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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Introduction to Metadata

Start here to learn more about the basics of metadata and how it supports research activities.

What is metadata?

The Oxford Dictionary defines metadata as "data whose purpose is to describe and give information about other data." While one can read this definition and make sense of the words, what exactly does it mean? It's not a particularly useful definition. It's probably more useful to learn about where metadata comes from and what it does.

Metadata is structured information that allows someone to identify, locate and retrieve a resource. The people who work with library metadata are called metadata librarians or catalogers. Metadata librarians and catalogers support research by creating, storing, enhancing, fixing and maintaining the data that describes all types of library resources. Patrons probably rarely see metadata librarians and catalogers, but their work is what allows for users to come into a library or search the online catalog and find something they need. Metadata is the engine that powers the library catalog. 

Cross stitch entitled Same Old Message, Different Day by Ann Kardos
Alphabet chart and border design from Improper Cross Stitch by Haley Pierson-Cox (2018)

Types of metadata

  • Descriptive metadata: provides a description of what the resource is. It describes what is sometimes referred to as the "aboutness" of a resource. Who wrote it or otherwise created the resource? What is the title? What is the subject matter of the data or resource?
  • Administrative metadata: provides information related to the management, creation or maintenance of a resource. This includes information about copyright restrictions, digitization details (like resolution), creation date and more.
  • Structural metadata: provides information about how the data or resource is organized, for example, the intellectual or physical elements. Is it a physical book or a digital image? Does it have chapters? What are the relationships of the pieces of information and how is it organized? This kind of metadata might be used to aid navigation or denote versions, among other things.
  • Preservation metadata: provides information necessary to aid in the preservation of a resource. This might include a history of actions on the resource or the software needed to interact with it.

Sometimes structural and preservation metadata are considered subsets of administrative metadata.

Resources about metadata

Metadata is a technical skill that anyone can learn. If you'd like to learn more about the basics of metadata, there are some great resources available to UMass and Five College patrons:

  • Librarianship Studies & Information Technology blog: the section called Cataloging provides more information on all of the key concepts in this guide
  • Metadata by Jeffrey Pomerantz (2015): check out the book from the UMass Science and Engineering Library or check out the ebook online
  • Metadata by Marcia Lei Zeng and Jian Qin (Second edition, 2016): find the book in the Du Bois Library
  • Understanding metadata: What is metadata, and what is it for?: A primer by Jenn Riley (2017): this guide is available for free online, published by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO)