Interview with Grace Agnew, Instructor for Our Class, “The Mechanics of Metadata”

Grace Agnew is the instructor for our upcoming course, “The Mechanics of Metadata.” By day she is Associate University Librarian for Digital Library Systems at the Rutgers University Libraries. She has been an adjunct professor in the Library Information Science program at Rutgers University since 2005, where she developed and taught the course, Metadata for the Information Professional. She is co-author of Getting Mileage Out of Metadata (ALA, 1999) and Digital Rights Management: A Librarians’ Guide to Technology and Practice (Chandos Press, 2008). She has graciously agreed to this interview, to help give people an idea of what would be in store for them if they enrolled in this class.

To start off, I wonder if you could explain what the content of this course is, and what you expect students will learn by the end of it.

This course is a telescoped version of the course I taught in the Rutgers library science master’s degree program. The course is very hands on with several exercises each week as it guides students through the mechanics of metadata design to its application. Students begin by learning to design a very simple metadata schema, which takes them through the data model, the registration of data elements and the expression of metadata in XML (eXtensible Markup Language).

Next the students will look at the different types of metadata, based on the METS (Metadata Encoding and Transport System) data model–descriptive, source, technical and rights metadata and also at two very popular general purpose schema, Dublin Core and MODS.

The next week, students will look at the development of controlled vocabularies and the use of standards for common elements, such as date and country, as well as at two additional schemas, Darwin Core and VRA.

In the final session, students will learn the principles behind developing an application profile for a project scenario, in which they must select a schema and determine which data elements and what controlled vocabularies to use, based on the described project and the nature of the library (size, staffing, etc.) described in the scenario.

It’s a challenging course, but at the end of it, the students will be very familiar with both the design and application of metadata. They will also know what they don’t know, and where to pursue additional information as they move forward with metadata projects in the real world.

What are some of the contexts in which librarians use metadata, as understood here? When and where would librarians apply what they learn in this class?

Librarians use metadata to describe information, both analog and digital. While it is generally applied in the context of cataloging resources or developing a repository, students from my course at Rutgers have used what they learned in business applications and in personal information organization.

Point of clarification… You say that metadata is used in the context of cataloging resources. Standard MARC cataloging could be called “metadata” in a theoretical sense, but you are talking about something more specific in a way, is that right? How would you define “metadata” in this more specific sense, versus a more general idea of “metadata” being information about information, and what kinds of resources do you catalog using metadata in this sense, as opposed to AACR2/MARC?

In the strictest sense of the word, AACR2/MARC is metadata, which is data that describes other data and that lacks intrinsic meaning or value except in relation to the data it describes. Many metadata specialists would incorporate AACR2/MARC into the pantheon of metadata standards, particularly since MODS actually incorporates both the AACR2 and MARC standards.

However, AACR2/MARC and metadata arose to support different needs. AACR2/MARC was developed to standardize descriptions for all kinds of materials, from analog to digital, while metadata arose in response to the needs of the digital environment and thus generally includes direct links to the resource being described and often explicit information about the creation, technical characteristics and rights of the digital information, to support curation and preservation of the digital resource being described. The conventions that have emerged surrounding the development, documentation and sharing of metadata schemas is also different from that of AACR2/MARC. So I would probably call both standards precursors to metadata. It is important to note that they are different. One (MARC) is a container standard for the other (AACR2), just as METS is a container standard for metadata), precursors to metadata, rather than true metadata. MODS is really the representation of both AACR2 and MARC in a transportable metadata standard. But there is disagreement on this, and I personally think it is chasing a wild hare and doesn’t really matter.

Thanks, that’s clarifying. I wonder if you could share a little bit about your own history and career path, so that students know why their instructor is. How did you get to this point?

I started my library life in 1982, as a catalog librarian. Cataloging, and metadata, have been an important part of my career ever since. I am currently the Associate University Librarian for Digital Library Systems. In this capacity, I developed the data model and much of the initial metadata strategy for the Rutgers University Libraries. We utilize METS and MODS but with a very unique event-based data model that enables us to capture any information about the lifecycle of a digital object and that supports mapping or integrating any metadata schema or vocabulary. I wrote one of the first books on metadata, co-authored with Jean Hudgins, Getting Mileage Out of Metadata: Practical Applications for the Library, published by the American Library Association in 1999. I have written and consulted extensively in metadata, including serving as consultant and advisor for the development of the Public Broadcasting metadata standard PBcore. I believe metadata is a foundational element of 21st century librarianship, which is increasingly characterized by the management of unique digital resources in every type of library and archive. I think every librarian should have a good understanding of metadata, particularly as the traditional silos of “reference librarian” and “catalog librarian” are falling away, and more librarians are working in teams to manage the complex and holistic needs of digital information.

The course will be challenging, but I hope and believe it will also be enlightening and fun and that the participants will get to know their course colleagues and build lasting relationships with each other. I am mindful that the course is being held over December so it is definitely my intent to enhance the holidays for all participants, not steal them away!

Sounds like a good class to me and one that a lot of librarians will need to take. Sorry about the December scheduling. We can offer it again at a time that will be more convenient for people who take a longish vacation over the holidays.

Thanks again for the interview! Interesting stuff.

Thanks, it’s been a pleasure.

7 thoughts on “Interview with Grace Agnew, Instructor for Our Class, “The Mechanics of Metadata”

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  4. Judith Fisher

    I enjoyed reading this interview with Grace Agnew.

    I enjoyed cataloging very much in my studies at Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills, MI.

  5. D'Ann Hamilton-White

    What type of background or knowledge should a person have before signing up for this course? Does one need to know XML?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. admin Post author

      No prior knowledge of XML is expected. A masters degree in library and information science is recommended, of course, but the class is also open to any support staff who would find it useful.

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