Metadata. This rather ambiguous term is the skeleton underneath every image on PhillyHistory.org. Metadata is how we know when and where a photograph was taken. It is how we know who took the photograph and, to some extent, why they took it. Without metadata, searching PhillyHistory.org for photographs of Independence Hall or your grandmother’s house would be nearly impossible. But what is metadata?!
Metadata is essentially “data about data,” meaning information about any type of “data” – whether it’s a letter, a photograph, a painting, or even a piece of furniture. Metadata can range from the time and date something was created to who created it and even the reason behind its creation. At its core, metadata allows us to describe an object and, in the case of databases like PhillyHistory.org, use that description to locate one item out of thousands. When you enter a book’s title and author into a library catalog, you’re using metadata to find the specific book you want to read. Similarly, when you search PhillyHistory.org for a photograph taken at a specific location, that location and any other information about the photograph is metadata.
Before we upload a new photograph to PhillyHistory.org, we first create a database record, known as an “asset,” that details as much information as possible about the image. For the majority of the photographs in our collections, this includes a title, description, photographer name, location, and date, as well as the photograph’s record group and negative number. By and large, this information is taken from the original envelope containing the negative or from a log book kept by the photographers as shown here.
When entering metadata into a new record, we follow certain standards, commonly known within the archival community as “best practices.” Perhaps the cardinal rule of metadata is that all information must be entered as it appears in the original historical record. In our case, this means entering each title as the photographer recorded it in the log book or on the original envelope, even if the title is as general as “Houses, Stores, Etc.” In these instances, PhillyHistory.org users or one of the members of the PhillyHistory team often recognize a building or a house and suggest a better title for the photograph, but, according to the rules of metadata, we can’t change the title. Instead, additional details from a user or one of our archivists are entered in the “Notes” field. In a PhillyHistory.org record, the “Notes” field is our chance to add anything the photographer forgot or to correct something that is wrong or misleading. One common correction involves location, as the location the photographer recorded is sometimes not the one pictured in the photograph but rather the location from which the photograph was taken. In these cases, we title the photograph just as the photographer did, “Northeast Corner of 12th and Market Streets” for example, but leave a note about the difference between the photographer’s location and the location pictured in the photograph.
One other fun fact about metadata – if a photographer misspelled a street name, best practices tells us to enter the street name as the photographer recorded it, followed by the correct spelling in brackets. In the archival world, brackets indicate a change or addition to the original historical record and are peppered throughout the records on PhillyHistory.org. In this way, metadata is also about translating records that someone wrote fifty or a hundred years ago, an endeavor almost as challenging as understanding metadata!
Managing metadata in an archive comes with all sorts of additional and complex issues. For more information beyond this brief introduction, visit the following links.
“Metadata Resources” – Compiled by the Minnesota State Archives.
“Metadata Standards/ About” – Compiled by the Princeton University Library.
“Understanding Metadata” – Published by the National Information Standards Organization Press in 2004.
“Getting Meta with Metadata” is the second article in “Behind the Scenes at PhillyHistory.org,” a new series of blog entries that will provide insights into the activities that go into creating PhillyHistory.org.