I have to say I really enjoyed Doctorow’s candid, slightly irreverent diatribe on the idea of utopia for information management based on the perfect set of metadata. Over the course of my time here at SLIS, learning about metadata, I’ve come to think about metadata schemes and standards as kind of like the hierarchical species taxonomies I spent hours memorizing for my zoology classes as an undergrad, in that, they are a useful way to structure information to suit a particular view of the world, but that in reality, it’s just one view, one perspective, and while the organizational qualities of a particular scheme or standard may work very well, the fact remains that data and information change, and how we perceive data and information changes too.
In the classification of plant species, after decades, and even centuries, of carefully classifying species, creating hierarchies, to show how the world of plants was structure, DNA analysis has come to show that many plants in the same order or even genus are not actually related to each other. Classification schemes were based on appearance, not genetic information, so with this new information, a new way to organize the plant world emerges.
While this is not entirely analogous to the formation of metadata schema, I think that it’s a good reminder to those who seek to find some sort of single unifying schema to bring together all of the information things, that as Doctorow states there is (1) no correct way to categorize things, from data to apparently plants, and (2) there is no one way to describe those same things. I would add to these arguments that (3) our perception and understanding of those things can and will change too.
But, just like in the world of plants, where those taxonomic are still really useful in understanding plants, metadata, and the many different types, schemes, and standards, provide us, as Doctorow states, a “means of making rough assumptions about the information that floats through the Internet”, and the rest of our information laden world.
Ultimately, I think the work done on developing schema with better interoperablity and cross-walks between different metadata standards will help close the gaps that exist in the information resources that exist and the various search platforms that seek to find them. It won’t be the meta-utopia, but I think that it seems to be heading in the direction of better searches and more access to a wider field of information.