Metadata. What is it exactly?

Some would say it is simply data about data, but library student employee and soon-to-be-graduate Casey Haney knows it's more complicated than that. 

Haney is a metadata student assistant in the University Libraries’ digital imaging and preservation department. Thanks to her work and the vast experience she has gained, Haney will graduate from Virginia Tech this spring with a degree in computer science and a job at Deutsche Bank, an international financial institution. As part of the bank’s graduate internship program, Haney will rotate through different areas of the industry by working with different teams at the bank until she chooses one that aligns with her interests, goals, and aspirations. Then she will become a full-time member of the team of her choice. 

“I’ve met the first team I’ll be working with at Deutsche Bank and I’m very excited to join them and learn everything I can about computer science,” said Haney. 

Haney’s time as a library student employee is spent cataloging digital items, such as scanned old photographs, rare documents, and 3D models of items, including delicate, preserved insects in the Virginia Tech Insect Collection in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Entomology and historic fossils and minerals from the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science

With careful attention to detail, Haney ensures any preexisting data accurately represents the item before it goes into an online collection. The data she vets on an item can be the date of creation, name of the creator, the geographical region the item relates to, and descriptive tags of what the item is, like a newspaper, photo, or sheet music.

“I help ensure that the services we provide to Virginia Tech’s partners and other departments are useful on multiple levels,” said Haney. “On any given project, we convert a collection of physical items into a digital format and link that digital item to all the data we have on it.” 

One of Haney’s favorite items is a set of Blacksburg High School yearbooks from the early 1900s. “It was fascinating to see how similar teenagers were back then to how they are now. One senior had a yearbook quote that simply stated ‘Last night at twelve I felt immense. But now I feel like thirty cents.’ Frankly, I think we’ve all been there at some point,” laughed Haney. 

Haney explained that the data needs to be easily understood and usable by the client, while also meeting a set of standards where it could be uploaded to an international archive and still be accessible to anyone looking for it. 

“This kind of standardization is the key to making sure Virginia Tech and its partners can actively participate in the digital world,” said Haney. “We allow anyone seeking to learn from us in a digital space to find what they are searching for by speaking a global information language.”

Metadata work and the data creation process are tedious and subjective and require meticulous attention to detail. For example, Haney was cataloging a digitized logbook from the Salem Fire Department, which included various logistical topics the fire department tracked in the early 1900s. She and her supervisor had to carefully decide how to categorize the topics. The difference between the two categories can change whether or not the document shows up in a search on a database. 

“Making sure you can back up your reasoning for giving an item a specific label is massively important and sometimes very stressful,” said Haney.

2016 study by Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of adults believe libraries contain useful and reliable information and concluded that people intrinsically trust libraries and the information they provide. “As a library employee, one of my main goals is to ensure that all information I add to an item or an exhibit is factually correct and as bias-free as possible,” explained Haney. “It can feel like a stressful task to take on sometimes, especially when you're uncertain of how accurate the information you’ve dug up during research really is, but it’s simultaneously extremely rewarding to contribute to such an educational powerhouse that will be used by many people.” 

As described in Haney’s blog, Researching the Reynolds Family: How I Created My First Exhibit Ever, one of Haney’s biggest accomplishments in her time with the University Libraries is the creation of the Reynolds Homestead portion of the popular Southwest Virginia Digital Archive exhibit. Haney was tasked with taking the digitized items from the Reynolds Homestead, one of the libraries Outreach Campus Centers, and creating an exhibit that discussed the Reynolds family, their history, and their impact on Virginia that would be displayed online alongside a group of exhibits from other partners.

“This task was much easier said than done,” said Haney. “Many of the items had either very little context or were not visually engaging, which didn’t help sell the exhibit.” 

That didn’t stop Haney. She got creative, making some of the exhibit items herself, including a timeline of the family, and spent many hours researching. “I talked to Reynolds Homestead staff, read an entire book on the family, and even looked up their gravesite information so I could verify various birth and death dates,” said Haney. “Overall, this project had me doing a little bit of everything, and by the end of it, I felt like an accomplished computer scientist and historian.”

There are several key elements that Haney feels set her library position apart. “It’s hugely interdisciplinary,” said Haney. “I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside historians, architects, theater majors, all of different age ranges and with widely different areas of expertise. Trying to communicate with other people from areas that are so different from my own can pose a challenge. However, it’s also been a great exercise in flexibility, as I’ve needed to be creative in the ways I explain things and ask for information so I can work effectively with our partners.” 

Of all the positions I’ve had while studying at Virginia Tech, my job at the library has been my favorite by far,” said Haney. “The people I work with have been nothing but kind, helpful, and encouraging.” 

Haney said in particular she owes a lot of thanks to her supervisor, Wen Nie Ng, digital collections librarian. “Wen not only spent a lot of time working with me to teach me what I needed to know to do the job, but also regularly encouraged me to take my own approach to things and try out my own ideas,” said Haney. “I was inspired to try things out, be okay with making mistakes, and learn everything I could about what it meant to do professional work in this position. I now have more confidence in my own abilities to work alongside other professionals and share my own thoughts and ideas with them.”

Haney wants people to know that the skills learned at Virginia Tech can be applied in ways most people probably haven’t considered. Her current library job is designed for people with a stronger background in history, however, the skills she has learned as a computer science major in research, data analysis, and quality assurance have all worked to her advantage in the job. She even created a script that automatically generates image links for the digital items, a process that was formerly done by hand and took a lot of time.

After a few years of professional experience in the real world, Haney wants to attend graduate school and be the second person in her family to get a master’s degree, after her mother. 

“I have enjoyed college and during my time at the University Libraries, I’ve simultaneously been able to learn and also bring to the table my own knowledge in computer science,” said Haney. “The library's dynamic of learning and teaching is invaluable and has kept the job engaging and fun!”

By Elise Monsour Puckett