The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
I Never Meta-data I Didn’t Like…
So you know those thousand words a picture is worth? It’s true! Though my idea of what those thousand words should be might differ from yours and that’s why we’re going to talk about descriptive metadata, controlled vocabularies, and levels of access. Boy howdy, sounds like a wild ride, eh?
When I was younger and infinitely more creative with how I spent my time I used to collect photographs I found at antique stores and use them as a platform for storytelling. Strangers in these images became characters, locales became elaborate sets. I would create communities and link these disparate images over space and time, my pen drawing conclusions from the lines on the faces of these imagination interlopers. The who, what, where, when of it all wasn’t enough. I was driven by the why. Luckily for you, my imagination is not allowed to participate in the creation of catalog entries for the images that make up the collection in my care because subjectivity is at the very least misleading and at the very most, a barrier to access.
Let’s say you have a picture of you and your dog Mr. Skittles at the park. You might write “Me and Mr. Skittles” on the back. If for some reason your picture made it into an archive and I was cataloging it and dutifully transcribed your caption into a database, without adding any other value, your picture would be pretty much inaccessible to anyone who had no knowledge of Mr. Skittles. However, if I noted that Mr. Skittles was a dog, the potential for access soars.
What I endeavor to do here at the Smithsonian Institution Archives with the photographs in my care is to aggregate all of the information I have about every image, make that information searchable, and add value to the entries by teasing out the lowest common denominator, so that you can type a word in a box and pull up all of the pictures I have of dogs. Sounds easy, right? Not so much.
This thing we call descriptive metadata encompasses a lot more than simply providing a few key words so that an image can be located easily, although it is certainly one of the most vital steps in making our collections usable. From a management perspective, I am concerned with many other descriptive fields that go far beyond a caption or key word, and this is where my thousand words tell a very objective story. What size is the image? Where is its physical location? Where did it come from? Has it been digitized? What size is the digitally reformatted version? Where is it located? What unique numbers have been assigned as identifiers or filenames for the image over time? What physical condition is the image in? What physical medium is the picture taken on? What alternate formats exist? Where are they? How many requests have I had for reproduction or licensing of this image?
What’s more, these questions have to be answered in the exact same way for each image and this is where we touch on the need for standards and controlled vocabularies. Let’s examine the size of a picture. It may seem like a paltry detail, but it’s actually really important to be explicit and consistent here. First of all, are we talking inches or centimeters (not outside the realm of possibility). This makes a huge difference when ordering supplies and designating physical space. Landscape versus portrait also makes a big difference in terms of layout for publication media, so every image needs to be measured consistently, as in always height by width. Controlled vocabularies allow us to maintain consistency across our collections. You say tomato I say tomahto doesn’t work here, or you say canine, I say dog for that matter. We (you and I) have to be drawing from the same pool of words when we’re describing an image or looking for it.
Let’s not get too lost in administrative details though, because looking at pictures should be fun and enlightening and educational. They should transport us through time and space and we should be able to assign whatever meaning we want to them. Reining in my imagination and making the 3 million images in the Smithsonian Photographic Services cold vault more readily available to you in an efficient, timely manner will enable your collective imaginations to take the tools we have given you and write your own stories.