Spotlight: Managing Temporary RecordsAs the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) pushes federal agencies ever closer to managing all permanent records in electronic format, another dimension of record-keeping is taking on new found importance: metadata. Agencies that want to comply with NARA’s requirements for managing and submitting all permanent records in electronic format need to understand the importance of metadata and what it requires out from them.

What is metadata?

NARA itself says, “Simply put, metadata are elements of information that answer the questions ‘who, what, where, when, and why’ regarding electronic records. Metadata elements provide administrative, descriptive, and technical information that describe the structure and content of electronic records.”

In other words, metadata is data about some form of information (hence the “meta”). The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), in an assessment of additional actions NARA should take to meet the requirements of the Managing Government Records Directive, defines metadata as “structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage information.”

What are some examples of metadata?

Metadata includes basic information about the record like its title, the date it was created or modified, the record’s author or creator, keywords associated with the record, and any technical details like file size and type. That said, metadata can be far ranging. As an example, for a photo, metadata might include color depth and image resolution.The image below from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC; the state’s equivalent to NARA) illustrates the kinds of metadata that might be associated with such a record.

Why does NARA want metadata?

Metadata provides contextual information about records, and NARA can use that to better manage and provide access to electronic records. For example, metadata can establish relationships between different records and explain how records were used prior to being transferred to NARA. Metadata can also potentially be used in analytics for agencies and NARA to track, evaluate, and understand record activity, management, and needs.

What metadata does NARA require?

Agencies have a lot of flexibility in establishing what metadata they want to create for different kinds of records, but NARA does have specific metadata that it requires. First, and foundational, every electronic record should include a transfer request number. For more information about requesting to transfer permanent records, please review NARA’s Electronic Records Archive page.

Beyond that, NARA also requires each record to include identifiers (file name and record ID), title, description, creator, creation date, and access rights/restrictions. That last piece of data is crucial: it’s what tells NARA if a record is subject to security classification, contains protected information, or is subject to copyright or trademark regulations. NARA also wants to know any relations, or if the file/record is related to other files that create a larger logical record.

Are there any special considerations about metadata?

Agencies need to think through what kinds of metadata are appropriate to each record they create. They also need to realize that metadata are part of the record; if metadata are somehow stripped away, it means the record is incomplete. Thus, metadata need to be transferable along with, and stay attached to, the original record.

The key is for agencies to take metadata seriously: it comprises a critical part of any record, and agencies need to ensure their documentation and record keeping processes address the creation and management of metadata as well as the original record.

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