January 14, 2014 by Darren
So it’s been quite a while since our last blog post. When we wrapped up #NaBloPoMo, we took a (well-deserved!) break. Then we were shut down for a little while over the holidays. But now we’re back with our first post of 2014, and it’s all about…
Metadata has been used to organize and describe ideas as early as the 3rd Century BC, when the Pinakes system was used in the Library of Alexandria to keep track of roughly 500,000 manuscripts. At the time, metadata collected included the book’s title, the author’s name, his father’s name, his birthplace, his educational background, any teachers he studied under, and lastly, a brief biography. Sometimes they also recorded the first line of the work, a summary of its contents, and information about its origin. The manuscripts were then stored in separate rooms according to subject.
The librarians of Alexandria must’ve been onto something, because elements of the Pinakes system are still in use today, and were the norm for centuries.
Until the printing press.
Prior to the printing press, books were kept in libraries and monasteries and were more or less exclusive to the wealthy elite. But when the press created a boom of book production, and the number of books printed per year exploded, things started to change.
As books became more accessible, private presses flourished and demand grew. Printed catalogues were the most effective tool publishers had to get word out about their new and forthcoming titles. Libraries found themselves housing more books than ever before, and they came to rely on the likes of the Dewey Decimal System, subject headings, and specific rules for entering bibliographic data in order to organize their shelves. Information about publishers themselves came to be included in a book’s metadata as well.
In the 1970s—a newly computerized world—electronic record keeping and electronic transfer of bibliographic data influenced publishers and libraries. Libraries developed Online Public Access Systems for consumers, and publishers started using the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) to manage bibliographic data as well as their inventories for libraries and retailers. The data publishers stored electronically was relatively brief, since printed catalogues were still the primary vehicle to disseminate rich information about titles.
Then the internet showed up.
Websites like Amazon began their ascension, and for the first time consumers were interacting directly with publisher metadata. Thanks to new technologies like ONIX, which allowed for a streamlined standard for communication of data from publishers to distributors, metadata now includes rich descriptions of text crafted to speak directly to consumers. And as sites like Amazon and Google continue to craft more intelligent algorithms, metadata is being designed with discoverability and search engines in mind, to help titles stand out against the millions of other books published every year.
The elements and uses of metadata are still evolving for both libraries and publishers. But this short history solidifies efficient metadata, like title, author, subject and summary as being the most useful way to store and organize the ever-growing volume of published books in the world.
Come back next week to learn how the move from in-store to online bookselling has been further changing metadata post-1995.