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Digital humanities: humanities research in the digital age
Digital humanities: humanities research in the digital age

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Session 3 Metadata and search

This session is written by Anne Alexander from The University of Cambridge.

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After studying this session, you should have:

  • understood the difference between data and metadata
  • familiarised yourself with the basic elements of a search engine
  • reflected on some of the ways in which search technologies shape scholarship and research.

In the last session you learned about the processes of transformation changing material texts, recordings of images and sounds on physical media into digital data. Johanna Drucker observes there is a tension between this radical change from material to digital and the idea that ‘data’ is a set of observations, an empirical recording of the world as it is. She proposes reconceiving ‘data’ (something which is given) as ‘capta’ (something which is taken).

From this distinction, a world of differences arises. Humanistic inquiry acknowledges the situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production, the recognition that knowledge is constructed, taken, not simply given as a natural representation of pre-existing fact.

(Drucker, 2011)

It is crucial to remember the constructed nature of ‘data’ produced by digitisation processes as we grapple with the next challenge: how to make find the needles in this digital haystack of information? Now that everything has been flattened out into a machine-readable series of 1s and 0s how can humans make sense of it?

There are three circles, featuring coded text.
Figure 3

This is where metadata comes in. Metadata is data about data. It is the information attached to data to explain who made it, what format it has been captured in, where and when it was made and a host of other things which the authors or curators of the data want to share. Metadata predates digital data: e.g. a library catalogue records metadata about the material items in the collection. However metadata for digital data becomes even more important than for its analogue counterpart. Have you ever lost a crucial file on your computer because you called it DRAFT_1.doc or something equally forgettable? At least with a book on your bookshelf your memory may be jogged by colour or even the wear and tear along the spine.

Like data, metadata gives off an appearance of objectivity, of simply being an empirical recording of facts about the data. But it is as much the result of subjective choices by humans and their spectrum of motives, beliefs and opinions, and training in different professions and disciplines. Even within the same profession or discipline, there can be wide variation in standards of metadata meaning that even versions of the same original text could end up being described in different ways.