As research libraries play an increased role in supporting scholarly communications and digital scholarship, the remit of metadata management units is adapting to include emerging services that increase discovery and access across a range of resources and related entities that contextualize them. Such descriptive metadata may originate with catalogers or metadata librarians, or may come from other sources both internal and external to the institution, and it may be managed across multiple systems based within or beyond the library. As such, metadata managers are engaged with planning for new service models and working with new organizational structures, which involves thinking strategically about hiring and professional development. They are also considering these opportunities alongside traditional, core metadata functions and responsibilities, even as the latter are shifting in new directions.
Last year, the OCLC Research Library Partners Metadata Managers Focus Group considered ways in which the metadata portfolio is changing, as well as methods to effectively address new opportunities while maintaining and adapting foundational skill sets and responsibilities. This topic was developed and led by Charlene Chou of New York University, Stephen Hearn (recently retired) of the University of Minnesota, Daricus Larry of the University of Arizona, and Daniel Lovins of Yale University. The topic yielded useful synthesis in the form of written input from 37 OCLC RLP institutions across seven countries and two facilitated, virtual discussion sessions hosted in June 2021.
Metadata managers’ contributions to this topic demonstrate how they are leading through challenges in addition to those posed by the pandemic. They are developing nascent service models and intra-library and intra-institutional partnerships, as well as cultivating cataloging-adjacent skills, tools, workflows – and even professional identities – that are starting to take hold. While there is undoubtedly variation in whether and how research libraries are supporting new trends and technologies in scholarship, there are commonalities as well. What follows are key themes that have surfaced.
Strategically (re)positioning and promoting metadata work
Beyond traditional cataloging, metadata staff have transferable skills and sensibilities to effectively apply to data management. Remediating, enriching, or mapping data between and across multiple standards, moving data into and out of various systems, and selecting and applying schemas are just a few examples of the areas of expertise that metadata staff can bring to emerging services. And while it is exciting for metadata skills to be increasingly recognized as valuable in supporting scholarship, managers are balancing visibility and promotion with setting realistic expectations for staff resources available to address goals beyond standard resource description. Prioritizing how, when, and whom to upskill in these promising directions can also be a balancing act.
At some institutions, metadata units are expanding their responsibilities to include management of repositories, developing metadata frameworks and migration approaches for newly adopted publishing platforms, and/or services for greater proportions of library collection types. Some library units are reorganizing to bring allied skills together in support of emerging services, such as at Virginia Tech, where the Metadata Services Unit has been moved into the libraries’ Data Services and Brigham Young University, where metadata is integrated with IT. Alternatively, other institutions are finding ways to encourage collaboration and expertise-sharing across adjacent departments that are not administratively integrated. NYU has a Metadata Strategy Unit within the Knowledge Access department, naming that points to the essential and significant role of metadata and metadata work. With support and input from their Cross-Divisional Leadership Team, Notre Dame has an organization-wide Metadata Community of Practice, which has been established to make the most of metadata intersections with work across the library. At other institutions, staff in metadata departments are positioned to contribute expertise to data needs elsewhere in the library or on campus, though within defined expectations.
Metadata managers are finding ways to promote services that build on new strengths and investments while retaining capacity to continue core services. In smaller institutions this may take the form of connecting directly with other department heads. In others, this may involve coordination with colleagues in library roles or units that have explicit outreach and engagement functions, such as scholarly communications, digital initiatives or subject liaisons. Some of the key values that metadata managers promote include improving metadata quality and consistency, which in turn affords better resource discoverability and access. And metadata staff are providing peer and user instruction and consultation on metadata principles, approaches, and tools. In recent years, the British Library has conducted “metadata roadshows” to promote their overall metadata strategy and showcase the work of metadata services across their sites. They have sustained momentum from their internal advocacy through online roundtables that consider changing expectations, standards, technology, and working practices and they maintain an external-facing web presence to explain metadata services and products to their communities (e.g., researchers and publishers).
New services and new expectations
Metadata consultation services are being established, either as an expansion of metadata departments’ service portfolios or by having metadata expertise embedded in departments dedicated to digital scholarship. Metadata staff involvement in new collaborative partnerships can also be mediated through library colleagues in departments that directly interface with others on campus. Staff with metadata expertise are contributing to the success of both library and researcher projects by providing consultation on schema selection, data dictionary development, applications of authority data and controlled vocabularies, among other services. At the University of Sydney, apart from providing the traditional cataloging services, the Metadata Services Team is also moving into a metadata advisory role as a way to effectively and sustainably apply their expertise to new and emerging initiatives both within and outside the libraries. By keeping up to date with the latest standards and metadata innovations, they are positioned as expert consultants on metadata specifications, system harvesting, and other data extraction and transformation approaches.
With the value of metadata services becoming more broadly understood across and beyond the library, these services are becoming increasingly sought after. Metadata managers are finding ways to balance promoting their offerings with effectively setting and managing expectations. Some are considering and implementing new service models to do this, and some have established memoranda of understanding with researchers to articulate the scope of metadata staff involvement with researcher projects.
Project management and upskilling
Many have highlighted how they are employing project management approaches, especially with work that extends beyond core services. The impact of the pandemic on metadata workflows has prompted many to conceive of and track project-based work. Metadata work that supports grant-funded activity and researcher or cross-departmental projects can benefit from the organization, scoping, and shared milestone setting that intentional project management affords. Some libraries now have dedicated project management staff; others are hiring metadata librarians with project management expertise and/or supporting professional development in project management for existing staff.
Metadata managers are investing in expanding staff skills to extend their services, and are sharing new skills with their library and research communities not just by applying them to projects, but also by offering training and workshops. Focus group members noted the value of developing facility with linked data, data management and manipulation using Open Refine, regular expressions, and other scripting and transformation approaches, many of which are covered in The Carpentries curricula. The Carpentries were frequently cited not just for skill acquisition, but also the “train the trainer” methodology these courses use, which allows for metadata staff to extend the reach of both their newly-acquired skills and their role in teaching these skills within the institution. While many are very encouraging of staff growing their skills in these useful directions, the reality of limited bandwidth means that managers need to balance how and when to support upskilling. For some, it may make sense to establish unit-wide or cross-library study groups, and in other cases it may be most successful to coordinate training at the point of need.
The value and adaptation of foundational metadata skills
As much as metadata staff are involved in consulting with those outside of their units, the increased utility and prominence of (meta)data in research projects and products can mean that there are increasingly diverse pools of data for libraries to manage and make use of for discovery and access. (Meta)data originating from researcher projects or systems managed outside the library – and even those managed within the library! – may not conform to compatible standards, putting an onus on metadata staff to hone skills to deal with a great diversity of data. This highlights the value of metadata consulting and involvement in such projects, especially early on in project design or in evaluating, selecting, and implementing a given system or platform. Grounded in foundational metadata principles, such as ensuring consistency in the service of users finding, identifying, contextualizing, and selecting, metadata staff are uniquely positioned to successfully support research and scholarship.
Balancing the metadata portfolio is admittedly an iterative endeavor, responding to local contexts, strategic directions and collaborative opportunities. Finding and maintaining balance can effectively manifest the relevance of metadata skills and sensibilities for new applications.