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Shaping our collective future

Supporting social metadata

To enrich descriptive metadata created by libraries, archives and museums, we need to share and aggregate contributions added by users in many diverse environments

Karen Smith-Yoshimura /

Social metadata provides an opportunity for libraries, archives and museums (LAMs) to connect with their communities while enriching the descriptive metadata for their collections. Social platforms help users improve the discoverability and evaluation of materials for others, initiating a virtuous cycle that provides benefits for both the institution and its audience.

Members of the OCLC Research Library Partnership were eager to study the advantages of such user contributions. Spurred by this interest, a 21-member working group from five countries collaborated for two years, reviewing 76 websites that support social media features. We conducted a survey of site managers, interviewed some of them and reviewed the relevant literature. The group synthesized everything we learned in a series of three reports under the title, Social Metadata for Libraries, Archives and Museums.

We considered a wide range of user-contributed “social metadata” that helps people understand or evaluate LAMs’ resources better: annotations, audio, comments, images, links, lists, ratings, recommendations, reviews, tagging, text editing and videos. We found that the most vibrant sites—the ones with lots of user-generated content—shared one or more attributes. They tended to:

  • be national or multi-institiutional based;
  • serve a specific discipline; or
  • have a community or national “brand.”

Sites with these features attracted more contributions and traffic.

Although many LAMs are adding interactive features to institutional websites, they also increasingly recognize the value of third-party services such as blogs, wikis, social media sites and social networking sites where users are already active.

Social platforms help users improve the discoverability and evaluation of materials for other, initiating a virtuous cycle that provides benefits for both the institution and its audience.

When we began our research, many of the LAMs had added social media features relatively recently. In the survey we conducted in October-November 2009, more than 70 percent had been offering social media features for two years or less. Sites are also becoming increasingly multimedia; although still images and text predominated, more than one-third also offered video and audio. We noticed that regardless of how fascinating sites’ content was or how many interactive features they offered, most institutionally based sites were attracting only moderate user participation.

“The notion of, 'If you build it, they will come,' did not prove true.”

Some successful examples:


DigitalNZ is a service run by the National Library of New Zealand aimed at making New Zealand digital content easier to find, share and use. DigitalNZ nurtures community with open-source software called Kete (the Maori word for “basket”) that organizations and communities can use to create areas for collaboration, including images, audio, video, documents and discussions. Kete allows users to bundle all types of digital artifacts around a topic and to easily pull data from other sources using OpenSearch standards. Since 2010, it has been holding “Mix and Mash” competitions, and provides guides and links to content and data sources that people can use and repurpose for their mashups.


The National Library of Australia’s Historic Australian Newspapers, 1803 to 1954 represents one of the most successful examples of crowd sourcing. Since its beta release to the public in July 2008, enthusiasts have edited 50 million lines of scanned text, helping to improve the accuracy and readability of materials. Results lists in Trove, the search engine developed by the national library, shows which text has been corrected, by whom, and when.


Moving Here—200 years of migration in England, a partnership led by the National Archives in the United Kingdom and cultural heritage institutions throughout the U.K., explores why people came to England over the last 200 years. It invites visitors to share their own migration experiences through essays, videos and interviews (with transcripts). People may link to objects within the collection as annotations to their stories.


Historypin is a recent development, managed by the British nonprofit project, “We Are What We Do,” in partnership with Google. Historypin collaborates with more than 100 libraries, archives and museums around the world to help them share their content with a global community. The site is designed to be an online, user-generated archive. LAMs are among the community of users who are creating tours and collections and contributing historic materials. Users can create thematic tours and collections and open them to public contributions of images and personal narrative. User-contributed photos of yesteryear are superimposed upon a current Google map, placing historic photos in context geographically and allowing visual comparisons between “then and now.”

Many groups have members with a great deal of enthusiasm who want to contribute to the success of their communities. We recommend that cultural heritage organizations leverage this enthusiasm through social metadata. A good first step? Look at other sites to get ideas before starting. Also, consider the benefits and trade-offs in using third-party social media sites rather than creating your own.

Learn More: http://oclc.org/research/activities/aggregating/

If you would like to share your own experiences with social media, “like” the Social Metadata for LAMs Facebook page.

About the Author

  • Karen Smith-Yoshimura

    Karen Smith-Yoshimura

    Karen is a Program Officer in OCLC Research and focuses on issues related to the metadata needed to describe and provide access to the resources managed by libraries, archives, museums and other cultural heritage organizations.