As MLIS students, we’ve all learned to recite the standard, literal meaning of metadata as “data about data.” Metadata has recently been in the news and the topic of everyday conversation as the role of data (and data about data) plays an increasingly important role in our internet-connected, mobile-device-dependent lives. However, what does the term “metadata” really mean? What exactly is metadata?
In the readings for class this week some more exacting definitions came to light. Bonnie Swager concisely describes metadata as a structured description of something else. The NISO’s Understanding Metadata offers this definition: structured information that describes, explains, locates, or makes easier to retrieve, use, manage an information resource. In the Getty Introduction to Metadata, Anne Gilliland defines metadata as “value-added information created to describe, track, and enhance access to information objects.” Metadata identifies and describes an information object and documents the information object’s function. Metadata can also track relationships between information objects. In the Getty guide, Tony Gill continues to elaborate on the nature of metadata by emphasizing the importance of metadata’s structure.
It seems that in order to better understand what exactly metadata is, one must understand what metadata does. It has a job to do, a service to provide. And when the function of metadata is known, the meaning and importance of metadata becomes clear.