What is metadata? Put simply metadata is data about data. It is underlying data that provides context and describes a subject such as a car being a sedan, all-wheel drive, or colored red. Metadata is not only one of the most important parts of archiving in today’s digital environment it’s present in all of our daily digital lives. Most predominately metadata factors into the information we search on the internet. When we use a search engine like Google the keywords, we put into search bars gets associated with defined metadata fields and Google lists the content it most accurately associates with your search criteria. This can be almost infinitely refined by adding more tags into your search query, which will in turn narrow your results. In recent years the term SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has come into common use. SEO is a process websites use to make their pages show up more commonly in search queries. They do this because search engines like Google and DuckDuckGo use automated bots to search websites and collect metadata which is then stored in the aforementioned indexes. From those indexes search engines rank the result of websites based on your search criteria and this is how search engines use metadata to help find the information you are looking for.

Image from and E-52 play.Archives follow a similar scaled down version to allow users to find the things they are looking for. In archives metadata is applied to both physical and digital materials. An example of physical metadata would be information written on the back of a photograph. This can by anything from the photographer, to the person being photographed, or the place in which the photograph was taken. All this is contextual metadata that gets associated with that particular photograph to make finding what you are looking for easier.  In an archive, metadata is associated with just about every piece of material. This adds searchability and context to the to the content you are looking for. Take for instance this image taken of an E-52 play. All the information we have concerning this image comes from the content written on the back pictured below. And from the wide range of institutional knowledge from our Coordinator of Archives, Lisa Gensel. Pulling that information and loading it into searchable databases makes that contextual knowledge available and searchable to researchers interested in UD history.

Information written on the back of the image from an E-52 play.

In our digital age metadata is what we use to sift through the trillions of bits and bytes scattered throughout the internet to find the information we want to fuel our curiosity. Without the ability to tag that information with searchable metadata it would be like stumbling through the dark using only our fingertips to find what we’re looking for.