Peggy here! One of the biggest challenges when it comes to designing and selecting metadata standards for cultural heritage institutions is the seemingly impossible choice between interoperability and granularity. In other words, what do you care about more: the ability for your information to be widely disseminated and shared, or how detailed and accurate your metadata is? Of course, this is a simplification of a complex issue, but these two options are at the heart of this dilemma. Choosing to focus on one will, in almost all cases, lead to a decrease in the other. For example, an archive of newsreel footage from the 1960s might be described at a highly detailed level, including information about the original filming equipment, digitization methods, and preservation work. In order to share this metadata with other institutions though, much of this information may need to be removed in order for the metadata to be mapped to the metadata recorded in other archives. This means that much of this meticulously created metadata is available only to the originating institution, and is effectively non-existent for users outside of that institution.
This issue is at the forefront of my research at the Museum of Modern Art. The goal of my project is to write recommendations for metadata standards and best practices for implementation in MoMA’s new digital repository. Specifically, I have been tasked with finding a method for recording the capture process history of digitizing audiovisual materials. This means that the media conservation team needs to be able to record each step of the process of digitizing audiovisual materials, down to what software and hardware was used at each stage and for what purpose. This is necessary because future conservators will need to understand why certain digitization choices were made in order to maintain the authenticity of the artwork in the future. My job is to design a way to record this information in a standardized format.
This project is particularly pertinent to the question of interoperability vs. granularity because there are very important reasons to push for both at MoMA. The Digital Repository for Museum Collections (DRMC), as MoMA has named its new repository, has a very strong investment in supporting open source policies and encouraging input, use, and development from other institutions. For the DRMC to be sustainable, it needs to be adopted by other institutions to create a community of users. Metadata interoperability is a huge element of this. Of course, the metadata standards MoMA decides on may not be relevant for other institutions who wish to use the DRMC. However, having metadata standards and best practices that are widely adopted throughout the museum community alongside implementation of DRMC would be hugely beneficial to anyone with a stake in the museum or digital preservation communities, as it would allow for institutions to more easily communicate and collaborate without having to translate as much between local practices.
On the other hand, the fact that this project is concerned with audiovisual materials creates a need for extremely detailed technical metadata. For example, audiovisual metadata includes information such as frame rate, signal format, aspect ratio, and audio and video encoding – information not easily recorded using a schema not specifically designed for audiovisual metadata. As more libraries, archives, and museums are discovering, preserving audiovisual materials, whether analog or digital, is an increasingly complex, at times seemingly Sisyphean task. Every last bit of information that can possibly be preserved about the physical object, the digital file, and the transfer/digitization history must be recorded if we are to have any hope of maintaining long term stewardship of audiovisual materials. This does not fit nicely with current ideas of interoperability, where popular schemas such as Dublin Core do not provide even close to enough elements to properly describe audiovisual materials. If we desire interoperability in its current sense, we would need to sacrifice much of the technical metadata that is so important to this project.
Right now, my focus is primarily on finding a solution to MoMA’s technical needs to allow for long-term digital preservation of their audiovisual materials. This is especially true with artwork, where, for example, errors and artifacts could be intentional. It is imperative that future conservators are aware of this so they do not overcorrect and harm an artwork. Nonetheless, metadata interoperability is a very important factor in the development of best practices for the museum, and during my residency I hope to learn more about reconciling these two ideas to make the most robust and sustainable metadata possible.