Metadata Explained: Q & A with Holly Tomren, Head of Metadata Services.
by: Jenny James Lee
When I first started at Drexel’s Libraries just over three years ago, I still had a lot of things to learn about libraries and now, even with those three years of exposure, there is a lot to learn. So much of what libraries do goes on behind the scenes – and when it works really well, we can easily forget that someone is working on it at all. Such is the case for the work done by Holly Tomren and her team. Holly is the person that adds metadata to Drexel collections to make sure that people can find what they are looking for. So, what is metadata you ask? I sat down with Holly for this month’s Q & A to learn more.
Q: What is your role at the Libraries?
A: I am the Head of Metadata Services. Basically, my job is about making Drexel's research resources findable far and wide. This includes managing the description of library resources in the catalog and institutional repository, as well as making sure that that information gets exposed to other online tools and services, including Google and the open web.
Q: What inspired you to work in a library?
A: I worked previously as a community organizer and as a teacher, when I discovered that what I really enjoyed doing was connecting people with the information they needed. It wasn't until I met a friend of a friend who was a librarian that I realized that that is exactly what librarians do! I was drawn to my particular specialty in librarianship by working at the American Indian Resource Center, a special library in the County of Los Angeles Public Library system, where I was tasked with reorganizing the collection to make it more accessible to the American Indian community. This experience opened my eyes to how the way resources are cataloged and classified can impact access to information.
Q: What are some of the projects you have planned for the upcoming year?
A: An ongoing project of mine is to optimize the description of Drexel theses and dissertations, both to be sure they have all the requisite data elements, as well as to automate parts of the process so that these materials are available in our catalog sooner. Some of my other projects this year are related to database cleanup, including merging duplicate records in our catalog, and making sure our Drexel holdings are accurately represented in international databases such as Worldcat.org.
Q: How do you explain metadata to people not familiar with the concept?
A: It's about describing and organizing things so that you can find them and share them with others. Metadata elements such as titles, creators, dates, subjects, genres, and formats can all be key to a successful search.
Q: How does metadata improve access to information?
A: The presence of, accuracy of, and cultural context of metadata can make the difference between whether a resource is discoverable or not. The terminology used in metadata is important, so it is a constant challenge to keep up to date with new concepts and to make sure the words we use are current, relevant, appropriate, and unbiased. Metadata give us the ability to collocate resources that are similar (such as resources by the same author, and/or resources with the same subject), as well as the ability to disambiguate information that is different but uses the same words (for example, to be able to distinguish between Mercury the element versus Mercury the planet). While some types of information can be retrievable via their full text alone, the addition of metadata provides context and focus to that text and improves search precision. Non-textual resources such as images would be practically undiscoverable if it weren't for the addition of key metadata elements such as titles, creators, and subject keywords.
Q: What advice would you give to people looking to better catalog their digital information?
A: First of all, if you are already describing and organizing your digital information, congratulations! Keeping track of your digital photographs, music files, and videos, can be quite challenging, but it can make your life so much easier when your information is easy to find. My number one piece of advice, whether it's tagging your photos, organizing your iTunes library, or coming up with a file naming convention, is to be consistent. Choose a consistent form of a word for the same concept (singular vs. plural, noun vs. verb, present tense vs. past tense, etc.). Format your dates consistently, and be careful with punctuation. Spelling is important for retrieval, whereas capitalization typically doesn't affect searching, but it can help provide a more uniform appearance. Decide whether to combine multiple concepts into a single term ("French Cinema of the 1960s") or to keep terms separate ("France", "Cinema", "1960-1969"). Each approach has its benefits, but for your own collections, make a decision and stick with it. Whatever your own system is, the important thing is to have a system at all! If you’d like metadata advice for a Drexel research or administrative collection, please contact me to setup a consultation.