…There’s No Singular Way to Write About It…or should it be They?..
Look up the term metadata in a dictionary and you are likely to find it defined as “data that provides information about data.” While technically accurate, this definition does little to help those who are unfamiliar with the term to understand how important metadata are (we’ll get to the is vs. are thing a little further on).
Simply put, metadata are elements of information that answer the questions ‘who, what, where, when, and why’ regarding electronic records: Who is the author of a publication? What is subject of a video? Where was a digital photograph taken? When was a commission meeting recorded? Why was a database developed?
Metadata elements provide administrative, descriptive, and technical information describing the structure and content of electronic records. They also provide contextual information explaining why electronic records were created, how they were used, managed, and maintained prior to their transfer to us, and what their relationship is to other records. Metadata plays an important part in the life of any record.
Federal agencies create and maintain metadata to support their business practices by allowing them to identify, locate, and understand their records without having to open every file. When transferred along with the permanent electronic records that they describe, the metadata elements identified in NARA Bulletin 2015-04 enable NARA to appropriately manage, preserve, and provide access to those records for as long as they are needed.
When we write about metadata, we get a lot of questions about grammar and usage. One of the most basic and yet confusing things about metadata is that the word is a plural noun. It’s just like the problem we face when using the word “staff”. It’s plural, but many times it’s awkward to formulate a sentence in a way that doesn’t make the reader do a double-take. Records Officers and others writing policy about metadata will face the question, “Why did you say are, instead of is?”
If you are writing about a metadata element, or a term used to populate that element, you will find it much easier to construct a sentence. But if you are writing about required metadata for a record, it is a plural noun, as in our Bulletin 2015-04, which requires the population of multiple minimum metadata elements. These metadata elements are part of the record, and there is no singular way to write about them.
Thanks to our Format Team for this post.