Skip to Main Content

Course & Subject Guides

Metadata & Discovery @ Pitt

This guide will assist researchers in understanding the basics of metadata and selecting appropriate metadata standards.

What is metadata?

"In essence, metadata is the extra baggage associated with any resource that enables a real or potential user to find that resource; to decide whether or not it is of value to them; to discover where, when and by whom it was created, as well as for what purpose; to know what tools will be needed to manipulate the resource; to determine whether or not they will actually be allowed access to the resource itself and how much this will cost them. Metadata is, in short, a means by which largely meaningless data may be transformed into information, interpretable and reusable by those other than the creator of the data resource."
-- Paul Miller – “Metadata: What It Means for Memory Institutions” In Metadata Applications and Management (2004)

Metadata, sometimes called ‘Data about Data’, includes information that enables users to identify, discover, interpret, or manage content, such as the name of the author of the work, the date on which it was first created or published, or where the physical object is located. 

While data can be a set of facts, a collection of images, a string of words, or a description of something, metadata provides meaningful information about data. Data can be “raw” or unprocessed and may require hardware, software, or additional documentation to understand and use. Metadata is always processed, usually understandable by both humans and machines, and only created for a functional purpose (such as organizing materials in a catalog or searching and retrieving resources in a database).

Why is metadata important?

Metadata aids in managing, publicizing, and preserving the content you have produced. It enhances the usefulness of your data or information by providing context—the who, what, when, where, why, and how that helps to discover, identify, interpret, and interact with content.

Metadata allows users to:

  • Find or identify a resource
  • Know who created the resource or contributed to the creation of the resource
  • Understand how the resource was created and manipulated
  • Know when the resource was created
  • Determine tools needed to view, manipulate, and use the resource
  • Understand rights and use conditions surrounding the resource
  • Connect to related information objects

Types of Metadata

  • Descriptive metadata describes the object or data and gives the basic facts: who created it (i.e. authorship), title, keywords, and abstract.
  • Structural metadata describes the structure of an object including its components and how they are related.  It also describes the format, process, and inter-relatedness of objects. It can be used to facilitate navigation, or define the format or sequence of complex objects.
  • Administrative metadata includes information about the management of the object and may include information about: preservation and rights management, creation date, copyright permissions, required software, provenance (history), and file integrity checks.

General Metadata Resources

Interested in learning more?

  • Understanding Metadata: What is metadata and what is it for?: A Primer. Jenn Riley (2017)
    • Published by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), this primer provides an overview of metadata for cultural heritage institutions. Includes concise descriptions of metadata standards.
  • Introduction to Metadata. Edited by Murtha Baca (2016, 3rd Edition)
    • First published in 1998 by Getty Publications, this text gives an overview of metadata and describes methods, tools, and standards used for digital collections. This revised edition includes chapters on metadata on the web, rights metadata, and principles for establishing a metadata strategy.
  • Metadata. Jeffrey Pomerantz (2015). [Pitt users can access here].
    • An informative introductory guide suitable for a general audience. Includes definitions of common and foundational terms, descriptions of types of metadata, an introduction to useful tools, and an approachable introduction to the Semantic Web.