If meta data is not a term you have heard you are probably not alone. It is a concept, however, that you will almost certainly have benefitted from if you have done any significant amount of genealogical work. Meta data, simply put, is data about data. The most common application of meta data in family history is indexed records of digital images.
Digital images are data. They are is bits of data in a computer that form an image when correctly interpreted. The meta data is attached to the data (the digital image) and describes it. The description may include the resolution of the image, where and when the image was taken, and other descriptive data. After the record has been indexed it will also include additional information. The batch, the indexers, and the arbitrators will be identified in metadata. The meta data will also include the record transcription once indexing is complete. The meta data might include all the information on the document, or only a portion of the information.
Genealogical information generally relates to times, places, names, and relationships. The metadata is what is used to locate the digital document for which you are searching. Increasingly digital images include this meta data. This is true of images of genealogical records, but is also true of the images taken with personal digital cameras.
The next time you import images from your digital camera have a look at the information attached to the image from the camera. The information will likely include the shutter speed and aperture. It will also likely include whether a flash was used, information on metering and file size information, just to name a few. If your file is uploaded to flikr or one of the online photo websites then other meta data will be attached. Many of these services offer facial recognition software to attach meta data on who the individual in the photo is. It will also allow you to add information on where and when the photo was taken.
Many of the latest cameras are equipped with GPS. This means that automatically when the picture is taken the date, time, and location are captured, all with no effort on your part except clicking the photo. As you upload the photo and attach it to an individual on a family tree, metadata will be added about the source, including who is in the picture. Over time the software on genealogical sites will likely help you to identify other individuals in the photo with face recognition. Placing the item as evidence in a tree will also bring relationship meta data into the description of the photo.
In the past it has been the information itself that has created most of the value genealogically. In the future the meta data will often become as important. The ability to see the connectivity between pictures, sources, life histories, and pedigree information will allow a holistic view of an individual that will help to eliminate errors. The ability to use metadata to identify where two different individuals are sourced from the same document will help to highlight problems in genealogical conclusions. The ability to have the document have a computer usable description that includes names, dates, places, and relationships will change the way family history works.
The next time you are describing a photo, adding location data, identifying faces in photos, or attached documents to conclusions take a moment to consider the metadata you are creating. A better understanding of meta data and its uses will help each of us as we use, describe, and link records together. It will also help each of us to consider ways to add both useful and rich data about our documents and other digital sources. As we do this and a new generation of tools are implemented to take advantage of it we will see our productivity, accuracy, and ability to collaborate with others increase.