It's All In The Details: Implementing Inclusive Metadata — 2021 OA Week

Oct 12, 2021 · Harriet E. Wintermute, Head of Metadata Services

The librarians and staff from the library’s Metadata Services team are information specialists who wrestle with how to describe, categorize, and name things on a daily basis. Metadata are the details about things we read, hear, discuss, and study every day. For an example of metadata in action, search for a book in our library QuickSearch. Notice the information about author, title, and topics that display in the search results and the item details page? That’s metadata. 

The key things about metadata are structure and consistency; good metadata leads to effortless discovery and seamless user experiences. Controlled vocabularies and linked data are some ways in which we connect similar terms (e.g., teachers and instructors) or connect related resources (e.g., all the books written by an author). Mistakes or gaps in the metadata cause errors to display or searches to fail. Even worse, for a variety of reasons, some vocabulary lists used for metadata in libraries incorrectly prefer negative terms over inclusive terms. Because the library QuickSearch experience could be harmful to our users, these outdated, offensive terms need to go!

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Metadata Work Group within Metadata Services has been working to create a list of preferred terms for the 22 Indigenous communities with historical ties to Iowa. It was important that we contact these communities directly for their feedback on their names to use in our metadata and not impose our perceived beliefs onto the preferred name list. We built a suite of resources and services to offer them in gratitude for any information they were willing to share with us. We are in the process of updating our metadata for books, media, and archival collections with these preferred community names. For example, before this project, resources about the Meskwaki Nation or its members would include in their metadata the terms ‘Fox Indians’ or ‘Sauk Indians.’ Now the metadata will display ‘Meskwaki (North American Indigenous peoples)’ in library QuickSearch. In addition to showing respect for these Indigenous communities by using their preferred names, we are improving the findability of these resources by providing better terminology. 

We have made our list of preferred terms for the Iowa-related Indigenous communities available freely and openly for other libraries to use. This is one example of how Metadata Services is acting to improve the diversity, equity, and inclusiveness of Iowa State library metadata. In an upcoming project, we will improve the identification of authors from historically underrepresented groups. This is an example of a gap in the metadata--without the additional descriptions for authors, it is challenging to find books by, for example, Black scientists or non-binary historians unless we know specific names. Another project will implement Homosaurus, a rich vocabulary of LGBTQ+ terms, many of which are not available in the general subject vocabulary that libraries use. Please contact with your suggestions of DEI types of library metadata we can improve.

–Harriet E. Wintermute, Head of Metadata Services

To learn more about the problem of vocabulary lists preferring harmful terms, we recommend the 2019 documentary Change the Subject. In 2020, we implemented changes to display ‘undocumented immigrants’ and ‘noncitizens’ in our library QuickSearch.