Focusing on the Fundamentals: The Importance of Good Metadata in Digital Projects

Professional Forum
Sarah Vela, University of Alberta, Canada

The advancements in computing and communication technologies over the past decade have created great opportunities for museums to span beyond their physical galleries and increase their presence in society. A growing number of institutions now offer access to their collection records online, some of them with quite sophisticated interfaces and information retrieval systems. While there is inherently more gratification in focusing on visual features and interface design, and the inclusion of maps, timelines, faceted browsing and the like can enhance the engagement and understanding of users, the core of these systems is the metadata they draw upon, and this is an aspect that is frequently overlooked.
This presentation will illustrate how the metadata included in collection records affects both a website’s interface and how well it serves users. Drawing on theoretical and real-world examples, it will demonstrate both the potential consequences of having poor data, and what becomes possible when information is complete, standardized and properly separated. Specific aspects of websites to be discussed include information retrieval systems, visualizations such as maps and graphs, online exhibits and record usability. The implications of metadata quality on recent trends, particularly networks, linked data and Web 2.0 functionality, will also be examined. If museums are to take full advantage of the affordances offered by digital technologies and increase their prevalence in modern culture, they must first understand the connection between interface functionality and the data that supports it. Ensuring that collection documentation is adequate will increase the likelihood that projects will be successful, open the door for new features, and help ensure that museums can keep pace with emerging trends.

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