Of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Knowledge: The Not-So-Mindless Musings of Two 21st Century Metadata Wonks

By Nannette Naught and  Laura Dawson

When starting something new, it seems best to start at the beginning, without preconceptions: Library metadata is problematic from a wide variety of perspectives. Just about every interaction with it is an exercise in frustration. From legacy issues, retro-conversion trip-ups, the introduction of new concepts like Linked Data, and the simple volume of STUFF that needs to be effectively described to a multitude of audiences – it’s safe to say that increasingly efficient technologies (like the Web, like faster computers) means that we’re looking at a burgeoning crisis.

So. Basic concepts:

  • What is metadata?
  • Why do we need metadata?
  • And while we’re at it, why, oh why, hasn’t someone – anyone – fixed it by now?!

Not exactly the scintillating outline for a “politically-charged, pulse pounding” theatrical thriller. Not exactly the reader-grabbing, panic-inducing tagline of a breaking news alert.  And yet, a cursory search on Google brings up results about “Snowden: The Movie” and the NSA. Even prompting related “People also ask” questions such as: “What is metadata collection?” which give us results like:

  • What is the NSA and what do they do?
  • Is the NSA still spying on us?
  • What is the NSA Surveillance program?

For our parts, we metadata wonks trust knowledgeable, experienced, human search engines with access to vetted, curated collections of knowledge (aka libraries and librarians) more than we trust fickle, opaque, largely sales-motivated and easily manipulated, computer algorithms with access only to properly formatted, mostly recent documents on the Web. Documents like news feeds and advertising or pseudo-advertising in the guise of a PSA that are seldom sourced, let alone vetted and peer-reviewed. Especially when it comes to important decisions such as those related to our jobs, safety, security, privacy, healthcare, and the like! (To say nothing of the problems of “fake news”.)

Why? Because research, inquiry, and learning (or, rather, knowledge acquisition and deployment) are NOT purchasing decisions. Nor are they simple, fact-based, database-driven information sorting-and-retrieval questions. Yes, we wonks believe the wisdom and hearsay of an anonymous (for those who can afford it) web-based crowd – be it the commercial crowd; the free and open, no-copyright or peer-review crowd; or one of the many NIMBY mobs – is an inadequate, and frankly immature resource for the tasks of life, liberty, and the pursuit of knowledge.

So now what? Where do we go from here, if we can’t rely on Google, Amazon, and/or Facebook alone to answer important questions? If these lauded, affordable platforms are really just sort-and-retrieval systems for the easily accessible sales and social media databases of the internet, how do we get access to vetted, curated collections of knowledge and trained, experienced information professionals (as opposed to scripted, offshore customer support staff) we need to learn and grow?

For us, it’s simple – use these software programs to access your library and librarians! Let’s look at our metadata search again. Let’s add the word “library” to it and see what happens. This simple addition totally changes the results, yielding a Journal of American Librarianship article (V 21, N 2, pp 160-163) by Karen Coyle in the top 5 hits and no NSA or or Snowden references.

Having now used the tool, a sales-driven algorithmic search engine, to access the library realm and the writing of a leading librarian (vetted and trusted by her peers over the course of a long and productive career), in less than 4 of her paragraphs we find concrete, intelligible answers to our initial questions:

  • What is metadata? “Metadata is cataloging done by men.”

This is a quip attributed to two notable librarians and library metadata luminaries, Tom Delsey and Michael Gorman. And though we do not know Michael personally, Nannette knows and has worked with Tom closely. We’re fairly confident both use the term in its classical, inclusive sense, of “mankind,” referring to all humans, regardless of gender and/or biological equipment. But then this is why wonks trust librarians and librarian-guided, vetted programming over anonymous algorithms. Librarians are in the business of knowledge and value diversity. Anonymous, sales-driven algorithms are in the business of advertising and generally value the biases of BOTH commercial interests who have purchased or negotiated their way to preferential sort-and-retrieval placement (think of Ad Words as shelf positioning in a grocery store; you know that name brand is always at eye level, the generic products are at the bottom, and the nutritious stuff is up high) and their equally anonymous programmers.

  • How does metadata work? “…metadata is constructed information, which means that it is of human invention and not found in nature.”

This is an important point that Google and other algorithmic, natural language processing platforms overlook. Metadata is human, it takes a human act to create. Humans and their actions are by definition contextual. And unfortunately for most algorithms, most humans do not explicitly state their present context or that surrounding their desired outcome out loud. Let alone take the time to type it into an interface. Again, ask a reference librarian; that’s why they do introductory interviews in the same fashion that a doctor interviews you about your symptoms and concerns, only then discussing treatment with you. So too, your librarian attends to your very human, very individualized knowledge diagnosis and care needs.

  • Why do we need metadata? “… necessary characteristic of metadata: metadata is developed by people for a purpose or a function.”

This is a critical pivot point for all knowledge acquisition and deployment activities, be they research, inquiry, or learning related. Success or failure, and its accompanying metric (aka relevance), hinge on appropriateness or fitness for the human purpose against which the metadata is being deployed, as measured against the use case (need, model, and definition) under which the metadata was created, collected, and/or enhanced. And therein lies the rub: too much, way too much of our metadata, both that in the world at large and that in libraries specifically is created, collected, aggregated, and deployed without adequate, explicitly documented, appropriately serialized, adequately tested needs, models, and definitions.

  • Why, oh why, hasn’t someone, anyone fixed it by now?!

The answer seems to be the lack of library-led, governed, and administrated, explicitly documented, appropriately serialized, adequately tested knowledge acquisition and deployment use cases, metadata models, and element/term definitions – for our vendors, the web, publishers, and others in the knowledge economy to deploy.

As for our earlier trick of prefacing a search with “library” to access vetted, curated collections of knowledge and trained, experienced information professionals – why can’t we just do that going forward?

Simple. Without the above-mentioned library-led programming toolset and the resulting librarian-curated, web-formatted, web-accessible metadata that augments current sales-driven applications with knowledge- and language-driven contextual metadata, there is nothing (or at least very little) to power the applications.

Which of course leads to the question: “Ok, metadata wonks, you said it. WHERE DO WE BEGIN?”

To which we have to say, “honestly, we don’t pretend to know!” However, over the course of our 20+ year careers, we wonks – acting as consultants, product managers, knowledge product developers, and strategists – have learned a thing or two about metadata and knowledge economics, not to mention listening. Listening to the users and creators of knowledge, as well as their lifecycle partners the publishers, distributors, librarians, administrators, researchers, aggregators, lawyers, and business people who make the knowledge economy go round. And we have become quite the conversationalists and discussion moderators. Thus, this series of posts – a record, if you will, of not just our musings, but our ongoing conversations with the ourselves and industry nerds like ourselves. Conversations we hope will help us all pave the way answering the publics’ need for knowledge driven, library-led web-based inquiry.

Next week we'll dive into Mastering the Math:

Tradition + Diversity = Innovation
Economics + Ethics = Service
Negotiation + Governance = Peace
Innovation + Service + Peace = Success

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