You walk into the library and step up to one of the self-service terminals. You just popped into to find a book that will help you with your research project, and you want to use the DiscoverEd to locate the book in the library. You type the title into the search bar and hit enter. The first page of results shows articles and book reviews of the book. You go back to the search bar, but this time you click on ‘Advanced Search,’ and you type the title, the author’s name, and the publication year into the respective fields. On the results page, the book you want is the first option. One more click, and you know what floor of the library it’s on, which set of stacks it’s in, and the call number it’s sorted by.
Most of us do searches so often that we don’t even think about what we’re actually doing. In fact, the only time you might stop to think about what you’re typing into the search bar is when your first (or second) search doesn’t yield the desired results. Only then do you stop to think about the different ways that you could formulate the search, articulate what you want, or narrow down the results.
Despite our lack of attention, a great deal of effort and meticulous cataloguing goes into creating the information that search engines – like Google, Bing, or DiscoverEd – can use to find things you might want to see. Enter the metadata team.
Metadata “is information that describes something and allows you to find it,” says Alasdair MacDonald, Metadata Co-ordinator for the Library and University Collections. “So it is information about an object or a resource.” When we search for something online or in the university’s online catalogue, we are actually searching the metadata for any given object.
Within the library, a team constantly works on creating and maintaining metadata for the university holdings. When a new item comes into the library’s holdings, an entry is made for it in the computer system. This entry is where the metadata for that item is listed, updated, and stored.
However, the story doesn’t end with the creation of the entry. MacDonald explains that “a common misconception is that [the creation of metadata] is just data entry.” In fact, there’s much more to it than that. The university library makes use of MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloguing) standards, which ensure that the search engine that students use to find materials can locate the necessary information in the catalogue entry. In order for this to happen, the information must be connected to corresponding machine-readable tags, which tell the computer what all the information is. For example, MARC tag 245 corresponds to the title of the work. Additional cataloguing standards are added to catalogue entries in certain cases, such as for rare books. With rare books, the physical description of the work is sometimes just as important as the title and author, and cataloguing standards have been developed to ensure that this information makes it into the library catalogue.
Using standardised methods of cataloguing is important. It means that in any library you go into, you have an idea of how the books have been catalogued and, therefore, what information is available about them. For a researcher, standardised cataloguing is immensely helpful, because it means that they can find the resources they need more efficiently.
For university students, knowing how metadata works can be just as helpful. If you type the title of a work that you’re looking for into the search bar and hit enter, the computer will search the entirety of all the catalogue entries looking for a match. If, however, you use the ‘Advanced Search’ option, you’ll streamline the computer’s search process. By filling in the fields for title, author, or publication date in the ‘Advanced Search,’ the computer knows to search only the MARC tags for titles to find the information in the title field, only the MARC tags for author to find the information in the author field, etc. The effect: searches will be quicker and more effective.
Of course, this means that the library will constantly be updating their online catalogue. As system software changes and improves, the metadata team will have to make sure that the catalogue entries are correct and properly done so that the computer system can find the information stored within them. As this project continues, we’ll look at what the University Library is doing to improve the metadata for its holdings and the process of searching the online catalogues.
Written by Rebecca Sparagowski, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.