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Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

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The Social Life of Metadata

Traditionally, librarians and archivists have used the term metadata for "descriptive information used to index, arrange, file, and improve access to a library's or museum's resources."[*] This use derives from the Greek prefix meta, which translates as "with, among, after, or behind." In this sense, metadata accompanies but is not essential to the data itself. The classic example is the card catalog, which employs metadata to enable title, author, and subject access to a library's physical collection of materials. This use dates back to 650 B.C. in Ninevah, when king Assurbanipal constructed a palace library of over 30,000 clay tablets with a crude subject catalog and descriptive bibliography. Of course, broadly defined, metadata is as old as language itself. When we assign names to individuals, places, and possessions, we are tagging those objects with metadata. A library card catalog, shown in Figure 6-2, is a vast collection of metadata.

Metadata has many forms and purposes. Administrative metadata supports document management and workflow. Structural metadata enables single source publishing and flexible display of content. And descriptive metadata permits access and use. Put simply, we employ a word or phrase to describe the subject of a document for the purposes of retrieval. We try to concisely encapsulate its aboutness now to support findability later.

It is metadata's ability to help people find what they need that has driven a resurgence of interest, ...

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