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University Library DePaul Library

Describing Data

By cea + from The Netherlands (Metadata is a love note to the future) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: By cea + from The Netherlands (Metadata is a love note to the future) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons



Technically, metadata is "data about data." Metadata is the way we describe our digital files. But what does that actually mean? 

Metadata Example

Every picture that you take on your phone has information that is captured automatically about the image. Typically it captures the following details:

  • Date the picture was taken
  • Time the picture was taken
  • Size of the image in bytes
  • Image resolution in pixels

All of this information is metadata and provides additional information about the digital file that is not captured in the file itself.

So What?

Metadata is the back bone of any electronic file. The richer your metadata is, the more information you will have on a particular electronic resource and the more easily that file will be able to be useful for both future self as well as future researchers, hence: "Metadata is a love note to the future." Robust metadata indicates when the file(s) were created, who created them, why they were created, and technical specifications and information needed to open or interpret the file as well as an explanation of content.

There are many different metadata standards for various disciplines. This guide will give you an sample of what's available, though this is just the tip of the iceberg. For more information, please click on the Schema Name links to get started.

A Sampling of Metadata Standards
Schema Name Subject
Dublin Core All-purpose, flexible standard
ISO 191** Geospatial Standards Geospatial data, Environmental Science
Data Documentation Initiative Social, Behavioral, Economic, Health Science
CDWA (Categories for the Description of Works of Art) Art and Architecture
Darwin Core Biology
NISO MIX Digital Images
TEI Humanities, Social Sciences, Linguistics
IEEE LOM Education: learning objects


Getting Started

Similar to exercise, metadata creation adheres to the maxim that something is better than nothing. Creating a README.txt that gives basic information (your name, name and purpose of the project, project date(s), and file names) and saving it with your files will be helpful to anyone who is viewing your data in the future. Of course, there is so much more that can be done to describe your data.

More on README.txt

Here is an example of what a README.txt file could look like:

Source: used with CC-BY permission.

Using a Metadata Schema

Using a metadata schema for the first time can be confusing because of the specific information that each schema has for a particular field. Metadata schemas have documentation that must be followed precisely in order to get the maximum benefit of interoperability and machine readability. There are a variety of tools available to guide the creation of metadata. <oXygen/> is one of the more popular XML editors that guides users in creating a metadata schema in XML. <oXygen/> is available on library computers.