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Sharpen Your Digital Pencil

An Introduction to Metadata

Moultrie Creek Guide

Our use of digital technology to support our research efforts has been focused
on finding digitized records and building our family tree using applications
specifically designed for genealogy. Online archives and genealogy applications
have revolutionized genealogical research and made our research efforts much
easier. Yet, when it comes to  organization and management tasks, we're still
stuck in the paper age. Even when we are using digital tools, we're performing
tasks and using workflows designed for paper systems.

Evernote uses tags to quickly organize and retrieve notes.

Many of us digitize photos, documents and other family ephemera to share our
treasures with others and to protect ourselves from disaster. Is your digital filing
system organized like your paper system - even to the point of duplicating files
so they can be filed under multiple surnames?

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Introducing Metadata
Metadata is the digital equivalent of that penciled note you would love to find
on the back of an old family photo.
The formal definition is data used to describe data. In the paper world, a good
metadata example is the citation. For a book, it's the title page. In the digital
world, that information is embedded in the item's file. For example, a digital
photograph can have information like date stamps, geotags and camera settings
automatically included in the image file when you take the picture. You can add
more metadata information using your photo management software. This
includes things like title, description and tags. All this information is permanently
added to the image file.
Metadata is not only today's equivalent of the pencil notes on an old family
photo, it's also a very useful organizational tool. Why? Because most search
engines - both desktop and online - can search the metadata in your photos and
files. So, instead of building cumbersome filing systems and duplicating files in
various locations, spend your time and effort adding appropriate metadata to
your digitized items. It’s quick and easy. Once entered, that data and your
computer's search function will put that record in your face faster than you can
browse to the appropriate folder to find it. And, that same metadata is
permanently embedded in the file - and any copies you make - providing
provenance along with searchability.
Where do you begin?
You probably already have begun - you just aren't aware of it. Do you use a
photo management app like Photoshop Elements or Photos to add titles,
descriptions and keywords to your pictures? If so, you're creating metadata. It's
easy to add it to other items you create. If you scan documents to PDF, does
your scanning app allow you to add keywords and descriptive information in
addition to the document title? That's metadata. Microsoft Word users will find

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the File > Properties command displays a nice form for adding metadata. Mac
users can add tags (keywords) to files as they are saved.

Results of a Spotlight search on a Mac.

Once you get into the metadata habit, you'll find your computer's search
function is a lot more . . . functional. In this example, Mac’s Spotlight search
feature searches metadata and file content along with file names. You can also
take advantage of "smart" folders - virtual folders that appear in Finder (for the
Mac) or File Manager (for Vista or later) based on a saved search. Any time a
new document is created or added to your file system that fits your saved
search's criteria, it will be automatically included in that smart folder. Features
like these allow you to have one physical file and “display” it in multiple places.
Recent versions of Windows also support saved searches and users can take

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advantage of its advanced search feature in Files Manager to search the
metadata you included in your Office documents' Properties.
Application developers are giving us all kinds of
ways to put metadata to good use. Bloggers are
familiar with a feature called a tag cloud. A tag
cloud often serves as an index to blog sites. The
example you see here is a tag cloud widget
displayed in the blog’s sidebar. It is a collection of
tags (keywords) the blogger assigned to articles as
they were published. The larger a tag is, the more
articles there are on that topic. Site visitors can
click on any tag to view all the articles tagged for
that topic. The blog’s programming does all the
work. The blogger only has to add appropriate
tags before publishing each article.
If you use writing platforms such as Scrivener or Ulysses, you can use tags to
quickly organize - and reorganize - your story collections by surname, location or
historical event. Tags can also define the status (draft, for review, final) of
individual stories.
Many journaling apps, like the Day One app shown here, automatically add date
stamps and location coordinates to new entries. The writer can add tags and use
any of that collected
metadata to later
collect all the entries
related to a person,
place or event.


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Where to look . . .
You’ll find metadata in a number of places. Here are just a few:
Apple’s Photos

Photoshop Elements

Microsoft Office apps

Mac’s Finder








Day One

There are even more ways metadata can support your research. Follow the
Gazette for ideas and articles on research technology and digital storytelling.

For More Information
To learn more about metadata, visit

Moultrie Creek Gazette
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