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Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her on Twitter @hvanmouwerik or check out her website.



Every book we read, every source we mine, and every number we collect has a history, has a life that precedes us and will continue long after we are gone. It is easy to forget this when we are frantically collecting materials for our dissertation. This legacy is rich but, in the hustle-and-bustle of research trips, exam prep, and writing, it is often neglected or even forgotten.


One of the most important parts of building an archive is capturing this legacy by recording an item’s dimensions, condition, material composition, origin, and provenance. In so doing, an archivist generates a vast amount of metadata, or information about an item irrespective of its content. Not only is this information useful in categorizing and storing the item, it also enriches the context of the archived item for researchers and facilitates use of the collection as a whole.

Metadata, though, isn’t reserved for the hallowed halls (or cold, windowless basements) of an archive. It is also a vital part of any researcher’s personal database.


Take a moment to review the material you have collected for your dissertation or other long-term project. How is it organized? I, for example, have my folders organized by author’s last name with subfolders for each piece the author has written. In some of these folders I have bibliographic information--that’s metadata! In others I have reading notes--more metadata! And review articles, catalogue listings for libraries, author biographies--all of it is metadata! Any information you collect about the item that is not about its content qualifies as metadata.


But why should you care about any of this? What can metadata do for your research?


Archivists organize their materials diachronically and synchronically. The former, which is how we tend to store our research, approaches the material vertically by organizing it alphabetically, chronologically, or grouped around certain events. Think of it as a column of information, one thing moving to the next in a linear progression. Having files on your computer, for example, arranged by the author or title of a piece, is diachronic. This is great when you know exactly where the information you need is stored, and it makes for a neat and tidy database.


Nevertheless, this approach is useless when you are attempting to make connections between folders. For that, you need a synchronic approach, which focuses on the information horizontally by grouping materials geographically, by topic, by theoretical framework, or by any other sort of grouping that makes sense for the material. In this case, it helps to imagine all of the information is spread out on a table, allowing you to manipulate it into different configurations. Archivists achieve this synchronic system with the help of metadata. By recording as much information as possible about an item, archivists can cross-reference it with the rest of a collection on a variety points. This means a researcher can easily find a specific item (diachronic) while also searching for any related materials (synchronic).


Adding a synchronic dimension to your database by being conscious of metadata will make it easier to see connections between concepts, subjects, or topics in your research and help prolong its usefulness far beyond completing your dissertation. The key, though, is to make sure you are consistent in the type of metadata you collect and regular in how you store it. Luckily, there are a lot of quick, simple, and cost-effective ways to go about this. Here are a few methods that I have found particularly useful:


1. Create subject headings. The most basic use of metadata in an archive or library is expressed through subject headings, a set of widely accepted topics that link related items together. To add this to your database, first create a list of people, places, ideas, or other subject headings that make sense to you. You don’t need a complete list right away, but it is important that you stay consistent. Labeling one thing “Catherine the Great,” for example, and another “Catherine II” is counterproductive. Second, tag all of your materials with their respective subject headings. If you are using a database program, like DEVONThink or Evernote, just open the item and add a tag. If, instead, you are using a folder-based approach on a Mac, you can add tags to your materials by double clicking on the item in the Finder window. For people working on a PC or using Dropbox, you are going to need to open each file and add your subjects to the actual document itself. I’d recommend writing a list in the header or footer of your pages, so they are uniform across all of your documents.


2. Make your documents searchable. A research database cannot exist without the ability to do a keyword search; however, a lot of common file types do not allow for this sort of metadata hunt. PDFs, being the most common type, are black holes unless the individual words are recognizable to your computer, so make sure you run them all through an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) program. Word documents, too, are difficult to locate with a keyword search. Instead, you could try storing your notes in a more searchable program, like Evernote, or take notes in a program that allows you to save as a text file (.txt), like Notebook or Atom. Not only are the files a lot smaller (no formatting), they move flawlessly between devices and are easily copied and pasted between programs.


3. Maintain a bibliography. This is best practice for all research projects, but especially so if you are working on a long-term project. Keeping all of your bibliographic information in one place will ensure you are uniformly capturing the necessary data and able to easily access it. I find it easiest to use a dedicated reference management program—currently Zotero is my program of choice—because it provides all of the fields you need to accurately record any metadata you might have. Also, it allows you to tag records so you can carry over your subject headings into your bibliography. This, for example, is helpful when you are fleshing out a footnote and just need a list of references on a particular topic.


4. Utilize an intake sheet. This final suggestion is not necessary for most projects, but, if your work requires a lot of archival research or is based on material objects, you might want to create an intake sheet to insure you consistently record important metadata. Most archives, when they receive a new item, quickly record as much information as possible about it, its provenance, and its condition on a standardized worksheet. This ensures that, no matter how long it takes to process the item and list it on the finding aid, nothing will be forgotten. For graduate students, it might be a useful way to record information when you have a lot of material coming in or are short on time, like during a research trip. Everyone’s intake sheet will look different, but mine includes general bibliographic information along with spaces for the item’s dimensions and condition as well as any pertinent holding information from the institution’s catalogue. All you need to do to make your own is to, first, determine what information is important for you and how you want to organize it. Then make your template either by creating a Word template or a fillable form that you can “save as” for each new item.


Taking steps early in your project to insure that you are consistently recording metadata will not only save you time and frustration along the way, but it might prove useful in its own right. Metadata forces you to take a moment to think about the history of your sources and to focus on the connections between them.


Do you record metadata in your own research? Has it come in handy or given you some interesting insights? I love a good archive story, so please share it in the comments!


[Photo is courtesy of Flikr user Forsaken Fotos and used under the Creative Commons.]