Introduction to Digital Humanities

RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific



So… Metadata. Anne Gilliland explains that metadata is, “data about data”, and thus is all the available information about information objects. That probably doesn’t really help explain anything at all. The thing is, though, that metadata doesn’t seem to quite have a set definition, as there are so many different components, types, and aspects of it. But Gilliland breaks metadata down and explains it as having three components: the content, context, and structure of the information object in question.

A prominent example of metadata in today’s culture include libraries, museums, and archives that use metadata to provide access to their materials, as well as the context those materials are in to provide a value to their information. Libraries, museums, and archives thus use metadata as a means of cataloguing their information objects so that other people can use it to their own knowledgeable purposes. More specifically, metadata can provide a means of description and resource discovery, not only in libraries, museums, and archives, but in just about anything.

As I said before, there are several different kinds of metadata, in which they are categorized by their purpose and function. However, all of the different kids of metadata are unified under a certain set of aspirations and thus functions, that Gilliland states as being: “creation, multiversioning, reuse, and recontextualization of information objects; organization and description; validation; searching and retrieval; utilization and preservation; and disposition,” of all information. Metadata is meant to attain and accumulate knowledge over time, thus expanding our information about all things informative.

However, metadata can be used for more than just contextual and descriptive information. It can be used to identify individual patterns through the information provided, thus supplying a means of infringing on privacy. In Robert Lee Hotz’s Wall Street Journal article, he states that metadata can look at a variety of patterns and identify them with individuals, based on their unique patterns. He gives the example of looking at shoppers’ patterns and how data analysts were able to identify who the shoppers were based on what they bought and looked at, as well as how much time they spent shopping.

So I guess the real question that is elicited from the concept of metadata is, how much information is too much, when it provides the means for invading our privacy?



  1. I think you pose an interesting question about how far we should be able to stretch the collection of metadata. And frankly, I feel like that’s a debate that’ll open up a whole new can of differing opinions and ideas, just like you mentioned the definition of metadata itself has. If you ask me, even the idea of tracking down individual shoppers by their spending patterns, as you brought up with the Hotz article, is rather invasive. Though obviously it benefits whatever companies are trying to market toward consumer wants, I’m not so sure they should have the power to find specific people so easily. I always wondered how ads on Skype and other social media seemed to cater so much to my interests, and now I guess I understand where that comes from. I think it’s rather unnerving, and it demonstrates one of the negatives that come from using metadata.

  2. I think you captured the essence of what metadata really is and bring up good points about its helpfulness and possibly its downside. You bring up a good point about libraries and archives being a recourse. When, for example, a scientist or researcher wants to look at a pattern that humans have carried out in a year or certain time period, looking at past data would be necessary to there findings. A lot of research today is done by looking at past data sets and I think it is important that metadata exists and that we have free , or at least easy, access to it. On the other hand, you do talk about an ongoing problem about metadata and privacy. Is it really okay that our internet is saving data about us and using for such things as targeted advertisement? Well, while I do find it creepy and invasive, I feel like there’s not much we can do about it. In a way, I feel like it’s a compromise that we have to make when using the internet. If I’m going to be lazy and google something instead of going to the library and picking up a book, I have to be aware that the internet in return will track what I’m doing. It’s an easy fix on my part (just don’t go digital) but I know the accessibility of the internet is too good to pass on.

  3. Your question provided an interesting point on how much data is considered too much for others with privacy issues. Metadata can be useful in some cases of description or discovery, but it can also be harmful for others. I guess it depends on how a person uses this metadata because they might utilized this information for their own advantage, besides academic research.

  4. I thought your description of how metadata is defined to be well-stated; it’s true that it’s hard to put a succinct definition or synonym to a concept which inherently is comprised of so many different aspects. I would be interested to see how you would elaborate on Gilliland’s “three aspects” of metadata from there.

    Regardless, though, the library example you used was effective in allowing me to visualize metadata and how it is used — or at least one part of it, since, as you described, there are so many vast functions of metadata that can be used for purposes unlikely for any one person to imagine. I know I’ve learned about some aspects of data mining before in a previous course at a different college, which was about social media. I’m interested in considering, how much do any of us know about what data there is about us being catalogued and mined for profit?

  5. I think that you effectively described the main points of both articles and about the uses of Metadata. And I appreciate that you ask your own question about “how much information is too much, when it provides the means for invading our privacy?” I think that some might argue that it is already too much. I know that some people are just annoyed when markets and businesses send them ads to purchase items that the business assumes that the customer wants. However some might argue that a business is just trying to use every available mean to make a profit.

  6. Your post helps me understand more about the uses of metadata. I also agree that the metadata could provide a means of description and resource discovery. The metadata article mentions that a careful crafted metadata could result in the information management on the networks. I think it is important to develop an information management system because it enables metadata users to organize a large number of datasets quickly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *