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What Is Metadata?

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Mary Eggleston

By Digital Archivist Mary Eggleston

In our data-driven society, metadata has become a frequently used term, but do you know what it actually is? The process of weeding out the differences between data and metadata can be confusing. Bruce Schneier explains it best in his book Data and Goliath, “Data is content, and metadata is context.” Think about the photos on your phone. They’re automatically sorted by date, location, and even the people in them—that’s metadata at work. You’re probably already creating and using metadata without even realizing it!

Understanding Metadata and Its Importance

Simply put, metadata is ‘data about data.’ It provides context or summarizes information, making it easier to retrieve, use, and manage the data in your collection. Metadata can be manually created and recorded. Such descriptive metadata can include a record of the handwritten text on the back of a photograph or the sender and recipient of a letter. Metadata can also be automatically generated by computer programs, including administrative or technical metadata that documents when and where a computer file was created or last digitally accessed. This information allows you to better understand and effectively utilize the data you have in your hands.

Imagine having a vast collection of documents or other materials but no way of knowing what’s in each box, what year the marketing materials were created, the author of the documents, or where a photo was taken. The context surrounding these items will be lost to time without metadata to fill in the gaps.

Metadata can be used to identify materials, manage collections, access data, and is an essential part of preserving your important documents for years to come. That being said, creating metadata can be costly and time-consuming. A person must be dedicated to ensuring key questions about materials are answered before the information is forgotten or lost. The value metadata adds to your materials can be the difference between a usable collection and a box of papers collecting dust. 

Here are a few more reasons why investing in your metadata can improve your collection:

  • Efficient Data Management: Metadata makes it easier to locate and work with your data. This is particularly valuable today as we deal with vast amounts of data daily.
  • Enhanced Searchability: Metadata improves the discoverability of data. It helps define, describe, and catalog data so it’s easier to find and retrieve.
  • Data Integrity: Metadata ensures data integrity by providing a history of the data, including who created it, when it was created, what changes were made, and who made them.
  • Strategic Decision Making: Metadata can provide insights that help people or organizations make strategic decisions. It enhances the quality of data by showing how different pieces of data relate to one another, providing a more comprehensive understanding of what sits in your collection.

Whether you represent an organization looking to make your collection more organized and usable, a business needing to know what data you possess to improve decision-making, or simply a person overwhelmed by the amount of information sitting in front of you, metadata can help you quickly find the information you need and get back to the important work on your to-do list.

Types of Metadata

Metadata can be categorized into four primary types: Descriptive, Structural, Technical, and Administrative.

Descriptive Metadata provides information about a resource’s content, like a book’s title, author, or summary. In the digital realm, this could mean tags on a blog post, the title of a webpage, or the keywords in an article.

Structural Metadata outlines how a particular data set is organized, displayed, and used for navigating multi-image items. It’s comparable to a book’s table of contents, showing the relationship between chapters and sections. On a website, this would be its sitemap.

Technical Metadata refers to the information utilized by computers in organizing data. This could include storage, file format, row or column counts, data type, and location of data. This is often created automatically in the background by your computer.

Administrative Metadata offers information that helps manage a resource, such as when and how it was created, and who can access it. This could include a digital file’s creation date, author, and access restrictions. Administrative metadata would rarely be seen by an average user looking at the collection.


The type of metadata you need depends on your collection and how you plan to utilize it. It may make sense for a library to utilize descriptive metadata in organizing its collections by title or author, while a marketing department for a business may need administrative metadata to keep track of internal resources. If you’re organizing your collection, go in with a plan to ensure you collect the information you need!

The Future of Metadata

As we generate and consume more digital data than ever before, metadata is becoming increasingly more important. A file, group of photos, PDFs containing important company information, and much more is always at risk of being lost to digital decay. Digital decay, which results from obsolete file formats or file corruption, has become a greater concern. Technology is moving fast, so now is the time to ensure your digital files are up-to-date and secure. Comprehensive technical metadata can identify and locate at-risk files so you can rectify or restore any problematic data. Rather than risk losing lost files due to insufficient metadata allowing you to find them, invest in them now!


The importance of metadata in information retrieval and management cannot be overstated. It’s a powerful tool that impacts our daily lives, whether we’re searching for information online, taking photos with our smartphones, or making strategic business decisions. Metadata may seem complex, but it’s simply information that makes other data more useful. So, next time you snap a photo or save a file, remember the invisible metadata working behind the scenes to make your search for information easier.

If you’re working towards a digital collection and need help integrating metadata into the process, give us a call.

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