Think about the Web and how tags and keywords (which are nothing but metadata) have transformed the way content is accessed, browsed and organized within archives and through search engines. In other words, filtering online relevant images or documents not only through their title or location but also through their subject or other aspects (such as the dominant color) has never been so easy.
But what about other file formats? And how can this help with local data, where we don’t have the power of Google to assist us? Is this whole metadata thing just a complicated mechanism that merely regards IT professionals and scientists? We don’t think so, so read on.
The serious part first: metadata are fundamental in the management of copyrighted, published or scientific files, as they can strongly help tracking the provenance, attribution and the meaning or original context of such files. We at CoDA use Lightroom, for instance, to add professional metadata to our published digital photographs and provide information about the “why, what, who, where, when and how” of the image, as well as copyright and use restrictions that may apply. Standard “sets” of metadata can be adopted to make sharing and cataloging easier.
But files on our computer contain metadata too, some of which are automatically added when the file is created and serve the purpose of helping programs in indexing and interpreting the file, while some can be entered by the user. If you have ever purchased a music file, an ebook or a pdf article, besides, they probably contained metadata determining use restrictions, that couldn’t be changed.
The easy way you can access some of the metadata stored in your file system is viewing a file’s properties: you do this on a Mac in the Finder clicking a file and then Command+I (or File > Get Info), on Windows right-clicking on it and selecting View Properties.
If you are working with files that already have embedded (and relevant) metadata such as tags, title, description, this can provide you an easy way to retrieve it: for example I downloaded this picture from the codifi photostream on Flickr, and later I was able to find it just looking for “Green Street” on my computer.
It would have been quite difficult to find it through the filename (5728325963_0de8821ab6_o.jpg). Keywords and informations about what’s represented on the image… just make more sense to us humans!
So how do we tag our own files? If you take a look at the Properties inspector window, you’ll see there’s a blank field where you can enter your own keywords, comments or description for later use. My screenshot is taken on a Mac (which has been supporting metadata since the Tiger OS), but in Windows Vista and later versions you can add tags while creating or modifying a file, in the save screen of applications. This works not only for images, but documents, music or movies, and – on Mac – even folders.
Besides adding tags for searching purposes, you can use this system to add a comment about various versions of a file (to get rid of last, super_last and very_very_very_last naming conventions) or any other information you think could be useful to consult in the future.
Also, files can be grouped based on their metadata, allowing you to access all your pictures, videos, airplane tickets and travel diaries from your last Hawaii holiday together, without actually moving them from their (Pictures, Movies etc…) original folders, based on keywords or parameters such as date of creation. This is done on a Mac with Smart Folders, and on Windows (Vista or later) saving searches as folders.
Stay tuned for more tips!