Social metadata – and “ceci n’est pas une vache”

I kicked off a new RLG Partner Working Group this week, on social metadata. (So new, it’s not written up on our Web site yet.)  As I’m wont to do with new groups, I asked each of the members to share a short self-introduction about what it was about “social metadata” that is most exciting, what perspective each is bringing to our discussions, what projects each may have worked on (or is working on) that would be relevant to an effort to communicate and share the array of potential user contributions on the network level.

Helice Koffler, Manuscripts and Special Collections Materials Cataloging Librarian at the University of Washington Libraries, responded by sharing a blog post – but then realized she didn’t have the right blog to present it. So I’m sharing it here, with Helice’s permission. – Karen

Ceci n’est pas une vache

Looking back, I’d have to say that one of my formative experiences with social metadata in an archival setting predates the current explosion of Web 2.0 tools.  Several years ago, when I was working in a local government archives, I was involved in developing a traveling exhibit to promote the use of a rich, yet underutilized photograph collection, which documented the history of the Public Health Department.  A colleague and I worked closely together on selecting the topics to be covered in the display and in researching the photographs we had chosen for inclusion in the exhibit.  Over the course of our research, we found several of these images (or related images, clearly from the same event or photography session) reproduced in publications also held by the archives and we were able to make more precise identifications of some previously unidentified photographs.

One of the images we selected for the exhibit (shown here) was used to illustrate a section on the the Public Health Department’s evolving role in the inspection of milk processing and distribution facilities.

Research did not turn up any conclusive information about this picture, although, for various reasons, we concluded that it probably had been taken during the 1960s at the Carnation Research Farm (You cannot make it out in this digital thumbnail, but if the image was to be enlarged you might be able to see more clearly that there was lettering on the man’s hat which read “Carnation”).  Nevertheless, 99.9% wasn’t quite good enough for us.  The concluding sentence of the original caption in the display for this photograph read:

This photograph may have been taken at the Carnation Research Farm.

Now, in the course of putting the exhibit together, the entire archives staff, at one point or another, had looked at, and had a vote in, choosing the images we ultimately put in the exhibit and had proofread all of the decriptive captions.  When the exhibit finally was presented at its first venue it was deemed a success.  Subsequently, it was taken on the road and repurposed in various ways (including a few different Web manifestations).  However, after this initial presentation, when we were in the process of adapting the exhibit for a new (and potentially more important) location, my boss mentioned to me that her husband, who had worked briefly at Carnation many years earlier, had been looking at the photographs and declared that this photograph had to have been taken at that plant.  My boss told me that I should go ahead and change the caption to read: “The photograph was taken at the Carnation Research Farm.”

Hmm, I thought, “Was her husband involved in the direct ‘chain of custody’ of this image?  Did he take the picture?  Did he personally know the lead cow?”  In the end, I demurred and did not make the change.

But upon reflection, I now wonder if I was just being stubborn or if indeed I was standing up for some sort of a principle.  In the current 2.0 environment, I’d be absolutely delighted if, as an archivist, I had put that picture “out there” and some codger went ahead and put it up on his “All Things Carnation” blog or added any tags to a Flickr site, but I still do not feel that there had been sufficient evidence established for the archives to definitively identify the precise date or location of the image.

These issues of authority and authenticity continue to fascinate me.  I look forward to working with the RLG Partners Social Metadata Working Group and having other perspectives shared.

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About Karen Smith-Yoshimura

Karen Smith-Yoshimura, program officer, works on topics related to renovating descriptive and organizing practices with a focus on large research libraries and area studies requirements.