Minimum Viable Metadata

Minimum Viable Metadata

“The cure to information overload is more information,” David Weinberger once observed.

A co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a highly influential treatise from 1999 on the ways that the Internet has changed markets and marketing, Weinberger holds a doctorate in philosophy, has taught at university, and was a comic strip gag writer. What he has to say will often sound profound and preposterous all at once.

“Transparency is the new objectivity.” “The smartest person in the room is the room.”

Concerned as he is with the essential elements of the information age and what he has called the new digital disorder, David Weinberger has also given considerable reflection to how we organize our digital world, which brings him to observe the following about metadata.

Metadata liberates us, liberates knowledge.

A shortcut to success can begin with defining Minimum Viable Metadata – the set of bare minimum information necessary to describe each element of content. The MVM itself will reflect a mix of internal and external factors, from IT systems to compliance requirements.

For a London Book Fair panel discussion last month, I joined Brian O’Leary, executive director of the US-based Book Industry Study Group; Marie Bilde Rasmussen of Pruneau, based in Copenhagen; and Joshua Tallent, director of Sales and Education, Firebrand Technologies to share with the audience best practices on how to establish an MVM model quickly and sufficiently for the challenges at hand, while not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Often, publishing projects cannot be easily pegged as for only a single market. Marie Bilde Rasmussen related the challenges posed by her current project, a topographical dictionary of Denmark. Traditional encyclopedia publishers and even the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, which streams all their content, she said, have known for some time that what people will look for are places, persons and events.

“That’s what we’re going for in marking up our content, too,” Rasmussen told the panel moderator Chris Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center. “We want to supply every little chunk of content with its geodata and a type of place – is it a lake, is it a church, is it some archeological site – which will allow users to either read about all the churches in Denmark, or find out, if they are on their mobile phone, is there anything of interest near where I’m standing right now to go see?”

For well over a decade, the US-based BISG has researched and reported to its members on metadata best practices. Even so, said Brian O’Leary, the effort is far from completed, just as the transition from print to digital is ongoing.

“Metadata is an investment, and the investment has to see a return,” he said. “Metadata is marketing, but it’s also a component of consumption of the product – the engagement.

“In the last 20 years, not just with mobile devices but really with the growth of the Internet, we’ve essentially created an entirely different way to consume and engage with content, but we’ve still got a [metadata] metaphor that fundamentally is two-dimensional [for] producing a book,” O’Leary observed.

“This is going to continue to be a topic in the future,” agreed Joshua Tallent. “The next technological leap that happens for publishing is going to require more metadata, different metadata, the types of things that we haven’t been collecting or the things that we need to be thinking about collecting now.

“We have to be thinking about [metadata] from acquisitions all the way forward. And publishers should be asking from the editorial perspective, from the marketing perspective, from the authors’ perspective: Who is the metadata intended for; who is the book’s end market or the end consumer of that content? If you can have that process built in as part of the process of publishing, it makes it a whole lot easier when you get to the end of the line.”

For authors, the most terrifying thing is a blank sheet of paper. The same is certainly true for publishers when it comes to metadata. But if you get the Minimum Viable Metadata, you can start to do things, you can start to then think what’s next. The challenge we often have is persuading people to take that first leap.


Ian Synge is a Principal Consultant at London-based Ixxus, a subsidiary of Copyright Clearance Center, with particular specialisation in knowledge management, taxonomies, and categorisation.

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