The metadata presented in the Smithsonian Institute Collections Search Center is largely exemplary, which is expected from such an august institution. The Institute particularly excels at the metadata associated with objects that were originally analog. Photographs, documents and material culture are very well described through the available metadata. The browsing researcher has little question about who created the piece, what the subject is, the dimensions of the object, the material and where the piece is currently housed. The metadata of traditional media allows users to ask questions about the original analog object. The entry does not allow for questions about the digitization process, which is a result of the Smithsonian Institute entering data about the physical object and not the digital facsimile.
Where the Smithsonian’s metadata consistently falls short is in regard to the digital content. Take for example the entry for a video of Deborah Warner’s lecture, “Sweet Stuff: From Sugar to Sucralose.” Deborah Warner’s name is in the title, but there is no field for “lecturer” or “author.” The entry credits the Smithsonian Institute as the “creator”, but is someone searching for lectures looking for videos recorded by Smithsonian employees? An entry for traditional media lists “author”, “artist” and even “client”, but if treated the same way as this video, the creator would still be the Smithsonian Institute since an employee photographed or scanned the original to create the image that appears on the viewer’s screen. The metadata for the video, unlike traditional media, describes the digital object, rather then the content of the digital file. For example, the metadata has a field for when the video was uploaded, but not when the lecture was delivered, nor is there a field the location where Deborah was speaking. Most telling of all is that the type is not “lecture”, but rather “youtube video.”
Metadata entries at the Smithsonian Institute Collections Search Center for “born digital” objects severally restrict the kinds of questions users can ask. The metadata forces the researcher to think only of the digital object and not what it is representing. In the example of the lecture, there is no room for questions about the occasion for the lecture or the audience. The lecturer herself is almost invisible.
The metadata of Smithsonian Collections Search Center reflects the struggles many institutions face in digitization projects. Overall, the Smithsonian has done well providing easily searchable metadata using controlled vocabulary and relevant fields. Hopefully, as best practices are designed for metadata about “born digital” artifacts, the same questions available to researchers interested in traditional media will open to those exploring digital media.