with. The examples in g-ure 4 and 5—baseball statisticsand a visualization o humanDNA (Figure 5 on next page)—show how metadata can represent an otherwise intangiblething or concept. In the case o the baseball statistics,this metadata makes it possible to characterize a game,a player, or even an entire season and to make compari-sons rom one such representation to another. I you’veever spent time with enthusiasts o the game, you knowthat this seemingly abstract reduction o the game to rac-tions and percentages can be every bit as real to thoseans as the very game itsel. This metadata, as opposed tothe experience o the game itsel, provides concrete mea-surements that can answer burning questions like who thebest player on the team might be. As or the DNA example,although we can be sure that our genetic material is not composed o dierently shaded ovals, the microscopic sizeo the genome makes any communication about it impos-sible without a contrived representation.
Figure 3
Btn ubway ma.
Figure 4
Baeball a metadata [urce: www.baeball-reference.cm].

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