The meaning of metadata

Blog Author: Aaron Smith | April 27th, 2015

This article has been reproduced with permission from (RKI and Cassie Findlay)

Image – Cassie Findlay

So much metadata in the news these days! Here’s a few grabs:

>> Deal on metadata to have a ‘chilling effect’ on press freedoms

>> Dutch do a U-turn on metadata laws

>> Telco chiefs ramp up pressure over cost of metadata retention

These headlines are all about the current debate on telecommunications companies and Internet Service providers collecting and retaining data on communications they carry; to and from mobile phones and computers. The term metadata is used as a means to distinguish this information from the content of those communications.

In recordkeeping, metadata has its own meaning. Without metadata that tells us the ‘who, when, where and how’ in the transaction of business, records lose their value. An email stripped of its metadata is rendered almost meaningless and certainly of no use if required as evidence. Without metadata to indicate that a record was rendered inviolate from a certain date, it can be easier to challenge its authenticity.

For recordkeepers, metadata is much more than ‘not the content’. It is vital contextual and management information that we are expert in specifying and managing.

Recordkeeping metadata is not about laborious manual profiling; it is about business. Systems which automatically generate the data we need to ‘tell a story’ are making and keeping metadata. Who did what and when? Importantly, the data must be timebound; that is, the ‘who’ in the story is recorded as John Smith the janitor, even if he later became the CEO.

Recordkeeping metadata is about interoperability. There is data on John Smith in many places; some of it can take part in transactions in various systems as a means of documenting his actions.

And recordkeeping metadata is about accountability. Not all business information requires this degree of contextuality, but when it has it, good evidence is kept.

For anyone who would like to brush up on their understandings of the nature and purpose of recordkeeping metadata, we recommend:

Work on these International Standards was led by RKI’s Barbara Reed. The concepts and principles and they contain is now being carried through to the current revision of the International Standard on records management, ISO 15489. We hope to bring you news on progress with that revision here soon.

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