I’ve talked about metadata before, but usually in the context of making your digital publications more search friendly. Metadata is the descriptive information embedded within your publication. In Microsoft products, it’s called properties. In Mac files, it’s called file info. Whatever it’s called, its uses are many. As you can see in the example below (from Word 2008 for Mac), the properties pane offers fields for lots of different kinds of descriptive information. The three completed items were automatically added. The document title is obviously specific to this file, but the other information comes from information provided when installing the software. Of course, you can change any of that information by editing the properties page for that file.
Just like the rest of the content in these documents, metadata can be edited at any time unless a document has been “locked”. So, if a research cousin sends you a biographical sketch or some other gem of family history, take a look at its properties to see if the metadata describes that publication’s provenance. If it doesn’t, you can update the properties yourself to provide that information. Even if it does, you can use things like the Comments field to describe how it came into your possession.
Mac users will find File Info in the document pane of the Information Browser under the Info button.
For the most part, your document’s metadata will also be included in PDF publications created from it. If they aren’t, or if you’re doing something unusual like screenshots saved as PDF files, you may need some kind of PDF editor to add or edit metadata.
Digital photos also contain metadata. Adobe has been working on this for some time and has developed a metadata standard called XMP to support their digital imaging effort. If you use Adobe’s Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or Abobe Bridge, you are using XMP to add titles, descriptions and tags to your photos. Although it is not yet a universal standard, it is gaining steam. When you’re working in Adobe Bridge or the photo organizer in Elements, you can quickly add titles, descriptions and keywords to your photos. Once again, you can include information describing the origin of a photo sent to you by someone else.
Spend some time poking around in the metadata areas of your favorite applications and get in the habit of including metadata in the publications you create. Don’t forget to check documents from outside sources to see if the metadata documents its provenance. If not, add what you know yourself. Not only will it make your research easier when you’re trying to remember where that bit of info came from, but future generations will love you too.