I remember learning about MARC in one of first courses in SLIS. We had to create MARC records for different books that we had at home. There were so many fields, and it was interesting, but it wanted to do too much. For a DVD or a photograph, I got lost trying to put together a decent record. My worry is that attempting to shove together each of the descriptive and technical schemes from the articles, we’ll end up with another mish-mash of tags. They may all be decipherable through XML and they may all be helpful to someone, but trying to shoehorn an odd item into it will be just as difficult as using MARC in an advancing world.

Omeka’s page and a half about the way they suggest using DC within their software is pretty telling about DC’s short-comings, but it serves a purpose. It may not let you enter everything you’ve ever wanted about an item, but it allows the data to be manageable and for the data to be used.

The use of XML will help us to expand our abilities with digital libraries, and we still need standardization, I just don’t think it can be a global standard. The Lego analogy is fairly apt. If I have a large collection of LPs and laser discs, I probably won’t be using DC, I’ll want something more suited to those specific types of items. My “meta-utopia” to crib a word from Doctorow would be to have a large pool of metadata elements (like MARC), but with small collections that are pulled together for specific types of items. This would allow libraries to turn on collections of elements without allowing librarians to enter data in unused elements. It would allow libraries to dictate the elements that showed up during data entry based on the type of item. It would let libraries use the same element across item types for basic elements like “creation date” and “creator”. The entire structure would be dealt with through XML so that users wouldn’t need to learn a structure or standard for entry and organization for each new type of item.

And of course everyone would adopt the system and no one would be scared of the change and everyone would willingly give up their carefully honed individually created schemes…


7 responses to “Meta-utopia

  1. sounds like (meta)utopia to me…
    Would it be going to far to say that Dublin Core has its “shortcomings” because it is so manageable? I really liked DC when I first encountered it in library school because I thought its strength was in the simplicity (specific number of elements, guidelines for each, etc.) But DC may not be applicable for all collections. Think of the DPLA from a few weeks back…I doubt that 15 core elements will suffice to fully describe a collection of that variety and size.

  2. MARC just about killed me when I took 551; we had to pick an object and use it throughout the semester on a number of systems, and I chose a DVD box set. Creating its MARC record almost certainly led to its first grey hair.

    I am a fan of DC in that it’s simple and manageable but I think its shortcoming is that it’s not particularly flexible or specific. We live in a world of Big Data and thousands of television channels. Microdata is something we can incorporate into our digital processes now, and I think it’s more useful in providing specific data about data. But I don’t think it’s as easy to standardize as something with just 15 core elements.

    • I don’t think 15 core elements are adequate either, though some software tool provides quantifier mechanism.

  3. In terms of the library world and its metadata I think your utopia is at least theoretically possible if a standards setting organization with cultural capital dictated a digital library element schema with and associated encoding. An official XML schema could be adopted for each type of collection, and namespaces would allow elements from different schemas to have identical names in the encoding.

    But I think you hit the nail on the head with the observation that people don’t want to give up their own schemas.

  4. Cost and time are so influential when it comes to metadata too. I just interviewed a friend (and hero) of mine Chris Wright for the “Sound of the Archives” podcast ( about his digital sound recording collection “Tobar an Dualchais” ( and I asked him why they didn’t include subject headings or tags in their (enormous) collection. He said it came down to funding and the sheer size of the project meant that something had to give and it was too hard to try to devise a controlled vocabulary that would work with all these folk songs and recordings of stories and other oral history.

  5. In e-commerce world, there was similar utopia. Many people dreamed of having a universal schema such that all transactions among different industries can be inter-exchanged and processed. However, library is a far more well-defined domain, the dream might come true one day. By the way, “library” and museum seem to be quite distinct with respect to archive, metadata, etc.

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