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The DAM Metadata Disconnect

February 7th, 2011 · No Comments


After reading some marketing information from a DAM vendor, and working in the field for nearly 20 years, I just needed to vent about how some present their product.

Some DAM system vendors often tout their automated systems as replacements for what they claim is “costly manual tagging”. Yet, after implementing one of these expensive systems, their customers often turn to information professionals for metadata development help, because their end users are unable to find the assets they need in a timely manner. There is an obvious disconnect between full automation versus high-end manual service.

Using “smoke and mirrors” has unfortunately been an approach for some DAM system vendors. Like stage magicians, they use misdirection to steer potential customers away from the failings of their systems, sometimes by using confusing jargon or misleading customers about the true costs of accurate, efficient metadata development. They argue that automated indexing is superior and less expensive than human catalogers, yet the customers who purchase these systems are disappointed to find that after spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on an automated system, they still need to hire information professionals to make their assets truly useful. At this point, like the professional mechanic trying to repair the shade-tree mechanic’s work, the issue can become more costly than it would have been if the information professionals were consulted in the first place. Cleansing metadata is always more difficult than designing it well in the beginning.

So, despite the “sexy librarian” stereotypes that abound, our profession is often “out-sexed” by the glitz and glamour of technology and the deliberately misleading sales pitches of some DAM vendors. Some corporate officers are enamored of technology and reluctant to expend budget on people. It is only when they realize that the assets that are vital to their core mission cannot be easily found and reused that they turn to information professionals to “fix” the metadata problems. Keep in mind that reuse generates income to help pay for the database system, and in the most successful cases, to more than pay for the existence of the archives & its staff.

Each industry has a specific terminology that distinguishes itself from other industries and from competitors within their own industry. This complexity of language requires mediation by individuals who understand not only the language, but the way in which users apply the language in searching. While computers & software can do a great job of capturing content, they are not as successful at interpreting that content’s meaning to the organization which generated it, or to the public at large. Interaction with the public to increase brand recognition is vital to every company’s mission, especially in light of the increased use of social networking.

Building brand recognition depends on how well one’s marketing efforts are communicated to the public. The textual content of advertising, even with the use of closed captioning and scripts, does not always convey the concepts that a brand manager wants to stress to the public. Often, advertising is so subtle that it does not even contain dialogue. How successful is machine generated indexing to this type of material? A human indexer can capture concepts such as value, convenience, refreshment, fun, excitement, vitality, friendship, family, customer satisfaction, and many others, that may only be contained in the visual component of the material.

The communications department of each company may also have specific requirements for reusing historical imagery. It may be necessary to know that an image of a delivery truck represents the first use of innovative technology, or that a product package image is a limited edition, advertising the anniversary of the company’s participation in a sporting event. This information may only be available from visual clues within the image itself, or from non-documented “corporate memory” which exists only in the knowledge of the people who created the images. It is also essential for a company to know whether or not the talent that appears in an advertisement has been bought out for a limited period of time, in order to avoid unauthorized usage. This requires not only that the talent be identified, but that documentation of the rights contract is available in a form that can easily be accessed. Advertising agencies have not historically kept this documentation readily accessible. Researching this information can be time consuming and difficult to navigate, as the records may only be organized by date, job number or brand, or by the name of the union with which the rights had to be negotiated. Working titles for individual spots may change multiple times, ending with a completely different final title. Accurate identification is essential for successful reuse of corporate assets. A skilled researcher can quickly cut through the layers of obfuscation to get to the heart of talent rights.

Isn’t it about time that we, as a profession, sell our abilities as well as the DAM system vendors sell their systems? After all, we’ve been proven vastly superior, despite the claims to the contrary. Human beings can make the connections between content and context that automated systems are incapable of making. While there have been improvements in face recognition, speech-to-text and other automated indexing methods, nothing beats a professional indexing team for improving accuracy and adding value to machine-generated metadata. For accuracy of retrieval, there is no replacement for a well-tailored controlled vocabulary used in combination with a well-designed indexing policy. This is one of the many places where information professionals excel.

Fortunately, there does seem to be a movement among smarter corporate entities to incorporate librarians, archivists and other information professionals into the teams making the decisions regarding DAM system purchases & implementation. In addition, many employ specialists to create metadata dictionaries, crosswalks to vendor databases, and to manage the quality of metadata entry. These companies have the best track records in developing systems that are the most useful & successful, even winning awards for their efforts. The success of these projects should lead other organizations involved in digital asset management projects to emulate their efforts and consult the experts in metadata development.

The best DAM vendors know that their tool is just part of the solution for asset management and a great team of people needs to set guidelines, determine field requirements and design searchability together. This is what any institution looking for an answer to Asset Management should look for.

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Category: Developing A Digital Collection · New Tools