After two years at Special Collections, I am graduating in a couple of weeks and leaving behind a place that often felt like my second home. For my last blog post, I leave you with what I consider to be the most important piece of advice for any aspiring archivist: mind your metadata—metadata is key.
Without accurate metadata, all our work would be for naught for it is likely that those who need it would be unable to locate what you so carefully processed and preserved. If an item is somehow found, inaccuracies might continue to be passed on and perpetuated leaving you to question the provenance of what you house–after all, it is the metadata that allows us to determine the integrity and authenticity of our born-digital materials. Not only that, digital tools depend so heavily on an artifact’s metadata to fulfill their function that inaccuracies could potentially lead to failures in migration and long-term preservation measures. Pay attention to your metadata or risk failing to fulfill these basic goals of all archives:
Get what you (or your users) want:
If you want to be able to quickly pull a list of materials available, you must mind your spelling when entering the metadata—spelling AND punctuation as well. We have a sizable Borderlands collection at Special Collection, and names often include accented vowels and the occasional “ñ.” What to do about diacritics? Since we have begun translating some of our finding aids, it was decided to use diacritics in the Spanish ones and leave them out of the English versions; that way, no matter how users search for them, one is bound to come up.
Leaving diacritics out completely would be the next best choice since most users, whether Spanish or English-speaking, tend to skip them when typing on a search box. The goal is to help people find what they are looking for, and metadata is included to fulfill that task. Sometimes, embracing all possible spellings works. Sometimes you might have to let go of something and choose what makes your artifact more likely to be found. Follow your institution’s guidelines or, if you do not have an specific one, begin a conversation that puts your team on the same page.
Know what you have:
To understand what is contained within your institution’s collections months and even years after these have been processed, much like your users, you will first rely on the information included in each finding aid and catalog record. If among those collections are any that deal with archaeological material or indigenous/Native American subjects, you should expect some sensitive information. The metadata you choose to include can help you and your users understand what exactly it is that you have and whether its sensitive nature calls for restrictions to its public use. This is especially important before embarking on a digitization project or if interested in creating a digital exhibit that will make materials widely available online. Start by learning what your institution’s access policy is and whether restrictions are ever placed on these types of collections. Next, familiarizing yourself with the Protocols for Native American Archival Material.
Also, do some research, particularly when dealing with local tribes, to better understand what information might be useful to include. Tribes like the Yaqui (Yoemem), welcome visitors to their sacred ceremonies but strictly ban the use of recording devices. And yet, some recordings do exist out there. Whenever possible, note in your metadata if this is the case. That way you allow your users (and your institution) to make informed decisions about the most appropriate use of, and access to, the materials that you archive.
Preserve what you need:
How do we know that a file we are preserving has an accurate date stamp? This is important in terms of determining provenance, but also because validation checks often depend on a digital asset’s date. Last week, while working on some audio files, I noticed that the dates made no sense—the file dated them as having been created in 2008, but we knew with certainty that they had been recorded no more than two years ago. Looking at the files’ properties brought up an even more illogical date: December 31, 1969.
A bit of research later, I discovered that a model of digital voice recorders that is popular with journalists (Zoom H2n) has been known to produce this glitch. When I asked one of the collection’s creator, a professor at the UA School of Journalism, Dr. Bustamante confirmed having used the digital recorder in question. Moral of the story: do not just trust what is in front of you. Think about whether a date makes sense, then confirm with a closer examination if you suspect something is wrong. You might have to go back to your collection’s creator, when possible, and hope they kept notes. Otherwise, doing some research is appropriate—and do not forget to document any discrepancies, inquiries, and how the matter was eventually resolved. Your future self may thank you one day.
And with that, happy archiving, folks–see you in the stacks!