The Metadata Quest (part 1)

Recently, we’ve been involved in an exciting new project, which comes out of some exploratory work we produced during the British Library Labs May 2013 hack event as part of their inaugural 2013 digital collections competition. Here at artefacto, we were particularly excited when BL Labs launched, in March last year, not least because we’d been following the pioneering digital and creative libraryings of Harvard Library Lab for several years, alongside the more recent developments of the Digital Public Library of America and the wonderful work that the New York Public Library has been getting up to (check out their historical menu’s project for a start). What’s exciting about all these developments (and there’s so many we could list in this vein: Europeana … in fact, have a list, courtesy of The Open Knowledge Foundation) is the opening up of public access to this “digital reserve of knowledge“, and the potential it brings, in the case of BL Labs, for instance, “to create new narratives from the British Library’s vast incredible digital collections from 19th Century books to archived websites and wildlife sounds to manuscripts to name but a few examples.”

For us, what’s also intriguing, in this new world collision and collection of objects, and people, in digital space, is how we might go about piecing together, jigsaw-like, the underlying narratives which sit within: how do we help reveal and “unlock” each object’s own story?

The May 2013 hackday event at BL Labs gave us the opportunity (and the excuse) to explore this question: with access to their 68,000 digitised volumes of text (from the 19th Books collection), sounds (e.g. the archive of Resonance FM, Survey of English Dialects), Ordance survey maps, and much much more, it promised a veritable feast of digital content, and importantly, metadata to get our hands on.

That metadata is finally a hot topic of discussion worldwide is not only music to the ears of all librarians out there (well, ok, not all of you guys, but you’re the groundswell folks!) but it also means we don’t have to give you a definition. Except we probably do, since all this consorting with the NSA is frankly giving metadata a bad rep right now (and no, Guardian newspaper, metadata is not just “information generated as you use technology”). Wikipedia provides the very vaguely straightforward term “data about data” as a definition, while Zeng and Qin (2008, p.7) note that “[b]roadly speaking, metadata encapsulates the information that describes any document or object in both digital and traditional formats.”2 In the context of any of the British Library’s digital content, for instance, this could mean information about a painting’s date and artist, a map’s geographic range, or a sound’s physical placing (to name just a few instances or rather, metadata elements: take a look at The Library of Congress’s sample of metadata for an 1864 letter from Alexander Melville Bell to Alexander Graham Bell if you really want to explore metadata in more detail).

Essentially, what excites us about metadata, is that by harnessing it in different ways, new surfaces and territories can suddenly open up in a digital object’s narrative; by making explicit, textually and visually, an object’s creation space, or time, new threads of connections are discovered and yarns newly spun.

The result of our brief two days at the BL Labs event was a quick build of an experimental version of our imagined platform, where digital content could sit waiting to be explored in these ways, through people navigating and thinking about these facets, and although not ultimately winning the Labs competition, we got some great feedback which suggested we should continue with our project and idea. We named it Curatorial and went on our merry way, content in our imaginings. It was great, therefore, to (some months later) find ourselves participating in the Data Tales project, which gave us the opportunity to further develop the platform: under the AHRC’s Digital Transformations Network Data – Asset – Method: Harnessing the Infinite Archive network, we’ve been able to spend time re-building and imagining further what is possible, and what stories can be told, when metadata, objects and people digitally collide. Partnering with the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute based at the University of Nottingham, Loughborough University, and the British Library for the Data Tales project has meant a great team experiment, and we’re excited to be presenting the first results of our work together at a workshop at the British Library today (January 24th, 2014).

One of the first ports of call when approaching this project was: how can we get our hands on the metadata we want? What types of collections (and their ‘owners’ or ‘content holders’?) are out there? Our previous BL Labs experience grappling with the vast range of data types available from the British Library was really helpful, not least for priming us for detective work (what format is that geolocation data in exactly?), and so our sleuthing, and structuring, commenced.

“Why does a man need to tell stories to others and himself? It is a way by which the mind uses fantasy to structure the chaos of the original experience. Complex and unpredictable, the vivid experience always lacks what fiction can provide: a closed time, a hierarchy of events, the value of people, effects and causes, the connections under the actions.”3

This is where the quest for metadata begins.



  1. Zeng, M. L. and Qin, J. 2008. _Metadata. _New York: Neal Schuman Publishers.
  2. Vargas Llosa, M. 1997. The Truth of Lies. In Making Waves. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.