The mob that feeds

Posted by DPLA in November 24, 2014.

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When Boston Public Library first designed its statewide digitization service plan as an LSTA-funded grant project in 2010, we offered free imaging to any institution that agreed to make their digitized collections available through the Digital Commonwealth repository and portal system. We hoped and suggested that money not spent by our partners on scanning might then be invested in the other side of any good digital object – descriptive metadata. We envisioned a resurgence of special collections cataloging in libraries, archives, and historical societies across Massachusetts.

SpreadsheetDataAfter a couple of years, reality set in. Most of our partners did not have the resources to generate good descriptive records structured well enough to fit into our MODS application profile without major oversight and intervention on our part. What we did find, however, were some very dedicated and knowledgeable local historians, librarians, and archivists who maintained a variety of documentation that could be best described as “pre-metadata.”  Their local landscapes included inventories, spreadsheets, caption files, finding aids, catalog cards, sleeve inscriptions, dusty three-ring binders – the rich soil from which good metadata grows.

NatickHamNegSleeve

We understood it was now our job to cultivate and harvest metadata from these local sources. And thus the “Metadata Mob” was born. It is a fun and creative type of mob — less roughneck and more spontaneous dance routine. Except, instead of wildly cavorting to Do-Re-Mi in train stations, we cut-and-paste, we transcribe, we script, we spell check, we authorize, we regularize, we refine, we edit, and we enhance. It is a highly customized, hands-on process that differs slightly (or significantly) from collection to collection, institution to institution.

In many ways, the work Boston Public Library does has come to resemble the locally-sourced food movement in that we focus on how each community understands and represents their collections in their own unique way. Free-range metadata, so to speak, that we unearth after plowing through the annals of our partners.

plowingtheannals

Randall Harrow, 1870-1900. Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

We don’t impose our structures or processes on anyone beyond offering advice on some standard information science principles – the three major “food groups” of metadata as it were – well defined schema, authority control, and content standard compliance. We encourage our partners to maintain their local practices.

juicyMODSrecordWe then carefully nurture their information into healthy, juicy, and delicious metadata records that we can ingest into the Digital Commonwealth repository. We have all encountered online resources with weak and frail frames — malnourished with a few inconsistently used Dublin Core fields and factory-farmed values imported blindly from collection records or poorly conceived legacy projects. Our mob members eschew this technique. They are craftsmen, artisans, information viticulturists. If digital library systems are nourished by the metadata they ingest, then ours will be kept vigorous and healthy with the rich diet they have produced.

 

Thanks to SEMAP for use of their the logo in the header image. Check out SEMAP’s very informative website at semaponline.org. Buy Fresh, Buy Local! Photo credit: Lori De Santis. 


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