So, in a few weeks time, I will be giving a public talk to a group of local historians about the benefits of digitising their photographs and historical documents to protect them and potentially restore them at the same time, allowing them to either be stored or reprinted for future generations to access. We all know what happens to paper when it gets old. It either cracks and crumbles away, one little piece at a time, before it’s all gone… or it becomes a fibre-rich meal for silverfish and other creepy crawlies.
But there is one aspect of all of the work I do that often (almost always!) stumps a client when it is mentioned. Metadata. What is it? Why is it needed? What purpose does it have? What happens if I choose not to use it? Allow me to explain.
Metadata – What is it?
In short, Metadata is the digital equivalent to writing on the back of an old photograph. It can be as simple as “George & Wilma’s Wedding – 1932” or include other information like location, the stamp/information of the photographer, perhaps even the cost of the photograph.
Metadata can be rather complex, but it can be broken down into a few categories.
Firstly there is the Camera data or EXIF. This is written to every digital photograph by the camera. It includes information about the Model and Serial Number of the camera, the exposure, if the flash fired, white balance, dimensions, file format (JPG, RAW, etc) and so on.
Next is what is known as IPTC Core Data. This stands for “International Press Telecommunications Council”. Basically this includes specifics for the photograph, so Photographer’s information and contact details, Location, Title, Description, Keywords, Creation Date, Job Identifier Code, Instructions, Credits, Source, Copyright etc.
There are a few other categories (IPTC Extension – Model Release info, Artwork featured in the image, Event info etc, and finally, GPS information – coordinates that can locate the image onto a map)
Why is it needed?
Metadata is not ‘needed’, but it certainly helps! Sure, most people who scan a photo would either know what the photo is, or perhaps have the information written down in a document or on a website etc. But what if the original creator either died, or the file was passed on to someone out of context. A file name that looks like “IMG_4096,JPG” tells me nothing. Even a filename like “George & Wilma’s Wedding-74.jpg” only tells me two names, and that there are at least 73 other potential photos somewhere of this event. Where was it? When was it? Who are they? Who took the photo? Metadata (correctly filled out!) can disclose all of this. Best of all, the metadata stays with the photograph! If you email it, its right there! copy it to a USB or a DVD? still there. Shared to a website? yup, still there. It removes the guesswork for future viewers of the photo.
What purpose does it serve?
As mentioned above, it serves the purpose of ‘sticking’ relevant information to the photograph, allowing it to remain with the photo wherever it goes in the digital world. But it can also offer a few other benefits. Depending on the end-use of the photo, some websites that allow photo uploads (Facebook, Flickr, Historypin etc) actually garnish some of the info from the metadata, meaning all, or at least some of that information can be included in the description of the image when uploaded, meaning you don’t have to remember it all again! Different sites allow for different information to be garnished. Facebook takes Title and Description. Flickr takes Title, Description, GPS and EXIF (Camera info).
Another useful purpose that works, even if you aren’t planning on uploading a file to a website is the ability to Search. If you have filled out the metadata properly, anything in the Description and Keywords (and possibly some other fields too!) are searchable on your PC or Mac. I use a Mac, and have discovered that if I run a search for a name, it will locate any photo that I have tagged with that person, as well as any document with that person mentioned in it. For large collections, this is a godsend! Imagine trying to find 5 pictures of one person, in a folder containing 4,000+ photos named “IMG_4173.jpg, IMG_4174.jpg, IMG_4175.jpg… It would take you DAYS!
A little bit of time spent when initially importing files can make a huge difference in the long run! And the best part? Depending on the software used (I use Adobe Bridge – FREE!), a template can be set up with common information. I have one consisting of my copyright info and contact information. That’s about 12 lines I don’t have to type every time by hand for 4,000 images! If you were to only import photos of a particular subject, or of a location etc, then the keywords could also be included with a skeleton set of words eg “House, Smallville, Winter, Clouds, History, Historical, Research” or whatever. Sure, it means that all of YOUR photos show up in a search for those words, but if/when shared, that might be the only ones on the new system with those words. Include YOUR name in there, so people can find all of YOUR images. I have yet to reach a word limit in any of the fields, so there is no risk of ‘running out of space’, and you can always include more after applying the above as a batch to all images.
What if I don’t want to use it?
Fine. It is not compulsory, nor is it required. But it certainly helps in many ways, as mentioned above.
Imagine this. You inherit your Great Grandmother’s entire photographic collection of family portraits, happy snaps and holiday mementos. Except she has not written on the back of any of them. She has passed on now, so asking her is not an option. No one else from her generation is around anymore. Who are these people? Family? Friends? Perhaps she liked to collect old photos from thrift shops of unrelated people? You would never know. All of that information that told the story of those photographs has died with her. Google can’t help. Its gone. Forever.
If only she had written the information on the back! Metadata is the digital equivalent of that. Sure, don’t use it on all of your photos (no one needs to know the price of your amazing instagrammed lunch from 4 months ago!), but perhaps the ones that contain people, events, milestones of your life… these are the ones that your children, nieces, nephews, or even relatives you have yet to meet would love to know a bit more about. These are the ones that can solve genealogy mysteries in 50, 100, 200 years time.