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Personal Digital Archiving: Metadata

The Feminist Institute Aug 31, 2020 2 Minute Read

Metadata goes hand in hand with the organizing tips we discussed last week and is a critical step in providing context to your collection items. To embed metadata in a digital file is akin to writing a caption on the back of a photo; the information travels alongside the picture, giving insight to the people, dates, and locations that would otherwise go missing over generations.

What is metadata?

The simplest definition for metadata is “data about data.” Archives utilize a wide variety of metadata to contextualize items, series, and collections best.

The Getty defines five categories of metadata:

  • Administrative - Metadata used in managing and administering collections and information resources, e.g., location information.

  • Descriptive - Metadata used to identify, authenticate, and describe collections and related trusted information resources, e.g., user-generated descriptions.

  • Preservation - Metadata related to the preservation management of collections and information resources, e.g., condition reporting.

  • Technical - Metadata related to how a system functions or metadata behaves, e.g., authentication and security data.

  • Use - Metadata related to the level and type of use of collections and information resources, e.g., rights metadata.

It’s great to be familiar with all of these metadata categories; however, there is primarily a focus on descriptive metadata for personal collections.

Metadata standards

Metadata standards are codified rules designed by particular user communities to fulfill their metadata needs best. These standards support several functions using elements that encompass the five metadata categories described above.

Digital photos contain metadata from two standards: EXIF and IPTC. EXIF (Exchangeable image file format) is a standard that captures device data from digital cameras, scanners, or other digital imaging tools. Your camera or scanner automatically records EXIF data. Information captured includes a unique filename, date and time of capture, camera or scanner make and model, and location.

EXIF data displayed in Adobe Bridge
The IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) is a standard that allows for subject data. Users add information about people, dates, and events which embed into the image file. The standard has two schemas: IPTC Core and IPTC Extension; IPTC Core is generally appropriate for personal collections.
IPTC data displayed in Adobe Bridge
The level of description you add is entirely personal and up to your discretion. However, we recommend adding information about people or animals, events, and locations and dates (if not captured in EXIF data). We also recommend adding your name and email address.

Adding metadata

Thankfully you don’t need special software to add basic metadata; every computer (Mac or PC) allows you to right-click on an image and add information. On a PC, you can right-click on the image and select Properties; this should allow you to edit the image’s description and keywords. On a Mac, you can right-click on the image and select Get Info.

Photo management software, such as Apple’s Photos, allows you to edit metadata more thoroughly. Adobe products such as Bridge, Lightroom, and Photoshop provide the most robust metadata editing experience for advanced users.