Minding Your Metadata

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.

Yaqui Dancers

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.

Stamp Date

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.

In the Stacks

And with that, happy archiving, folks–see you in the stacks!


Goodbye comfort zone, hello public speaking

KR - color[1]Knowledge River (KR) is a graduate educational program within the School of Information at the University of Arizona. It was developed to educate information professionals who are committed to the information needs of Latinos and Native Americans as well as to promote diversity in the field of library and information science. Each year, School of Information administrators select a cohort of students who have applied to participate in KR. Students selected then receive funding for the MLIS degree in the form of scholarships and graduate assistant placements. The cohort approach emphasizes customized advising support and KR scholars are provided with practical library experience, professional development and outreach opportunities.

As a Knowledge River scholar, I was recently asked to present at the KR annual meeting about my experiences helping to curate the James Kolbe exhibit in Special Collections. The Knowledge River annual meeting unites members of cohorts past and present, as well the advisory board to the KR program. Although I was intimidated by the prospect of presenting to a crowd, I accepted the opportunity knowing that it would be good practice for a future career in archives.


Slide 1 of my presentation

I prepared by creating a PowerPoint presentation with slides addressing each of the steps I took (with assistance from my supervisor) to make this exhibit possible from the selection of items in the James Kolbe Papers to the opening reception held in Congressman Kolbe’s honor. After creating the PowerPoint, I then typed out notes which accompanied each slide.

When I presented on this exhibit at the KR annual meeting I was nervous and decided to read my notes directly from the page rather than using them as guides. I wouldn’t consider myself a natural public speaker so this approach worked best for me. I had practiced at home before I gave my presentation so this allowed me to read a little more naturally while still making eye contact with the audience.


Final slide of my presentation

The overall experience was beneficial for me and the audience. I was given the opportunity to practice public speaking which is often a necessary aspect of working as an archivist. Whether speaking to students in a classroom or presenting at a conference, engaging with an audience is a skill I will need to develop further as I progress in my career. Speaking at the KR annual meeting was beneficial to the audience because it allowed me to teach members of my own cohort and others in the audience what graduate assistants do in Special Collections and how the experience of helping to curate an exhibit has advanced my knowledge of work in archives. This was a rewarding opportunity and I’m glad I took part!

Digitizing our border’s history

To end the semester with a bang, I initiated an amazing digital project this week. I am in the process of adding photographs to our Arizona, Southwestern and Borderlands Photograph Collection.

The first step inDigitization Workflow the project was getting trained on institution workflow regarding digitization.  That also included learning the required specs when scanning photos, such as image size, type and resolution.  It was also important to know where the images needed to be stored and mapping the computer drive.

After training I began the selection process. I was directed to select 100 photos to digitize, however, 46 of them had been pre-selected from the Mexican-American Border Region Collection that I had worked with a couple of months ago.azu_azswbp_mexican-americanborderregion_j003                                           azu_azswbp_mexican-americanborderregion_l013

I had to then create selection criteria to make the selection of the remaining 54 photographs a bit easier.  I decided to stick to the border theme already in place and chose photographs from the Mexican Revolution in Arizona border towns.  That gave me over 175 total photos, so I had to go back and reduce the number of selected items in order to comply with project guidelines and timeframe.  I highlighted the images I chose to scan, and the ones I thought would be a great future project since I could not fit them all into this one.  The following images are some of the ones I have recommended for future digitizing.  They show a lighter side of war and military troops on their time off.


During this process I found it convenient to create an MS Excel spreadsheet with criteria necessary to move on with the project in future steps. I recorded the item number of each photograph, the title of the image, and a short description in hope that it will help with metadata collection.  I also added a column to make notes on condition. On another sheet I recorded my criteria and a color key to document my workflow process as best possible.

The scanning itself went well except for a little bump in the road.  As I checked in with my project manager, Erika Castano, she advised that some of the images I had scanned needed to be in color instead of grayscale, since we are trying to capture the historic image as closely as possible to the physical photograph.  It was a good learning point, and I went back and corrected a few scans I had previously completed.  You can see the color variance in the images above.

I am finally ready to move on to the next step of the project which is to create the photographs’ metadata and upload them onto our CMS.  I have worked with Dublin Core before through Omeka, so I hope that experience helps me out in this project.  I was introduced to some good literature on how to write appropriate descriptions today, which I think will be very helpful.  I will continue to post my progress until I finish…just four short weeks left.