Book Review: Making Sense With Metadata

Metadata, by Marcia Lei Zeng and Jian Qin
Review info: 

Metadata. By Marcia Lei Zeng and Jian Qin, Facet Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-1856046558, 200 pages.

Emma Tonkin takes a look at an impressive new book on the topic of metadata design, implementation and evaluation in theory and practice.

The casual visitor to the area of digital library research could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the sheer mass and complexity of the world of metadata, not to mention the speed at which things move on. It is in no sense a rare occurrence, even for those taking an active role in the field, to find that something else has changed and that one has, as they say in other walks of life, 'missed a memo'.

This book is a valuable teaching tool for people entering that environment. It's also full of clarifications for those who have already spent some time there. If you've ever had the feeling that you've missed a memo, take a look at this book - you might find that it's been reprinted here.

There's even a companion Web site [1]. This is perhaps useful for its collections of links to relevant sources. However, the 'quizzes and exercises' are skeletal in nature and description. They do not make use of the potential richness in interaction offered by the Web, and are therefore perhaps more suitable as classroom exercises. Unlike the book itself, their suitability for self-study is in some cases limited.

A "Who's Who" of the Metadata Field

I found this book consistently interesting in that, for one with some exposure to 'digital library' events such as the yearly Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) conferences, it can be very helpful to fill some of the many gaps in my understanding. There are inevitably times in which the purpose of developments and changes is not initially clear to the amateur "metadata standard-spotter", and this book often reveals a clear rationale behind these cases. A great deal of historical information is provided, and it is clear that this is useful to publish and to own. The book is full of illuminating definitions, mostly referenced directly to primary sources. A certain amount of theory is provided, much of it in the form of bullet-pointed lists, which have the advantage of easy readability and clarity, but can on occasion give the impression of reading lecture notes.

Embedded Journalism

There's a flip-side to the authors' extensive and knowledgeable coverage of metadata in Library and Information Services (LIS). Whilst this book will give you all the information you're likely to need to be able to pick up and understand technical memoranda in the area, its very success in that area means that those who move in other circles might find that the book does not mesh well with an outsider's viewpoint.

Metadata as a paradigm is far from universally understood or accepted. Those who are unfamiliar with the rationale that led to the present-day dominance of metadata as a concept within library and information science might have wished for the book to begin with a longer introduction on the topic, rather than a brief presentation of metadata as the undisputed 'invisible hand of efficient organisation' [2]. Of course, Ariadne readers are likely to be already aware of the many bitter arguments surrounding the present dominance of metadata as a concept and a toolkit in the digital library/information management landscape, and it is likely that those working towards a qualification in the area of library and information science will be introduced to that discussion during their studies. Therefore, it is the professional or researcher in other fields who is likeliest to find the implicit coverage of the most basic (and disputed) points problematic.


The book is separated into four major parts:

Part I. Fundamentals of Metadata

1. Introduction – brief history, definitions, types and functions, principles and anatomy.

2. Current standards – a broad overview of existing metadata standards for various purposes, use cases and resource types

Part II. Metadata building blocks

3. Schemas – structure and semantics – Elements, element sets, value spaces, application profiles, crosswalks and best practice

4. Schemas – Syntax – encodings and namespaces

5. Metadata records – requirements, conceptual models, issues of granularity, sources, encodings

Part III. Metadata services

6. Metadata services – introduction, necessary infrastructure, metadata registries, repositories, and ensuring optimal discovery

7. Metadata quality measurement and improvement – quality, functional requirements, quality measurement with various granularities, measurement inducators, metadata evaluation methodologies and quality enhancement

8. Achieving interoperability – at the schema, record and repository levels

Part IV. Metadata outlook in research

9. Metadata research landscape – research overview in metadata architecture, modelling and semantics

The appendices include useful sources and references on metadata standards, value encoding schemes, content standards, and so forth. There is also an excellent bibliography provided at the end of the book, as well as the useful resources and suggested readings at the end of each chapter.


This book is certainly a useful addition to the shelves of students and researchers in the digital library field. It may possibly be limited in appeal outside that field, but perhaps it would have been an error for the authors to try to produce both the cogent and readable guide that has been published here, and a more general text that would have been appropriate in a less LIS-related context.


  1. Metadata Textbook Website Index
  2. Zeng, M. L. & Qin, J. Metadata, Facet Publishing, 2008, p3.

Author Details

Emma Tonkin
Research Officer
University of Bath

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Date published: 
Friday, 30 January 2009
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