Toward a Metadata Pipeline

The metadata version of this

Source: Image CC0 Pixabay

Now that I’ve been in my first librarian gig for almost 5 months (whoa), I’ve got a solid grasp on how things are done with regards to our digital repository and how metadata gets “made”. I also of course bring baggage with me, both good and bad, from library school and elsewhere. This baggage contains thoughts, theories, dreams, ambitions of where I’ve been and where I want the metadata to go. Where the present of “how we do this now” and the baggage collide is a perhaps idealistic notion of how the whole process should work. I wanted this post to frame out that process broadly, into a blueprint or pipeline. Much of the inspiration comes from a wonderful and healthy IT department, its connections to the larger open source community (especially Hydra), and the recent DCMI Conference in Austin.

The downside is that this pipeline really only works specifically for my institution. However, I hope it is broad enough to make it applicable to most small-to-midsize academic libraries. Another caveat is that this isn’t a new thing I invented (it synthesizes concepts from Free Your Metadata and RDF Application Profiles), merely it is a decent framework that I think should get more attention and could help many institutions jump into the modern non-MARC world, such as it is. The goal is cleaner metadata, while at the same time achieving efficiency. A side benefit is that this data will be Linked Data friendly in that it sets out to publish things not strings and can be enhanced any number of ways further down the pipeline.

The opening of the pipe

Anyone who has worked with XML metadata for any amount of time knows that although an XML document won’t render if it is syntactically incorrect, a system will still accept ‘bad’ or inconsistent metadata values. It’s merely a serialization of metadata, which means the underlying data is often laden with errors, as any human-created data likely is. We could paraphrase this with the old adage Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO). The fortunate thing is that the ridiculously time-consuming task of fixing bad metadata can be aided immensely by computers.

In my current situation, my department doesn’t actually create metadata: we merely handle it and get it into a state where it can be ingested with digital objects into a repository. So, even if we were perfect metadata-entering robots (sad fact: no one is), we are not in control over the opening of the pipe. We can, however, throw a nice sieve into the pipe to filter out all the messy stuff.

This filtering can be achieved through programs like OpenRefine(formerly GoogleRefine). OpenRefine is extremely powerful at presenting slices and layers of the data in ways that make anomolies and errors much more visible than staring at a spreadsheet. This makes data cleanup much more manageable.

Data flows

Now that we have cleaned metadata, we can go about making our digital objects and plugging it all in, right? Well, yes, but it’s time to do some forethought. Is our metadata going to be used by other people? I would hope the answer is ‘yes’. So we need to think about that. Going back to XML, sure, we have stylesheets and harvesters that can be used to get our data into other places, but it’s just not good enough. And simply adding RDF into the mix so that it is RDF in XML doesn’t necessarily mean we’re done.

Trying to match RDF data from different sources in notoriously difficult. RDF is such a general framework: it is not a vocabulary and not a serialization. We use a mix of different local or otherwise vocabularies. What we can do is create Application Profiles. This will tell a human basically what our model is, and how it relates to other models. It also tells applications what languages they already are using. Usually it all ties back to Dublin Core, which is widely understood and dispels confusion that often happens when we apply labels to things (fun experiment: see what happens when you ask people what they think a field named “description” means).

Going back to OpenRefine, we can harness extensions like the RDF extension. This allows us to take our existing data and reconcile it against existing sources of Linked Data. This is essential because it is not humanly possible to always be able to take some metadata, figure out where an appropriate authoritative URI is, and supply it. At best, you would be spending days formulating SPARQL queries and visiting web sites in order to confirm that that URI is the same thing as the item you have in hand.

A related concept is entity recognition, which can be achieved through the OpenRefine Named Entity Recognition extension. Here we’re talking more about handling unstructured data, as opposed to the reconciliation process which had ostensibly structured data. The end result is similar in that we can supply URIs that point to authoritative sources of information on our objects.

The Pipe Exit

Now, and only now, are we truly ready to publish Linked Data. It’s not that we have to do all these things, it’s just that if we publish strings in Linked Data form with our own vocabularies and not pointing to other sources, are we really engaging in Linked Data? I would argue not. The whole point is that our data is linked to other data and each has something to say or confirm about that data. It allows you to follow the links, gain new information serendipitously, discover new hubs (say DPLA or Europeana), etc.

We are not yet at the final stages of building this pipeline, and a big unsolved problem with the broader community is which applications will be built to harness, present, mashup, and visualize all this Linked Data to end users. But the first steps of getting the information into that form are being carried out, and the philosophical grounding for the entire endeavor is well-established.

Written on October 21, 2014