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Why Metadata Magic Matters

Data about data — it’s so meta. Metadata are terms used to describe an archival asset — names, dates, location, condition or any relevant information about the item. Traditionally, historians use metadata to index and organize their collections. But in digital preservation, with a proper strategy in place, metadata becomes a magical tool that connects every element of your digital collections and creates an interactive experience.

Imagine stumbling across an image of your favorite local park from the 1950s. You start to wonder more about the history of your neighborhood greenspace that has become so central to your community. You might take a few minutes to Google here and there, but you have to physically visit your local historical society’s archives to dig deeper. Even our passionate history savers can admit that’s not going to happen.   

If the image had been digitally preserved and tagged with relevant metadata, that experience would shift dramatically. Within a digital archive you could click on the park’s name and access images, objects and documents about its history. You could then click on a “greenspace” tag to explore information sharing the complete history of parks in your area to better understand the impact they have on their surrounding communities. If you wanted to get really crazy with your deep dive, you could then filter for the 1950s to compare your local greenspace to other parks in the city during that period. And these are only a few examples of journeys you could choose to take from the comfort of your couch. 

Now consider what it would be like if every metadata detail assigned to every item in a collection led to a similar experience — the opportunities for self-discovery are endless. Using metadata to make digital collections accessible is an invaluable process. It creates limitless connections between various item types in collections and allows visitors to explore what they want, when they want and to draw their own conclusions. This turns collections into not just a tool for professional researchers, but also the average curious individual.

When you start to think about all the details you can tag for a single image then multiply that by every item in your collection, that workload can be a tad overwhelming. That’s why HistoryIT starts every client relationship with strategy development. Our team of experts conduct thorough research for each project, which includes interviewing a suite of stakeholders ranging from board members to archivists to volunteers. One of our primary goals here is to identify metadata terms that the target audience commonly uses.

Making history accessible means meeting the visitors where they are — physically and mentally. Building a digital museum allows users to explore from any location in the world. Using metadata terms that fit their natural language, as opposed to terms developed for and by professional researchers, allows for the average individual to quickly find the information they’re looking for — no specialized training required. When researching online the average individual expects to have a similar experience as they do with Google, so we develop metadata that fits their vernacular. This not only improves a user’s onsite experience, but it also ensures that your materials populate Google searches, which helps attract new visitors. 

In addition to making your history accessible to the general public, a well thought out metadata strategy has internal organizational benefits as well. Including terms frequently used by your colleagues, such as “group photo,” “fundraiser,” or “training,” you can create customized searches for your development, marketing and education teams. This streamlines your internal workflow, giving teams what they need, when they need it. 

Your brain may be going a little crazy with all the potential opportunities that metadata provides, but that’s why we’re here to help. Our team of history savers have thousands of hours of experience developing and implementing metadata strategies. We focus on consistency and sticking to the plan to ensure our clients receive a powerful tool that opens up their archives and shares their story. HistoryIT’s metadata specialists have this down to a science, which enables our team to scale quickly for large projects and takes a weight off our partners’ shoulders.

In addition to our talented team, HistoryIT utilizes our proprietary digital collections software — Odyssey. A powerful digital collections software combined with quality metadata strategy makes for a seamless digital interactive experience that not only makes your collections accessible, it gets users excited to dig in. Odyssey is the tool that connects all the metadata and allows visitors to click tags to explore more. It also makes our lives easier with features like bulk updates, which allows for updating or adding terms as we learn how the public interacts with a digital museum once it’s live.    

We know we’re history nerds, so there’s a bit of bias here, but we truly believe that metadata is magical. It’s what makes a digital archive truly accessible and allows for the average individual to explore history in order to draw their own conclusions. And that is how you save history. 

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