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Some of the many purposes of "metadata" ...Metadata was traditionally kept in the card catalogues (book inventories) of libraries and archives. As information has become increasingly online and digital, metadata are used to describe objects using metadata standards.
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See also Data management | Data management portal | Digital Libraries Glossary | Dublin Core | Open data | Ontologies | Semantic web | Social cataloguing

"...metadata refers to information known about an item in order to provide access to it. An item's record usually includes information about the intellectual content of an item, digital representation data, and security or rights management information." — CHIN Glossary

Metadata or data about data identifies and describes an object such as an article, book and/or digital item (i.e., photographs or pdfs). Metadata is created with key words and key terms, natural language, controlled and index terms. Different types of metadata are used such as descriptive, structural or administrative. Each type aids in describing elements of an item or object. Metadata is thought to describe the content of an item but it also describes formats, and even the provenance of an item. For librarians, metadata provides a means of indexing, accessing, preserving, and discovering digital resources of many kinds. Metadata was traditionally kept in the card catalogues (book inventories) of libraries and archives. As information has become increasingly online and digital, metadata are used to describe objects using metadata standards.

According to Kurtz et al (2013), "...metadata is an attempt to capture the contextual information surrounding a datum ("a single element of data"). The enriching contextual information assists the data user to understand how to use the original datum. Metadata also attempts to bridge the semantic gap between machine users of data and human users of the same data...." In the library environment, metadata is commonly used for any formal scheme of resource description applying to any type of object, digital or non-digital. Traditional library cataloging is a form of metadata; MARC and the rule sets used such as AACR2 and RDA are types of metadata standards. Simply put, metadata is used in libraries to facilitate the discovery of books (and other catalogued resources). Metadata is critical to find materials in catalogues and search systems. The use of structured information to describe information resources/objects is an essential component for finding things in search systems. Book cataloguing is formally a type of metadata creation but the term is generally used for non-traditional schemes such as the Dublin Core or the Encoded Archival Description (EAD).

Metadata can be categorized as descriptive, structural or administrative. (Reitz, 2004) Descriptive metadata refers to any information that describes the content of an object; structural metadata describes the format of the materials being described; administrative metadata provides copyright information for those materials. Most library catalogues contain tons of metadata as they contain information about books, journals, and electronic resources that make up collections. Metadata records in traditional libraries fulfill a range of functions such as allowing users to search for and find something and helping librarians manage inventories. Many of the same principles that govern description, retention and weeding apply to objects in digital and print-based collections.

In 2013, it was announced that Jeffrey Pomerantz from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill plans to offer the very first library and information science (LIS) massive online open course (MOOC) entitled Metadata: Organizing and Discovering Information.

See Putting Things in Order: a Directory of Metadata Schemas and Related Standards

Three categories of metadata

Metadata is grouped into three categories:

  • Descriptive metadata describes the content of a resource for identification, searching, and retrieval
  • Examples: bibliographic information and abstract for a journal article and the coded diagnoses for a patient contained in a medical record.
  • Structural metadata describes the architecture and relationships of the different sections of a resource for the purposes of navigation
  • Examples: table of contents, page numbers, and index of a journal or the types of reports (laboratory, imaging, consultant) for a patient encounter contained in a medical record.
  • Administrative metadata describes technical aspects of an information resource for processing and management
  • Examples: publishing information about printing an issue of a journal and privacy, confidentiality and security rules associated with handling a medical record

Metadata is an increasingly central tool in the current web environment, enabling large-scale, distributed management of resources. Recent years has seen a growth in interaction between previously relatively isolated metadata communities, driven by the need for cross-domain collaboration and exchange. However, metadata standards have not been able to meet the needs of interoperability between independent standardization communities. For this reason the notion of metadata harmonization, defined as interoperability of combinations of metadata specifications, has arisen as a core issue for the future of web-based metadata. Resting at the heart of application profiles, metadata harmonization presents a little understood, but critical challenge in design of languages of description. DC-2011 will explore the conceptual and practical issues of design when the language solution calls for cross-fertilization from different metadata specifications. Source: International Conference on Dublin Core & Metadata Applications. Metadata Harmonization: Bridging Languages of Description, Netherlands, September 2011.

Metadata standards organizations

Metadata Interoperability Chart
  • Consolidated Health Informatics (CHI) establishes a portfolio of existing clinical vocabularies and messaging standards enabling federal agencies to build interoperable federal health data systems with private health care information networks. For more information, see
  • Health Level 7 (HL7). In addition to being a messaging standard, HL7 is an ANSI-accredited SDO, operating in the healthcare arena to create flexible, cost effective approaches, standards, guidelines, methodologies, and related services for interoperability between healthcare information systems. For more information, see
  • Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) is an organization dedicated to promoting the widespread adoption of interoperable metadata standards and developing specialized metadata vocabularies for describing resources that enable more intelligent information discovery systems. For more information, see
  • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) specifies metadata structures for use on the World Wide Web. Several initiatives that are being explored or developed include the Semantic Web, the Resource Definition Framework and Web Services. For more information, see
  • MedBiquitous Consortium develops information technology standards for medical education and training including metadata standards for medical learning objects. For more information, see

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