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Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by transcript Verlag June 15, 2021

Institutional Metadata and the Problem of Context

Jane Birkin
From the journal Digital Culture & Society


The traditional archive catalogue constitutes a form of structural and descriptive metadata that long precedes the internet; and the cataloguing of photographs is just one part of a process of archival administration. The application of keywords to images contrasts with archival prose description, which is based on the visual content of the image and is predominantly context-free; a remediation of the image itself. At the heart of this lies the notion that the single photograph is itself devoid of context; it is a discrete embodiment of shutter time and there is nothing certain either side of that. Thus, one can only speculate at its context, and institutional description techniques actively avoid such speculation. Yet context in the archive is ever-present and key to the function of images as objects of information and evidence. It is built through static relationships, through the situating of photographs in accordance with the concept of original order, and it is replicated through storage systems and hierarchical catalogue entries. Such orders, hierarchies and relationships are absent within sets of images that are brought together by keyword search, including through the websites of archival institutions that struggle to reconcile archival principles and identity with network culture. Images are transported to places where contextual information is at best difficult to access, especially for those unfamiliar with archival interfaces. In contrast to the controlled stasis of archival storage and interconnected recordkeeping systems, network storage is messy, unstable and poorly described. However, we must accept that context is not a prerequisite for many users, and for them the networking of archival images denotes a freedom; a democratisation of the archive. But in a media-driven society that is becoming more and more indifferent to the evidential value of documents of any kind, the context-free image is left predisposed to exploitation.

Published Online: 2021-06-15
Published in Print: 2020-12-01

© 2021 by transcript Verlag