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.


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