31 Introduction (V)

This chapter is a turning point in the book. The earlier chapters have discussed the key ideas of the discipline of organizing: identifying and selecting the resources to organize, and then organizing and maintaining them and their organizing system. We have emphasized that finding things later is the most important reason for organizing them. This can be surprisingly hard to do. People know things by different names or remember different aspects of them.

The famous painting here by the 19th century American painter James Whistler is exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and has been described as a Victorian-era Mona Lisa. What name do you know it by? How should it be described?

Resource descriptions for art usually contain the name of the artist, the medium, the year of its completion, and, of course, its title. Most of these map fairly obviously to the properties they describe; the title, owing to its prominence and expressive power, is often an exception.

Most often, a painting’s title describes its subject. If you recognize the previous painting, you most likely know it by its colloquial name, Whistler’s Mother. While it is a portrait of Anna McNeill Whistler, mother of painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the artist gave it a radically different title, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, because he believed the most important property of a painting was not the subject it depicted, but its purely aesthetic properties and their effect on the viewer. So Whistler named his paintings, which were mostly landscapes and portraits, in the manner of musical compositions: Nocturne in Black and Gold; Symphony in White; Arrangement in Pink, Red, and Purple; and so on.

If Whistler’s title surprises you, because you would have described it as a portrait of an elderly woman, this helps reinforce how wildly different names of the same resource can be. Resource descriptions and metadata provide meaning, but to whom? What is salient about a resource can depend on the context in which it is experienced, and thus may change over time. Descriptions that make sense to some people might not make sense to others. People searching on the “wrong descriptions” or the “wrong metadata” will not find what they are looking for.

Mt. St. Helens, in the southwest corner of Washington State, was usually just described as a mountain until 1980. Then, the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States blew away the top of the mountain, killing 57 people, and leaving a mile-wide crater. Today almost every description of Mt. St. Helens mentions the volcanic eruption.

It would seem impossible to search using the wrong description if the descriptions of a resource were kept current to include all the latest information, but search engines are already too powerful, usually producing too much information. Technology improvements in search and retrieval do not eliminate the cognitive effort to remember what things are, how they are best described, and where they might be found. The design of resource descriptions and metadata depends on why we need to find the information later. This chapter is about how and why.

Our description of Mt. St. Helens forever changed after its volcanic eruption. Surely there are times and places that you remember differently because of their part in an important event. A family wedding? The Olympic Games? A natural disaster? The Twin Towers?

It is easy to find before and after images of Mt. St. Helens doing a web search. What information might be associated with these images? Modern cameras assign an identifier to the stored photograph and they also capture the technical description of the image’s production: the type of camera, lens, shutter speed, light sensitivity, aperture, and other settings.[1] Many modern cameras also record information about the geographic and temporal circumstances surrounding the image’s creation: the date, time and location on Earth where the photograph is taken. When the image is transferred out of the camera and is published for all to see, it might be useful to record biographical information about the photographer to help viewers relate to the photographer and better understand the photograph’s context. There may also be different licenses and copyright information to associate with the picturewho owns it and how it can be used.

Consider a completely different context. Four 7-year old boys are selecting Lego blocks to complete their latest construction. The first boy is looking for “cylinder one-ers,” another for “coke bottles,” the third for “golder wipers,” and the final boy is looking for “round one-bricks”? It turns out, they are all the same thing; each boy has devised his own set of descriptive terms for the tiny building blocks. Some of their many descriptions are based on color alone (“redder”), some on color and shape (“blue tunnel”), some on role (“connector”), some on common cultural touchstones (“light saber”). Others, like “jail snail” and “slug,” seem unidentifiableunless, of course, you happen to be inside the mind of a particular 7-year-old kid. It doesn’t matter if the boys use different description vocabularies when they play by themselves, but they will have to agree if they play together.[2]

Paintings, digital photos, and Lego blocks are all very different, but together these scenarios raise important questions about describing resources that we attempt to answer in this chapter:

  • What is the purpose of resource description?

  • What resource properties should be described?

  • How are resource descriptions created?

  • What makes a good resource description?

  1. Most digital cameras use the Exchangeable Image File Format(EXIF). The best source of information about it looks like its Wikipedia entry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exchangeable_image_file_format.

  2. This is much more than just a “kids say the darnedest things” story (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kids_Say_the_Darndest_Things ). Giles Turnbull (Turnbull 2009) noticed that his kids never used the official names for Lego blocks (e.g., Brick 2x2). He then asked other kids what their names were for 32 types of Lego blocks. His survey showed that the kids mostly used different names, but each created names that followed some systematic principles. The most standard name was the “light saber,” used by every kid in Turnbull’s sample.


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