Making Use of Interpretive Flexibility in Metadata Implementation
People organize information differently, even when they employ standardized mechanisms (such as metadata schemas, controlled vocabularies, and detailed guidelines) for doing so. Theoretical discussions, empirical observations, and experimental assessments in various domains concur: we should expect interpretive flexibility to emerge in all data collection activities. Nonetheless, practices associated with the development of metadata standards, the generation of data according to these standards, and the aggregation of standards-compliant datasets continue to view interpretive flexibility as a solvable problem.
In this talk, I examine the persistent dissonance between evidence (that interpretive flexibility is inevitable) and practice (which continues to “aim for” semantic interoperability based on consistent application of standards). I use findings from a critical design study to locate this dissonance within particular values associated with notions of user-centered information access. To address this situation, I contend that, if we hope to curate, aggregate, and use datasets responsibly and well, we need to better understand the kinds of interpretive differences that appear even when metadata standards are employed.
Further, I suggest that interpretive flexibility in metadata implementation also has utility, albeit a form of utility associated with a different set of design values. I illustrate this with a set of examples from an experimental dataset of videogame metadata, where creators of metadata records applied a standardized schema and associated controlled vocabularies to describe a set of common games. Analysis of these examples demonstrates how useful evidence emerges from the metadata creators’ creative, flexible interpretations of metadata standards.
Melanie Feinberg is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Melanie is a classificationist: she studies the design of systems for organizing information. Her research approach blends information studies, the humanities, and human-computer interaction. Melanie has a doctorate from the University of Washington (2008) and a master’s from the Berkeley School of Information (2004), when it was known as the School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS).