Metadata is a foreign concept? Whaaaat?!? (Part One) – A guest post by Greg Bak

[This is a guest post by Greg Bak, Archival Studies, Department of History, University of Manitoba. ]

Thanks to Kate for agreeing to publish my recent SAA presentation on her blog. In Part One of this guest post I discuss some of the Twitter reaction to my talk; in Part Two I include the slides and speaking notes from my talk.

Okay, so I’m paraphrasing here, but the title of this post summarizes reactions on Twitter to my presentation at SAA 2013 session 701. In the course of my talk I suggested that “Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archives.” Here are a few tweets that followed:

 Brad Houston:
Hmm. Metadata a foreign concept to archivists? Don’t think I agree with that at all. Used all the time, even if the word isn’t #Saa13 #s701 

Kind of getting annoyed by the assumptions made in this preso. Metadata is implicit in most description we do as archivists #Saa13 #s701 

Geof Huth:
How could say this and use the word “folksonomies” in the same presentation?

 Couldn’t figure out how he came to this conclusion. I mean, finding aids (of any kind) are metadata.

Things didn’t get much better when I went on to suggest that metadata, as a concept, is foreign to social media, too:

 Krystal Thomas:
hmm, also not sure I am buying the idea that metadata is foreign to social media though something to think about #s701 #saa13

 Andrew Berger:
Metadata is foreign to social media? #saa13

 Brad Houston:
Metadata is foreign to social media?” Um, I’ve got a spreadsheet of #Saa13 tweets on Google Drive which says otherwise #s701 

Thankfully, a couple of folks picked up the nuances and saved me from myself:

 Mark Matienzo:
From the looks of Twitter my colleagues are seriously misunderstanding Greg Bak’s presentation #saa13

 Sami Norling:
Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archivists (at least at its introduction) #saa13

 Seth Shaw:
“Metadata is foreign to social media”? I don’t buy the argument though I accept the implication: it is all ‘just’ data. #s701 #saa13

Sami Norling perceptively noted the emphasis I put in my oral remarks on archivists’ initial reluctance, in the 1980s and 1990s, to embrace metadata as a concept, while Seth Shaw evaluated my statement in light of the definition of metadata that I used in my paper. Mark Matienzo urged that people not react to my (poor) choice of wording, but take into account the ideas behind the words.

Not that I was using an obscure or idiosyncratic definition of metadata: I defined it as “data about data.” My point was that when defined in this way, the very concept of metadata requires that there be primary data (for example, a digital object or an analog document) and secondary data (data that is outside of, above or apart from the primary data).

My contention is that when the term began to gain currency among archivists in the 1990’s there was an instinctive reaction against it, followed by an attempt to re-frame it into archival terms. Adrian Cunningham, writing in Archival Science in 2001, scoffed that “When most of us first encountered the term metadata, we were probably repelled by yet another debasement of the English language by a bunch of barbarian techno-boffins.”  Cunningham presses on, discussing various definitions of the term before suggesting that “metadata is simply a new term for information that has been around for a very long time, but which now looks a bit different due to the advent of computer technology.” He rounds off his brief discussion with the claim that “archivists are metadata experts – it is just that we tend not to think in those terms,” and lists some examples of what he would consider archival metadata: finding aids, index cards, file covers, file registers and so on.

In my paper I sought to return to the initial wariness of archivists for the concept and re-evaluate this reluctance. What if archival anxiety around “metadata” was triggered not by fear of “debasement of the English language”, but rather from concern for debasement of archival theory?

This is the real issue: in archival theory, the kind of data typically identified as “metadata” is an integral part of the record. It is evidence of relationships among records and records users. It is not “meta” data; it is simply data. It is data that must be acquired and managed as a necessary part of the record. It is the data that makes the difference between a bunch of discrete, solitary items and a fully interrelated set of archival records.

This, moreover, is also how such data is managed within social media applications. Data that describes the use of information resources is not “meta” data, it is simply data: data that enables the weighting of search results, creating tangible differences in rankings, visibility and usefulness.

I am presently writing my SAA presentation for peer-reviewed publication. If you would like to see how I presented these ideas at SAA, my presentation slides and speaking notes will be included in “Part Two” of this post. I welcome any and all feedback, either in this blog’s comments or by sending me an email at


Cunningham A (2001). Six degrees of separation: Australian metadata initiatives and their relationships with international standards. Archival Science 1.3:271-283.


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