What the heck is a metadata service?

Posted by laura on January 8, 2013 under Metadata | Read the First Comment

 ed. note – There’s been a lot going on since my return from leave. Bereavement and other extenuating circumstances continue to preclude regular posting. I anticipate it’s going to be awhile longer before I return to it. Meanwhile, I have some drafts in my pending box. This blog has been bereft of posts so I’ve begun the slow process of revision and posting. I wrote the following a year ago. It’s a bit dated, due to the Harvard reference.  I think the rest of it continues to apply.

The outcry regarding the Harvard Library’s restructuring brings to light the vulnerability of traditional technical services librarians.

I received a mandate to turn metadata services into public services when I began my current job.   Lets leave aside the implied notion that metadata services isn’t a public service.  We do our jobs so well that people tend to forget that without us the ILS wouldn’t function effectively and we couldn’t serve our customers.  But I digress.  Let’s re-frame and say we have a mandate to turn metadata services into *more visible* public services.

So what do we mean by that?  Obviously, the next-gen metadata services are not the standard metadata services we’ve grown accustomed to in academic libraries (i.e  descriptive cataloging in MARC for our ILS, in DC for our repositories, DACS for archives, authority work, holdings work, etc.).  These traditional services are not going away, let’s get that clear.  Original cataloging will remain a large part of the work of huge libraries with lots of original monographs.  The rest of us will keep doing traditional acquisitions, copy cataloging, etc.  We must continue providing these services but they will take a lesser and lesser role.  You understand the trend towards automating as much as possible in cataloging if you’ve been awake for the past 15 years.   Observe academic libraries obtaining more and more electronic resources with record sets we manipulate in batch.  This is what the FBI calls a clue.   As we automate the old functions, we make room for doing the new functions of a Metadata Services Group.

So what is a next gen metadata service?  We can look to the likes of MIT and Cornell and Stanford for guidance.  They’ve been at the forefront of revamping cataloging departments and applying metadata skills in new ways.   We can also do environmental scanning of the higher education environment, figuring out what our customers are doing and what they’re likely to need in the next few years.   Don’t rely on asking them what they want.  Remember Ford’s adage that if he’d done what his customers wanted, he’d be manufacturing horse buggies.   Sometimes people don’t know what they can use.   When we poke around academe, we know that managing the products of scholarly communication will figure largely in our future.  We can also do environmental scanning of the technological environment.    From that, we know that linking the various products of scholarly communication is important, along with managing the various metrics which are emerging .   We can figure out a next-gen metadata service if we don’t panic and apply some inductive reasoning to the situation.   Brainstorming a bit, here’s what I’d consider a “metadata service”

Metadata services offered:

  • Search engine optimization, general & academic
  • Metadata mark-up (ex. linked data in ePub, enhancing the full text in your repositories with things like chemical or mathematical mark-up )
  • Ontology development
  • Persistent identifier management, especially personal and organizational name identifiers
  • Citation metrics, alt-metrics, bibliometrics, webliometrics, scientometrics
  • Consulting
  • Schema development and storage

These services, with the exception of consulting, seem to be machine-centric back-end things. Yet, they revolve around humans. Context is critical to do the back-end work successfully. Who are you optimizing search results for? Who uses the vocabularies you develop and maintain? People need to be identified, whether personally or organizationally. Perhaps all of these services could be considered sub-services of consulting. One needs to do the market research, user needs assessment, and customer engagement prior to service development. And it’s critical to continue engaging customers to evaluate the effectiveness of services and refine accordingly.

One point of tension I forsee – consulting directly with customers steps on the turf of public service librarians, who, in my experience, are understandable threatened. Do public service folk garner more metadata/technical prowess or do metadata/technical people work on their outreach and engagement skills? As with most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. It’s going to depend on the staffing within the library organization. Not everybody is going to be willing or able to change.  That’s ok. Those that can’t do it, however, should realize that the library work isn’t for them and move on to other things. A colleague has the following quotation on his office white board, which summarizes this perfectly:

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”- General Eric Shinseki

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