26 Metadata or Library Blood

Libraries serve a multitude of functions. They serve reading communities by providing books and often spear-heading literacy campaigns. They also keep a record of books produced, do repair and restoration work, aid discovery by working through metadata.

Metadata: data about data.

Digital publishing evolved because of the development of mark-up languages that allowed machines to interpret information. Metadata is part of this tradition, and on a simple level it tells the reader information about the book such as its title, page extent, ISBN, genre, format, and so forth. However, in a paper system, this is done by cards. Visit any library over twenty years old and you will find large drawers containing the card catalogues, which allow patrons and librarians to quickly track down the location of books based on the metadata descriptor we know as the Dewey Decimal number.

The Dewey Decimal system is a codified means by which any librarian kind instantly find material. The same approach is applied to machines and metadata, as a machine cannot learn what a number or symbol means through experience, it must be told. Many metadata standards have evolved over time and for different systems. It is important to note that any content distributor requires a metadata standard in order to handle their material. The Library of Congress in Washington DC, has it’s own metadata scheme. ONIX, is an xml standard for the transportation of good across a digital space, MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging) is a favourite amongst librarians. The Dublin-Core initiative also seeks to create a usable standard for cataloging material and has been incorporated into the ePub specification.

In the digital space

Libraries and retailers rely on publishers to create books that adhere to the correct metadata requirements, in order to prevent cataloging problems, as the majority of modern digital systems will pick up on meta either supplied with, or embedded in the digital files. Many retailers in South Africa are asking for ONIX metadata to be supplied along with ePub files. Reading systems will generally pick-up on well-made internal metadata as fits the standard. Libraries require this to accurate and often will need to convert between different standards.

Where metadata is inefficient, search cannot be properly performed.


Many libraries across the world (especially academic libraries) have been making use of integrated cataloging systems which makes their catalogs accessible world-wide, generally through the medium of the WorldCat database. This allows anyone to track down a library copy of a book wherever it is located.

Competitive advantage

The digital age is a trial by fire for all industries. Publishers specifically need to think beyond merely producing the book, to ensuring it’s discoverability through complete, and correctly designated metadata. Physical book shelves provide the most true browsing experience as one can view the books as physical entities, with their titles and blurbs competing for your vision. In the digital space, this is all determined by the interface on the site. What this usually means is that every book is a thumbnail image with a generic plain-text title. What is displayed is up to the publisher, as they need to ensure that the title is tagged under the correct language, genre, author, and format, and that all this information is correctly displayed.

The digital shelve is one that needs to be actively browsed, through well-defined search terms which can describe a specific need.


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