Metadata’s family tree March 18, 2011

California redwood in NZ - 2011-02-27

We think of metadata as a modern concept, a product of the computer age and the online world. But metadata is actually an ancient tool in the world of information management. There is probably some form hieroglyphic metadata in a museum somewhere but, closer to home, an interesting overview of early Australian metadata practices has just been published.

In a chapter of The Arrangement and Description of Archives Amid Administrative and Technological Change, archivist Peter Scott * describes the development of recordkeeping systems in Australian governments, from the 18th century to the present. It is fascinating! One aspect of this development discussed is the evolution of metadata as a recordkeeping tool.

Not surprisingly, in colonial Australia, recordkeeping practices were derived from British recordkeeping rules. In 1782 the British Treasury developed a system of numerical registration, essentially a metadata schema to support its business processes, which remained substantially unchanged until 1920. A metadata schema that remains valid for 140 years? That’s pretty good going! And this was the system implemented in much of the early colonial and then Australian governments.

In the Treasury system, various different sets of metadata were created. Every paper received was stamped with the date of receipt and given the next sequential number in the Treasury annual single number series (eg 1882/1, 1882/2 etc). Specific metadata known as the ‘docquet’ was also written on the back of the paper – the name of the author and a brief description of its contents. A separate register of metadata was then created to facilitate retrieval of the records. In 1782 this was a numerical register, which listed all the registration numbers followed by the date, the identity of the department or person from whom the letter was received and the subject matter. In 1787, papers were also registered in alphabetical registers, arranged according to the name of the correspondent. In 1852, subject registers were established.

Treasury also maintained the brilliantly named Skeleton Registers. As mentioned above, every individual piece of correspondence received by Treasury was registered – document level registration rather than file level registration as files had not yet been invented! For significant issues where a string of connected correspondence was developed, each of these individual documents would be extracted from their original numerical arrangement and attached to the next incoming piece of correspondence on the same subject. The correspondence set would be renumbered to the next number in the annual single number sequence each time a new related letter was received. The Skeleton Registers tracked this ‘top-numbering’, showing the numbers of all documents received for filing and any changes to these numbers.

So what we are seeing way back in 1782 is the development of basic metadata sets about records, metadata about people, metadata about business, and then metadata about recordkeeping processes, each cross-referenced and inter-related in order to facilitate access and to track an issue or a person’s activity through time.

This means that what we’re on about today is not new. Through history metadata has shown itself to be a necessary tool. In business, where we are creating these digital or paper surrogates of business processes and people, we need this abstract thing called metadata to serve as the glue to connect everything together. We needed it 200 years ago and we need it even more now in the digital world. Without metadata, digital information is, quite literally, lost.

The best ways to configure metadata and what types metadata to use will change and evolve depending on business needs but metadata itself is a tried and tested tool. We just need to keep working away to ensure we are using it in the best way possible. State Records is on the case and will keep you informed of future developments in this area.

* See Peter Scott, ‘The Development and Role of the Records Registry Within the Commonwealth Government’, in The Australian Society of Archivists, The Arrangement and Description of Archives Amid Administrative and Technological Change: Essays and Reflections by and about Peter Scott, Brisbane 2010, p268. See for more information

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