Tackling Metadata: Expediting Knowledge and Time

Our Digital Humanities course recently undertook a metadata exercise.  The professor assigned us a document Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba by A. K. Wollstonecroft.  It is a handwritten and hand-drawn manuscript from the early1800s. In a two-person breakout group, we attempted to assign metadata to it.  I wondered if the author was related to the famous feminist writer Mary Wollstonecroft, because it is an unusual name that I’ve not seen often.  Turns out, the manuscript’s author, Ann Kingsbury, is her sister-in-law (and thus also Mary Shelley’s niece) Botanical illustration pioneer goes from obscurity to online.  This metadata exercise simulated real-world conditions, where archivists and scholars (who are generally knowledgeable) have to code metadata for items in a collection with which they have little familiarity.  I personally like natural history, but I am no expert in it or its history, and know nothing about science and women in Cuba’s history.  I was generally familiar with the Wollstonecraft name, so that may have led to researching more about Ann Kingsbury.  However, the reality is that real-time metadata coding may not have permitted such research.  Archivists often have to move quickly through their collections.  Creating metadata is thus very challenging if working with collections that require specialized knowledge and not a lot of time is permitted to accomplish the coding.  It can be frustrating, because you want to optimize the metadata in order to make documents and items more highly searchable and accessible.  I have worked on metadata before, so I understand the challenges.  When I worked on the metadata for the ~90 objects on my own website civilwardraftriots, I spent more time on creating metadata than I probably should have.  When I worked on Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi this past summer, I became more proficient.