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Metadata Guide

Information on how to collect and maintain your metadata

What is Metadata and Why is it Important?

Metadata is commonly described as "data about data." While easy to remember, this definition is far too vague to be useful. The definitions below provide better explanations in plain English. 

Definition from the National Information Standards Organization (NISO)
"Metadata is structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource." 

Definition from Steven Miller, Information and Metadata Lecturer
“Extra baggage associated with any resource that enables a real or potential user to find that resource and to determine value…”

Definition from Karen Coyle, Digital Librarian and Author of Coyle's InFormation
“Metadata is constructed, constructive, and actionable.”

  • Constructed - a man-made artifice, not naturally occurring
  • Constructive - serving a useful purpose, to solve some problem
  • Actionable - can be acted upon, processed by humans and machines

Staff and faculty in nearly every domain of the campus community are producing, manipulating, or analyzing data and digital objects as part of their day-to-day work. Because of this increase in data production and use, a need has been identified to describe data in order to make the data discoverable in repositories, understandable in context, and reusable by others. 

This guide provides a basic introduction to tools, resources, standards, and support for metadata and data documentation. For additional information, or to schedule a consultation on metadata and data documentation, contact Angelina Crowe, Metadata Specialist, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries.

What is Metadata

Metadata describes the content, quality, condition, and other characteristics of data. Metadata is generally standardized, structured information that facilitates functions associated with data, such as:

  1. Organizing and managing data
  2. Preserving data for the long term
  3. Ensuring that data can be indexed and discovered in a data repository
  4. Retaining the context around which the data was captured or created, which is vital in facilitating comprehension and reuse of the data by other researchers

Types of Metadata


Descriptive metadata describes the object or data and gives the basic facts: who created it (i.e. authorship), title, keywords, and abstract.

Structural metadata describes the structure of an object including its components and how they are related.  It also describes the format, process, and inter-relatedness of objects. It can be used to facilitate navigation, or define the format or sequence of complex objects.

Administrative metadata includes information about the management of the object and may include information about: preservation and rights management, creation date, copyright permissions, required software, provenance (history), and file integrity checks.

Why is Metadata Important?

As indicated in the Miller definition above, metadata helps people find resources and determine their value, for whatever need is at hand. This function of metadata is especially critical in digital environments, where humans rely on computer processing for reliable and timely results:

  • Metadata facilitates organization, indexing, discovery, access, analysis, and use of print and online resources.
  • Metadata enables software agents to navigate and "comprehend" web content.
  • Metadata influences search engine results, rankings, and click-through rates.
  • Metadata is even more important for non-textual content that isn't readily processed by machines (e.g. images, multimedia, datasets).
  • Metadata presence and quality (or the lack thereof) can significantly help or hinder time and money expenditures in research activities.

An interesting look at the importance of Metadata and why it really matters can be seen in this slideshow from Rachel Lovinger entitled "Metadata is a Love Note to the Future"