Metadata: Translating Expertise into Value

by Lesley Whyte

“We are moving towards a global database integrating seamlessly and accessible to everyone, with no single point or source but as many sources as wish to participate each with their own vision of their own data and each, by and large, interoperable.”

These are the words of expert on linked data, Dr Lars G. Svensson, during our discussion at the German National Library. That was back in 2015. A lot of data has flowed under the bridges and into the oceans of the Internet since then, and many of the traditional landmarks we used to navigate by have been eroded, submerged or rendered irrelevant.

When I started working in libraries, accessing information meant knowing on what shelf to find the required book in my library’s collection. Today, the search is global, ignoring the boundaries of library walls, increasingly unhindered by language barriers or whether the item sought physically exists.

The early twenty-first century is one of virtual exploration, and it is easy to get lost. The shift from physical to digital, local to cloud, connected to inter-connected has changed our information-geography. One of the major results is a much greater reliance on metadata to navigate effectively. Creating that metadata for books, and more recently other media, making it responsive, fit for purpose, fit for the future, super-fit to be used in diverse systems and searches worldwide while at the same time making it affordable, is the challenge that faces a bibliographic agency such as BDS.

Turning “Dumb Data” into “Marvellous Metadata”

Describing cultural products starts with the publisher or the production company. The marketing material, description and, often, additional information to generate interest or discoverability is “metadata” but, despite much of it being excellent in quality, it is only the start of a long and complex process to meet the challenge described above.

The metadata that BDS creates serves a host of masters, each with different demands and designed to work within diverse hardware and software systems. It must meet those demands exactly and prove reliable even in circumstances difficult or impossible to anticipate. It must be affordable while enabling interrogation across sectors, for example within and external to library systems. The metadata must be machine-readable and readable by the man in the street. The way this is achieved is not by anticipating every circumstance – that is simply impossible – but by using the expertise within BDS to create value for each record that is open-ended and satisfies clients and their customers.

The BDS Process

Turning “dumb data” into “marvellous metadata” requires expert curation to offer value. The BDS Process has been built through 25 years of company experience and founded on long-established and developing principles. It is a process that involves engagement with international committees on standards; it involves working on the published output of the UK and Ireland and implementing the RDA standard; it means attending conferences worldwide, listening and contributing, but the result of all this experience and expertise can be simplified into: Source - Validate - Classify – Enhance - Deliver.

To source the data that starts the process of creating our records, BDS employs a Publisher Liaison team that works closely with publishers and film and music studios. Sourcing information also involves considerable technical expertise and investment as the initial data can be received in many formats, both electronic and physical. There is another sourcing process further down the line of record creation that relates to live information such as price and availability, as well as inputting revised information derived from book-in-hand cataloguing, a unique and invaluable feature of a BDS record.

Validation is a checking process that provides the best possible foundation for the eventual BDS database, the great resource that is the springboard for the final stage, delivery.

Classification employs the intellectual expertise of the BDS cataloguing team. This ensures each record conforms to accepted standards such as Dewey for libraries and Thema for the book trade. This is where BDS’s investment in training and its engagement with international committees proves invaluable and plays an integral role in ensuring the quality of each record, guaranteeing consistent results when used in diverse systems.

Enhancement links each record to all the extra information that people have come to expect when they interrogate catalogues. This is a hugely diverse data set that has different importance in different sectors. For example, book jacket covers are popular in libraries where an image can identify an item as successfully as the title. Tables of contents can prove useful in an academic environment where students are searching for specific information or ideas. Film trailers are great for people browsing releases for an evening’s entertainment and cast lists are a “must have” for film buffs. Music track listings enable a listener to get straight to the song they want. The possible uses for enhanced content are endless.

This effort builds the BDS database, a huge repository of information stored on the BDS servers, available 24/7/365, continually being updated with thousands of items every day, and being backed up and mirrored to ensure remarkable resilience.

Excellent Relations

Delivery is giving the customer exactly what they want. This can be incredibly varied, in terms of the metadata transferred, the format, standards and customer-specific requirements. Customer relations is certainly an area where BDS has built a reputation for excellence and finding ways to deliver metadata that helps customers achieve their goals, whether it be efficiency in public service or commercial success in the High Street, entertaining or protecting copyright, identifying culture-specific features such as books relating to a geographical region, or helping charities such as the RNIB speed-catalogue its audiobooks to ensure its customers are not left behind with regard to the latest releases.

Each of these stages requires significant investment in workspace, knowledge, training, IT, HR and customer relations. BDS now employs 85 staff working across a host of disciplines that includes cataloguing, editorial, software development, IT infrastructure, design, sales and support.

Navigating the Future

At BDS we feel like explorers looking onto an ever-more dynamic future. The growth of the Internet has unlocked local “seas” onto a global ocean with metadata as the tool for navigation. Our success is built upon turning expertise into metadata of value to our growing number of customers.