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The Metadata Difference

June 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, we checked our department email and were pleased to read the following message from a patron:

 Doing some family history research I typed the address of the house my great-grandfather lived in as a little boy – 707 North Laredo St – into Google Maps, only to find I-10 running right through the general area.  Bummer.  Google web results turned up something interesting, however:

Your site!

Very, very, WAY cool to see that.

This totally made our day! We’re always happy to hear back from patrons about how they’re able to find or use our material. In this case, we’re especially pleased because this patron didn’t come to Special Collections looking for material—instead, our material made it out to her.  Quite a fortuitous result.

Top Shelf readers may be aware of the numerous messages we post to the blog about newly digitized material—we certainly make an effort to scan and make available as much as we can, given time and resources. But digitization goes well beyond simply scanning an image and posting it online. A substantial amount of time is put into assembling metadata, or descriptive information that provides context for the digitized item (for a discussion on how and why we digitize items, see this blog post). In the case above, it was the metadata that we had provided and associated with the photograph that got indexed by Google, so that the patron was able to find a link with that related address and see the historic image we’d put online.

The collection this photograph comes from has additional information that provides even further context. This photo comes from the Ray Howell Photograph Collection, which dates from 1962-1969. Ray Howell was a commercial photographer in San Antonio who was commissioned to take photographs of this neighborhood as part of the Rosa Verde North Urban Renewal Project.

“Small unpainted houses, 707 and 709 N. Laredo Street, San Antonio, Texas,” Ray Howell Photograph Collection, MS 354, University of Texas San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.

Howell took photographs of the many buildings that were to be removed in an effort to document what was there at that time (today, the only buildings in this neighborhood remaining from this time period are the San Francesco Di Paola Church and Christopher Columbus Italian Society). Our staff, however, had to work through his photographs to match up addresses and buildings so that these could be pinpointed and provided as additional metadata. Much of this involved looking at our Sanborn Insurance Maps of San Antonio (online and in print), so that staff could find the street and address details that the photographs were missing. These maps were created by the Sanborn Map Company to evaluate fire insurance risks in cities and towns across the country.  They include highly detailed information, including building sizes, block numbers, locations of city facilities, and house numbers. Thus, these are a great resource for anyone doing research into urban planning or neighborhood history.

This kind of commitment to metadata creation does come at a high cost in staff time, but for this particular collection it’s been paying off. Without this information, this photograph would just be an image of two houses in an old neighborhood in San Antonio, and would probably never have found its way into the browser of our patron.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela Ossar permalink
    July 2, 2015 1:36 pm

    I’ll add to that! Today at work I was chatting with a woman who said that her mother worked in archives, and I said — oh, I worked in archives! I was the university archivist at UTSA. “Where?” she asked, suddenly very interested. “UT San Antonio? UTSA?” Her eyes lit up and she said, “I was in the first undergraduate class at UTSA! I was the first secretary of student government! I remember when we voted for the mascot!” She remembered when UTSA was out in the middle of nowhere, and that that feeling of conquering new lands was what inspired her to suggest “conquistadores” as a mascot.

    I stared at her in disbelief: “I know about that mascot vote because I wrote a blog post about it!” Well, not only was I able to dig up that 2009 post (“Go Dillos?”) but thanks to your digitization and metadata efforts, I was also able to find the issue of the Roadrunner in which the student election results were announced — sure enough, there was my colleague’s name. I was also able to find her name in the Gil Barrera photographs collection finding was fun for her to see all this old stuff, and I was impressed at how easy it all was to find.

    Keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. July 16, 2015 5:15 pm

    Reblogged this on stillness of heart and commented:
    A treasure chest in more ways than one.

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