A digital library needs to be housed with as much care and attention as its physical counterpart, even if the bricks and mortar of its buildings are no more than bits and bytes, says Dr Richard Gartner, Warburg Institute’s digital librarian.
A solid, carefully constructed architecture is as essential for it to function as it is to the edifices that hold books, journals and non-digital resources. The key component of such an architecture is inevitably metadata, the ‘data about data’ that structures information in its most basic form and enables it to provide the raw material for research and ultimately knowledge. It is all too easy to forget that metadata must be as carefully curated as the ‘data’ that it supports and to do so it must be seen as an integrated whole.
Two key initiatives at the Warburg, the Warburg Digital Library and the Warburg Iconographic Database, have sought to create integrated metadata architectures of this type. Both have complex metadata needs which could easily become problematic if not treated with care: their new formats will bring substantial benefits in terms of accessibility, interoperability and long-term preservation.
This is particularly so in the case of the Iconographic Database which brings together complicated iconographic information and an extensive taxonomy of some 50,000 terms. All of this was previously held in a series of 24 tables in a relational database joined together by a complex web of linkages. This made it almost impossible to share with others and also constrained the scholarly work that had gone into its creation to a single software package which could potentially become obsolete.
Now the metadata for each image exists in a single, tightly structured and logical file which can readily be adapted to any software platform and easily shared with others. The first step in this transformation was to map out the intellectual structure of the database’s iconographic descriptions as a diagram of linked semantic components.
This structure was then translated into established metadata standards encoded in XML, the eXtensible Markup Language: this a mechanism for encoding text in structures of potentially great complexity which is often used as a medium for metadata. How this was achieved is detailed in my recent book Metadata in the Digital Library: Building an Integrated Strategy with XML (Facet, 2021).
These changes are inevitably invisible to those who visit these sites but are essential to open them up beyond the Warburg and to ensure that they will be accessible in the future. Creating an integrated architecture for metadata gives these digital resources something of the solidity that their physical counterparts possess. Only by treating metadata as whole in this way can it be curated, literally cared for, with the attention it deserves.
Dr Richard Gartner is a librarian and academic whose primary area of research is the theory and practice of metadata. He is currently the digital librarian at the Warburg Institute in the University of London where he established and is responsible for the institute’s digital library. He has written more than 50 publications on metadata in the academic literature including Metadata in the Digital Library: Building an Integrated Strategy with XML and Metadata: Shaping Knowledge from Antiquity to the Semantic Web.