To See a World in a Grain of Sand – Filtering Fine Art with Metadata

Metadata sounds alien, complicated and like something Doctor Who would theorise about to his companion. Despite the vagueness, the nature of Metadata is to be incredibly helpful to us fellow Librarians and our service users. For those of you who like me are visually minded and enjoy a good metaphor, allow me to introduce you to the artist and oracle William Blake. Mr Blake is going to kindly reinterpret Metadata for us:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”.

What could sound more eloquent or more beautiful? To see the world in a grain of sand, this is what Metadata does for us. Imagine the expanse of a golden, sun touched desert. Within the windswept sands, there holds a numerous amount of data, molecules, and atoms. An entire microscopic world is contained within one single gleaming speck. Well, Metadata helps us see that world, with clarity, by magnifying and filtering through the sand.
Have I lost you in a world of metaphors? Ok, less prophetic poetry and more fact. Metadata is best translated as ‘data about data’ and it can be seen as structured categories that help to find, retrieve and control information. (Pomerantz, J. 2015).
For libraries, the most common example of Metadata is found in the search terms of the library catalogue, and these are an essential way of filtering through documents so that service users can find resources easily. The library catalogue is Blake’s heaven in a wild flower, it is a portal to knowledge and a place to see the entire world.

So why is Metadata important for the Fine Art practice and how can Library and Information professionals help?
In our digital world, art exists online in an abundant oasis and this provides Art and Design students with endless inspiration and pools for creativity. Websites such as Google, Pinterest, and Instagram, with their ease of access, have made it easy to build giant dunes of images. In piling up so much data, finding professional and high quality images of art can feel like you are sinking in quicksand (and not to mention the grainy pixels!).
Art is also highly interpretive, and anyone familiar with it will know that the subject matter, medium, and content are not always translated in the title of the work. In order to gain a reliable search result, an information professional with specific subject knowledge must interpret the art and go through the process of adding descriptive metadata. The very fact that we must use words to describe a work of art means that the old saying “a painting can speak a thousand words” has never been more apt. (Baca, M. 2002).

Held within the lofty aether of academic libraries, Art Librarians hold the kingdom keys to visual information with their detailed knowledge of the rapid advancements in technology, social media, and contemporary art. They are able to deliver tailored visual literacy workshops and study skill sessions that help hone the craft of locating and understanding images from across the arts. (Glassman, P. & Dyki, J. 2017).
While we are all guiltily and gluttonously using Google Images for their fast food style search service, Librarians can provide unique support that encourages users to go beyond Google, escaping the algorithm and questioning what it is they are not being shown. By assisting service users to access validated image collections and databases, like ARTstor for example, what they can guarantee is that a professional with subject knowledge has added descriptive metadata to the images and that this information is also embedded in the image file itself. Details of the copyright, date, creator and the title of the artwork are precisely defined and provide an accurate basis for service users who are referencing this visual information.

Our digital society is richly saturated with information and images. If Librarians can break stereotypes and truly inspire students and academic staff to act on natural inquisitiveness when researching, and demonstrate the boons of better study skills, then we are on the right tracks to becoming trustworthy, reliable and accurate advisors in the sandstorm that is big data.


References:

Baca, M. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand words: Metadata for art objects and their visual surrogates. ALCTS Papers on Library Technical Services and Collections. pp.131-138.

Blake, W. & Lincoln, A. (2006). Songs of innocence & of experience. Tate Publishing. London.

Glassman, P. & Dyki, J. (2017). The handbook of art and design librarianship. 2nd Edition. Facet Publishing. London.

Pomerantz, J. (2015). Metadata. The MIT Press. Cambridge. Massachesetts.


Image:

Bell, A. (2017). To hold the world. [collage]. UK.

One thought on “To See a World in a Grain of Sand – Filtering Fine Art with Metadata

  1. Such a great post, I love your style and the William Blake metaphor. I agree, its really easy to go on Google to find art but would you have the whole picture without metadata? Also, that collage of yours is gorgeous!

    Like

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