Teaching Metadata Skills at Your Public Library

A teacher points to a data visualization on a screen

Understanding and using metadata is one of most basic literacy skills in the information age. Metadata is information about information. The subject line of an email is metadata. A simple file name for a document is metadata. The contents and index of a book are metadata. It makes me restless when I see my patrons not using metadata effectively. This restlessness is a skill that can be taught. I do that every day at my public library job. You can, too.

The Art of Metadata Restlessness

I feel that one of my strengths in my library is in teaching the art of metadata restlessness. The title of this article is concise, while at the same time hinting at more. The title of an article is somewhat akin to the color and texture of the suitcase that contains your ideas. Choose that color and texture carefully because you want readers to have a desire to open and unpack that suitcase.

I tell my patrons, "Your goal every day is to create exemplary metadata. You want your metadata to indicate to the world that an intelligent mind was at work. It starts with pride. Be proud of the metadata you create."

Examples of Poor Metadata

Every week at my public library job I see glaring examples of poor metadata. For example, a middle school student comes to the library to work on their homework. They name their homework file by their own name, not realizing that their own name is a very poor descriptor for the contents of the file.

What are they going to do when they need to look through the past ten school assignments — all named after their own name? Another example: instead of naming a file "George Washington 1," take a few extra seconds to compose a file name that reflects the content of the file so someone else can quickly understand what it is about. A better name might be "George Washington: Early Years As a Surveyor." Good metadata means that you and others waste less time later looking for the exact file you want.

Another poor example of metadata is when someone calls their resume document simply "Resume." That might be useful for the creator's own immediate purposes, but it would be much better to add your name, date, and job title to the file name. There are about 7.5 billion other people living on this planet. As social animals, we need at all times to be thinking about how our work can make other people's lives easier, rather than more difficult. I like to tell my patrons to be exemplary when creating metadata — and take pride in their linguistic craft.

Teaching Tips

Here is how I coach people to create better metadata. For job seekers, I ask them these questions.

  • Do you think the person who receives your file attachment titled "New Resume" will know whose resume it is?
  • What do you think might be a more descriptive name for that file?
  • I coach people to put themselves in the shoes of the people receiving information they send. I ask them to imagine: "What is it like to sit at your desk and receive 150 resumes per day in your email inbox?"

Empathy is the most powerful tool for creating outstanding metadata. We must be willing and eager to exercise our empathy muscles.

Stitching Together Words, Meaning, and People

The ultimate goal with metadata is to stitch together words, meaning, and people. That stitching is no easy task. It requires content creators to exercise thoughtfulness, creativity, and empathy. Creativity? Yes, creativity. Sometimes you need to put on your divergent thinking cap to assemble synonyms for the metadata you are assembling. The first words that come to mind might not be the best.

For metadata learners, I suggest that they ask a trusted friend or co-worker to review their metadata. Good questions are:

  • Is this the best phrasing for an article title on this topic?
  • What other phrasing should I consider?
  • Am I using all of the available text field space for my metadata?

As an example of using available text field space, I sometimes point my metadata learners to this tweet that packs a lot into 280 characters.

By being thoughtful and restless about metadata, I want to create value for someone else — someone whom I may never meet. I have poured some value into their life. They might be a graduate student or a middle school student. I don't care. I just hope they find value in this information I assembled and take it upon themselves to similarly pay things forward. One example I like is an email that I recently composed for the Digital Inclusion Network email list called "We can expect a stream of neat new things from Khan Academy."

Working at a public library, I spend hours each week thinking and worrying about metadata. I hope and pray that creating excellent metadata is not just one of my own personal quests, but that it becomes a common value throughout society. Go forth, I say, and help the world create better metadata. You might even tweet your efforts with the hashtag: #bettermetadata.

Additional Metadata Resources

About the Author

Phil ShapiroPhil Shapiro is a library assistant, educator, and technology access activist in the Washington, D.C., area. He has found inspiration in the learning that goes on at after-school programs, adult literacy organizations, public libraries, and organizations bringing music instruction and the arts to children. He is a true believer in public libraries as the central social, educational, and creative institutions in our communities.

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