Metadata Review

Smithsonian Institution Collection Search Center

The metadata provided by this site is highly detailed. For example, in looking at a certified proof of a $5 bill, information is provided about its physicality (the precise length and width measurements), its creation (issuing authority, place issued, bank where it was issued, date the plate was created, manufacturer) and even extra context to the bill’s origin (such as who was the Treasurer of the United States and the Register of the Treasury at the time of its creation).  There are also several descriptive keywords (called Object Type) that make the object easier to find in a database search. In addition to the descriptive metadata, the user is also allowed to view some of the more administrative metadata such as the object’s ID number, accession number, catalogue number, current location and original source.

Of course, there are some aspects of the object that cannot be (or are not) described by the metadata. First of all, the visual image is not described. In the case of the $5 proof, there is no indication in the metadata that the engraving contains representations of men on a ship or (presumably) early settlers conferring with American Indians. Interestingly enough, there is no metadata which suggest the denomination of the proof. One has to look at the visual image to see that is a $5 proof. There is also no metadata about the color of the image. One might have no idea that it has a pink stamp on it, just by looking at the metadata. Secondly, the user is not given metadata about how, when, where, and by whom the object what digitized. Also, one might assume that these objects have been directly digitized from the original object, but there is no metadata to explain this.

In addition to providing better search results, use and analysis of metadata allows users to ask many types of quantitative interpretive questions. For example, one could find out how many proofs (contained in the Smithsonian Online Collections) were issued by the National Bank of Huntsville. Or were any other proofs issued on the same day as original proof? What other locations/banks were issuing proofs during this same time period? What types of money were issued while a particular person was the Treasure of the United States? One has to be careful though, as with any collection, to remember that what is contained in the collection is not necessarily the totality of the that type of object. While looking at the metadata of the proof sets at the Smithsonian, once cannot ask how many proofs were issued by the National Bank of Huntsville in general, because the Smithsonian’s collection might only contain a small sample of the proof created by that bank.

In general, more qualitative questions cannot be answered by metadata, unless a lengthy text description is included (which was provided with some objects in the Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center, but not all of them, as demonstrated by the proof sheet). For example, the metadata for the proof sheet cannot answer questions such as: What does the proof depict? What was the monetary value of the bills made from that proof ($5, $10, $100, etc.)? When was this proof added to the online collection? What editorial decisions or corrections were made in the digitalization process?

Overall, the metadata provided by the Smithsonian Institution Collection Search Center was detailed and helpful, but not exhaustive. The schema used for the metadata also varied from object to object, seeming to change largely based on the original data source or the current museum, gallery or collection in which the object is located. Even so, the metadata provided gives adequate information to facilitate an easy search for users based on many different categories and search terms.

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