On Monday 30th January, City Library Science students were given the opportunity to hear Neil Wilson talk about his work with metadata at the British Library. Neil’s presentation formed part of our module on Digital Libraries which aims to teach us about the various concepts of these services through the years and the ways in which they differ from traditional library services. We had already begun our session on Monday by discussing the technologies and architectures that allow digital libraries to function and the communication standards required to provide interoperability to users of these platforms. Neil’s talk built upon some of the ideas introduced during the DITA module at City, explaining how linked data was becoming central to the activities of the British Libraries and how this posed both challenges and chances to develop our understanding of the documents in their vast collection. What followed was really helpful in showing how some of the theories and processes we had encountered so far in our course could actually be put into practice in the real world environment.
All of those present would have at least heard of the British Library and many of us have been lucky enough to actually visit. Increasingly, many of the Library’s resources are being made available to a global audience digitally. It was enlightening to hear about some of the work that goes on behind the scenes in order to make this all happen. Neil discussed the huge scope of the Library’s collection: over 150,000,000 separate items are included and, as a legal deposit library, it receives a copy of every new publication produced in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. Giving the public access to all that is important is therefore challenging and requires excellent quality metadata.
Put simply, metadata is data about other data that aids users in the process of discovery. The collection metadata Neil is responsible for contains key attributes for every item, their relationships with other items and their location and availability for users. Mark-up languages such as MARC21 allow machines to read this metadata and provide functionality to the people who use the Library. Increasingly, older standards such as AACR2 (Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules) that have been in use for a number of decades are being superseded by newer ones such as Resource Description & Access (RDA) that are designed to give more sophisticated digital retrieval of documents.
Neil then went on to talk about how these developments would benefit the Library and its stakeholders (a word I always associate with Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford). The work going on with the collection metadata should allow the Library to manage what it owns more efficiently, make it more accessible to a wider audience and to create a return on the public money that has been invested. This should then allow users to interact with the data in more flexible ways and see new connections between various datasets that might not have been obvious before. He then discussed the Library’s commitment to providing linked open data (data which is freely available and connects with other relevant resources) and some of the benefits and disadvantages of doing so. One of the things that caught my attention the most in this section was the use of numeric values in the URIs created by the Library. This is to allow it to link resources provided in English with those written in other scripts such as Arabic or Cyrillic. I hadn’t thought of this before but this makes total sense if we are to provide access to library collections all over the world. While there is much more I could say here, Neil’s presentation gave us some valuable insight into the possibilities good metadata can create for libraries and their users. It just remains for me to thank Neil for taking the time to visit us at City and giving such a fascinating talk.