A panel of archivists recently shared their experiences with metadata management to a room full of eager young archivists (more on that later) during a pop-up session at The Society of American Archivists annual meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. 

The panel consisted of:

  • Maureen Callahan, Archivist & Metadata Specialist at Yale University
  • Regine Heberlein, Processing Archivist at Princeton University
  • Dallas Pillen, Project Archivist at Bentley Historical Library

The Power of Metadata

Metadata is used to uniquely describe historical records and interestingly, no one from this panel suggested automated description. But they did recommend leveraging metadata power tools as much as possible. From Excel to XML to ArchiveSpace — the archival environment is a networked environment. The more often that metadata is mapped across shared platforms, the more users will come to the archives. These speakers offered a simple roadmap to better metadata management for repositories.

Pillen’s talk was replete with basic principles and practical advice.

  • Create a sandbox environment in which you can create and play with metadata power tools
  • Think algorithmically
    • Think like a machine — archival data is data
    • Envision success — what does your data look like now and what should it look like at the end of your project
  • Write out the steps in natural language
    • Do you cook? Do you follow recipes? Then you can learn to program
    • Small steps beget big ones
    • Big steps beget macros
  • Choose the right tool
    • But don’t focus on the search for the perfect tool
    • Realize the best one is the one that addresses your repository’s issues
  • Fully document 
    • Successes
    • Failures
    • Learning curves that become procedures
    • If you’re depending on Google, you need to document your procedure
  • Share your successes — you have a professional responsibility to do so

Most of all, Dallas recommended, have a great time learning to script.

The Gospel of Metadata

Heberlein offered nine commandments, or as she said, “The Gospel of Metadata.”

  • Know Thy Data Like Thyself 
    • Know your standards
    • Know your schemas
    • Know your local business rules
  • Know Your Heart’s Desire
    • Articulate the task(s)
  • The Tools Follow the Task
    • What tools will clean up metadata most efficiently?
    • What are your timelines?
    • What is the tool’s support program?
    • How much documentation is available on the tool?
    • Do any of your colleagues know the tool already?
    • What kind of active user community exists?
    • Know your environment 
    • Do you have Administrator privileges? 
    • What is your environment’s memory and processing power? 
    • Learning slowly creates permanence for your department and therefore your industry
  • Choose the Path of Least Resistance
    • Translate what you’re trying to do via the tool
  • Think Like a Machine  
  • Think Like a Person, Too: But If a Machine Can Do It … Let It
    • Think about workflow — what will run concurrently?
  • Thou Shalt Steal Politely
    • It is ok to use other people’s code 
    • Consult the forums and document everything (see Stack/Overflow)
    • Do NOT pester the experts, though, if you’re a beginner
  • Dare to Make Mistakes
    • You are encouraged to make mistakes as long as you know you did it and how to undo it

I sat at the front of the room to catch all of the good advice. As the floor opened for questions, I was delighted: I counted over 150 attendees — 95 percent young women. It reminded me of stories from David Alan Grier’s “When Computers Were Human.” Until recently, young women could become computational experts and were called, “computers.” To see the number of young, female archivists embrace their heritage and their future simultaneously … it was a special moment. I cannot encourage the records management industry enough to consider the same.

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