Making Our Tools Work for Us

Metadata creation is the most expensive thing we do.

I hear myself saying this a lot lately, mostly because it’s true. In the special collections world, everything we have is unique or very rare. And since we’re in an environment where patrons who want to use our materials can’t just browse our shelves (and since the idea of making meaning out of stuff on shelves is ludicrous!), we have to tell them what we have by creating metadata.

Creating metadata for archival objects is different than creating it for a book — a book tells you more about itself. From a book’s title page, one can discern its title, its author, who published it. Often, an author will even write an abstract of what happens in the book and someone at the Library of Congress will have done work (what we call subject analysis) to determine its aboutness.

In archives, none of that intellectual pre-processing has been done for us. Someone doing archival description has to answer a set of difficult questions in order to create high-quality description — who made this? Why was it created? What purpose did it serve for its creator? What evidence does this currently serve about what happened in the past? And the same questions have to be addressed at multiple levels — what is the meaning behind this entire collection? What does it tell us about the creator’s impact on the world? What is the meaning behind a single file collected by the creator? What purpose did it serve in her life?

Thus, the metadata we create for our materials is also unique, rare, intellectually-intensive, and essential to maintain.

Here, as part of a planning session, Mary and Melissa are talking through which tasks need to be performed in sequence.
Here, as part of a planning session, Mary and Melissa are talking through which tasks need to be performed in sequence.

Currently, we use a tool called Archivists’ Toolkit to maintain information about our holdings, and this blog is about our process of migrating to a different tool, called ArchivesSpace. Because, like I say, the data in ArchivesSpace is expensive and unique, we’ve taken a very deliberative and careful approach to planning for migration.

We’re lucky to have a strong group, with diverse backgrounds. Mary Caldera and Mark Custer are our co-chairs, and have strong management and metadata expertise between them. Melissa Wisner, our representative from Library IT, has a background in project management and business analysis. She was able to walk us through our massive project planning, and helped us understand and make sense of the many layers of dependencies and collaborations that will all have to be executed properly in order for this project to be successful. Others on the group include experts in various archival functions and standards. And beyond this, we have established a liaison system between ourselves on the committee and archivists from other repositories at Yale, so we can make sure that the wisdom of our wider community is being harnessed and the transition to this new system is successful for all of us.

Anyone interested in viewing our project timeline is welcome to see it here. We know that other repositories are also involved in transition to ArchivesSpace, and we would be happy to answer questions you may have about our particular implementation plan.

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