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Metadata as Content

This morning my fellow instruction librarians and I launched into one of our animated discussions about the different instructional values of disciplinary databases and Google, when we start students out in one, when we start students out in another, how the two are changing, how our uses of both are changing, and student responses to each. It was a long discussion with many tangents, but here are the bits that keep rattling around in my head.

  • We’re in the odd position of accomplishing two goals with every student: teaching them how to think like scholarly researchers in their chosen fields, and teaching them how to get access to the material they need. Depending on the student and the situation, we have to make snap judgments about which of these to privilege, and this often determines what kinds of tools we use with the students. Google (and Google Scholar and Google Books) is often mostly about access — disciplinary databases can be about that, but they are often mostly about epistemology and terminology. Google is a far more effective access tool if you know the epistemology and terminology of the field not only because you can search it more effectively but also because whereas the disciplinary databases do much of the selection and evaluation for you, Google requires that you be savvy enough to weed through gazillions of results (or change your strategy so that your results end up on the first couple of pages). While it’s not always needed, privileging the metadata over the text can sometimes be highly educational.
  • Sometimes, metadata is content. The longitude and latitude fields in GeoRef, the historical period fields in Historical Abstracts, these bits of metadata allow researchers to do searches that are fundamentally impossible in other databases. You couldn’t get that stuff from free text searching. So I guess the indexing we pay for is even more fundamentally part of our collection than I’d thought of it before.

This wasn’t part of our discussion, but I’ve realized that while I don’t specialize in knowing the full disciplinary context of my students’ questions, I do specialize in knowing the metadata structures in the various tools at my disposal, and I guess a large part of what I do is choose between matching the metadata structure to the student or teaching the student a new metadata structure so that they can grow as a scholar. Content is usually accessible through more than one tool, so the trick becomes finding the most useful tool for the job.