Historical Image Metadata: Case Studies in Description and Searchability

by Matthew Amyx

Digitization alone works great for preservation, but for digitization to increase access to objects in historical repositories, institutions must create appropriate, serviceable metadata. Metadata, according to Tony Gill writing for the J. P. Getty Trust, is the “structured description of the essential attributes of an information object.” What constitutes “essential attributes” varies from discipline to discipline, giving rise to varied metadata standards like MARC, EAD, and DCMES, but often includes information like subject, date of creation, ownership, dimensions, geographic origin, and format. When done correctly, metadata creates tags that allow searches within the institution itself and on larger search engines like Google. While institutions must weigh the costs and benefits of heavy vs. lean metadata, libraries, archives, and museums should at minimum include categories researchers across disciplines will search for.

The Price of Freedom: Americans at War is an exhibit and archive made by the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History. It includes information objects (photos, artifacts, etc.) from all of the the United States military conflicts, including several undeclared wars like the Philippine Insurrection. The exhibit itself is very attractive, and allows visitors to select a conflict on the timeline, read historical information on the conflict, and view object from the conflict. The site includes with each object clear metadata, including name, dimensions, credit, accession and catalog numbers, and even historical background. Each image can be printed with all metadata included, making the resource very useful for teachers and researchers alike.

Naval Jumper

You may also browse the collection using the 18 conflicts or 32 categories, search by keyword, or perform an advanced search. The advanced search page demonstrates how deep their metadata goes, since you can set your search parameters by object name, physical description, object history, credit line, maker, country, state, conflict, and service branch. Even cooler, there is a link on the item’s archive page where you can see it in context in the sequential exhibit.

Surgical Kit

Overall, the Smithsonian’s Price of Freedom exhibit is an excellent example of thorough, searchable metadata.

An example of failed – well, basically absent – metadata in an online exhibit is http://www.myalcaponemuseum.com/, a website on the famed gangster by local historian/mob era enthusiast Mario Gomez, a published author and sometimes History Channel expert. The site is a ripe candidate for descriptive metadata, as it boasts 155 pages and 3855 images, many of them personal possessions of Gomez unavailable elsewhere. However, there is no search function at all, and the website navigation is a giant, clumsy cluster of subject hyperlinks at the top of the page. While some description including dates and provenance is included in captions beneath images, the format and categories of description are not standardized. While the information is cool, and the photographs and objects assist in telling the Chicago Gangland story, the website is useless for researching the historical objects themselves because of its lack of consistent metadata.

Our project is more of an interactive exhibit on the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair than an archive, per se; less of a research tool and more of an experience. However, our platform will allow us to include some basic information on the subject, date, and institutional holdings of the objects so interested visitors can find the objects elsewhere. (Occasionally we may be able to reference the creator as well.) Because many of our images come from the flat file digital records of the Museum of Science and Industry, we will be unable to include dimension data, although folder and file numbers are available. Because of the nature of our website (interactive experience rather than archive) I doubt we’ll be able to include a search function. However, it would be fairly simple to create a parallel Omeka site with our Homstead site that included the same images with metadata and a search function.

Brief, Fun, Effective: The BBC History Website’s Battle of Waterloo Game

Choose Screen

Attempting to teach military history presents considerable conflicts and challenges which are only exacerbated by online resources. Wartime contests such as the Battle of Waterloo have determined the course of civilizations, so a thorough social studies curriculum cannot omit martial scenarios entirely. However, it is easy to get bogged down in minutiae useless to middle and high school classrooms. Digital teaching tools offer the benefit of interactivity, but PC games like Napoleon Total War lie behind a paywall and take far too much time to master to be any use to a teacher trying to supplement their social studies course. Simpler online offerings, such as the Battle of Waterloo’s page on the historyofwar.org website, provide useful data, but are aesthetically unappealing and, again, dive too deep. The BBC History website’s short, simple game on the battle succeeds in quickly communicating the basics of the battle in a way that is both aesthetically and pedagogically clear. One comes away with key points of the battle (Napoleon’s reliance on cavalry, the decline of 18th century tactics, the importance of timing and reserves, etc.) without a lot of irrelevant details. It is also fun, limited in size, and (unless I am much mistaken) structured as to be accessible for the deaf and visually-impaired. While not by any stretch an example of digital humanities, it is a pretty good piece of digital public history.

The game takes about five minutes to play. You begin by picking your side: Napoleon or Wellington. You are then shown a screen giving the military and political context for the battle and the personality of the general you are playing as. Note that the small, square screen demonstrates the elements of good design: the text is white on a black field, and the main font is sans-serif. A flag denotes the nationality of your ‘team’, but the screen is otherwise uncluttered with graphics. The text reads well, and is offered in an appropriate amount for middle and high school students.

Napoleon Title Screen

The game offers the player the opportunity to review their soldiers and weapons. Because this suggests a tactical advantage, students, as rational-choice actors, may feel more incentivized to actually read the text than if it had just been included in a longer context section.

Troops and Tactics

The game itself plays out at 3/4 bird’s eye view on a square green space. Although low-quality animations occur and key battlefield locations are marked, there is no attempt at photorealism or keeping the reenactment to scale, which means the webpage will not take forever to load a bunch of ‘hoggy’ images and students will not have to ‘fly-over’ a large space as in more accurate simulations. There is no mouse-skill required; the player simply chooses one of two or three tactical options given after being provided a short blurb of information that Napoleon or Wellington would have been presented with.


After a very brief animation, the result of the player’s decision comes up, with an explanation. After between one and ten decisions (depending on how wisely one chooses or follows the historic battle), the game is over and the player learns why they succeeded or failed. The player can then choose to play again to see how different tactics play out or try their hand at the other general. The brevity of the game encourages repeat plays.

Alternate Ending

Because the game is text-based, with all the necessary information typed out, I can see no reason a visually-impaired player could not participate using a screen reader. There are some battlefield sound and some gunfire animations, but likely nothing so flashy or manic as to induce seizures. The quick pace suggests excitement, but there is no gore to prohibit use in primary grades (although one Wellington quote includes a four-letter word).

The main critique I would add is that, apart from a few quotes, the game features no primary documents. I would not want to slow down or complicate the experience any by increasing the in-game text, but I would think book-ending the experience with soldiers’ letters on the horrors of battle or maybe a map of Europe before and after the war would enrich the resource by connecting military history to social and political history. There should also be links on the final page to share the experience on social media and learn more about the Napoleonic war on a more source-based website.