CfP: The Politics of Metadata

Edited by: Anna Dahlgren, Karin Hansson, Rámon Reichert and Amanda Wasielewski

Abstract submission: June 28, 2020
Author notification: July 1, 2020
Full paper submission: October 1, 2020
Final version: December 30, 2020

This special issue of the Digital Culture & Society journal invites theoretical and methodological contributions discussing the politics of metadata. The transformation of image collections from files and boxes to digital interfaces has had implications for the way images are annotated and ordered. In particular, new issues arise in relation to the practices of and policies for creating descriptive metadata.[i]

The first generation of digitization in the 1990s sparked a lively debate around images and their credibility, which played out in the news media, political circles, and in relation to history writing (Mitchell, 1994; Ritchin, 1990). Despite the fact that photographic manipulation is as old as the medium itself, the ease and availability of software that allowed consumers to “photoshop” images on their personal computers ushered in an era of digital distrust.[ii]

Yet, as pointed out by Rubinstein and Sluis, “In the past, concerns about manipulation of pixels caused people to doubt the veracity of the digital image; however, manipulation of metadata can have much more dramatic and far-reaching consequences and they indicate that the construction and design of metadata inflicts archiving and classification practices yet also the conditions of use“ (Rubinstein and Sluis, 2013). In other words, while many people worry about the consequences of digital image manipulation, the data we collect on our data, which is used to order and recall a vast array of digital material, can also be subject to biases and manipulations that are just as insidious and often more difficult to detect.

The design and use of metadata is therefore always culturally, socially and ideologically inflected (Baylis, 2014; Bunnik et al., 2016; Loukissas, 2017; Pollen, 2016). Indeed all metadata situate the images they furnish historically, geographically, politically and organizationally. The actors and their agendas and interest, whether these are institutions (museums, archives, libraries, corporate image suppliers) or individuals (image producers, social media agents, researchers) affect the character of metadata (Schwartz, 1995; Schwartz and Cook, 2002). If, for example, nationality is an important founding rationale for a museum their images will be tagged with national origin which in itself is a historical construct and sometimes quite problematic (Rodini, 2018).

Such interest may also vary over time. While the gender of the image producer is of vital concern in memory institutions today the issue whether an image or art work is produced by a woman or a man has not always historically been of interest for collections managers (Pierce, 2019). Thus the available metadata is the result, and also part of, negotiations between conflicting interests accumulated and transformed over time (Baca, 2016). In sum these are examples of the politics of metadata.

When it comes to big data and data-driven research, we have to pay particular attention to the effects of the interfaces we use. Metadata and the archiving practices that produce it are increasingly important for collecting institutions—and for visual culture at large—as a means to navigate the rapidly growing volume of data, situating them historically, socially, and locally (Baylis, 2014; Bunnik et al., 2016; Loukissas, 2017; Pollen, 2016). The fact that images today are copied and redistributed in infinite numbers as well as modified, manipulated, and placed in new contexts raises question about how images are furnished with descriptive metadata and by whom. Metadata not only affects the searchability and visibility of images but, by extension, how they are used and interpreted.

Image collections today create descriptive metadata in three major ways: by employing professional cataloguers within the institution that governs the collection, by enlisting the help of the general public via online interfaces, or by automation using algorithm based tools and machine learning, like pattern recognition.[iii]

In this special issue we seek to address the ideological and political aspects of metadata practices within image collections from an interdisciplinary perspective. The overall aim is to consider the implications, tensions, and challenges involved in the creation of metadata in terms of content, structure, searchability, and diversity.

We invite proposals including, but not limited to, the following topics:

  • The relationship and systemic tensions between professional and amateur taggers, between metadatastandards and folksonomies.
    What are the decisive differences between descriptive metadata produced by professional cataloguers and amateurs through crowdsourcing in terms of content, structure, and usability? What are the differences between private and public metadata? The numerous metadatastandards, which govern much of the professional‘s metadata production display a hetereogenous field (Margulies, 2017; Mayernik, 2020; Riley, 2017, 2009). Simultaneously many institutions are not using any of the established standards (Waldron et al., 2017). Folksonomies, in turn,have been studied and implemented as ways to bridge between expert and non-expert vocabularies (Cairns, 2013), and potentially to feed into the creation of formal taxonomies or ontologies (Gil et al. 2017).
  • The issue of anonymity and social identity in relation to metadata production.
    What are the implications of anonymity for metadata producers within cultural heritage institutions, corporate image suppliers, or public crowdsourcing platforms? How can this be understood and/or challenged in the context of social media practices where a particular user’s reputation and output history is often the determining factor in gauging the trustworthiness of the information produced? (Esteve, 2019)
  • The challenge in creating metadata that is coherent and reflects diverse perspectives
    In order for images to be searchable, reliable, and usable, collections need to create metadata standards for accuracy and uniformity (Zhang et al., 2019). Simultaneously, there is an increasing demand for descriptive metadata to be inclusive, i.e. encouraging participation and heterogeneity in representation. Given that these two objectives might contradict or come into conflict with one another, how can cultural heritage institutions strike a balance between them?
  • Issues of standards, centrality, and networks in relation to metadata production
    For example, what is the relationship between metadata standards and their institutional, geographical settings? Who are the major agents in the field of metadata production and what are the implications of this? How might we develop more horizontal systems for the production of descriptive metadata? (Piotrowski, 2009)

Paper proposals may relate to, but are not limited to, the following questions concerning the metadata paradigm. Interdisciplinary contributions, such as those from science and technology studies or the digital humanities, are particularly encouraged. When submitting an abstract, authors should make explicit to which of the following categories they would like to submit their paper:

  1. Field Research and Case Studies (full paper: 6000-8000 words)
    We invite articles that discuss empirical findings from studies that approach the relationships between data sciencedigital humanitiesdigital histories, computational intelligence, cultural studies, art history, gender studies, science and technology studies. These may include practices of circulating or collecting data as well processes of production and evaluation.
  2. Methodological Reflection (full paper: 6000-8000 words)
    We invite contributions that reflect on the methodologies employed when researching the practices of the new tendencies of metadata production. These may include, for example, the specificities of methodological reflection of scientific fieldwork in online/offline environments; challenges and opportunities faced when qualitatively researching quantifiable data and vice versa; approaches using mixed methods; discussions of mobile and circulative methods; and reflections of experimental forms of research.
  3. Conceptual/Theoretical Reflection (full paper: 6000-8000 words)
    We encourage contributions that reflect on the conceptual and/or theoretical dimension of the metadata paradigm, and discuss or question how the data-driven research on metadata can be defined, what it can describe, and how it can be differentiated.
  4. Entering the Field(2000-3000 words; experimental formats welcome)
    This experimental section presents initial and ongoing empirical work in digital media studies. The editors have created this section to provide a platform for researchers who would like to initiate a discussion concerning their emerging (yet perhaps incomplete) research material and plans as well as methodological insights.

Deadlines and contact information

  • Initial abstracts (max. 300 words) and a short biographical note (max. 100 words) are due on: June 28, 2020.
  • Authors will be notified by July 10, 2020, whether they are invited to submit a full paper.
  • Full papers are due on: October 01, 2020.
  • Notifications to authors of referee decisions: November 20, 2020
  • Final versions due: December 30, 2020
  • Please send your abstract and short biographical note to:
    anna.dahlgren [at]
    khansson [at]
    ramon.reichert [at] 



Baca, M. (ed.), 2016. Introduction to Metadata, 3rd ed. Getty Publications, Los Angeles.

Baylis, G., 2014. A Few Too Many Photographs? Indexing Digital Histories. Hist. Photogr. 38, 3–20.

Bunnik, A., Cawley, A., Mulqueen, M., Zwitter, A. (Eds.), 2016. Big data challenges: society, security, innovation and ethics, Palgrave Pivot. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Cairns, S., 2013. Mutualizing Museum Knowledge: Folksonomies and the Changing Shape of Expertise. Curator Mus. J. 56, 107–119.

Esteve, Z., Asier Moneva, Fernando Miró Llinares, 2019. Can metadata be used to measure the anonymity of Twitter users? Results of a Confirmatory Factor Analysis. Int. E-J. Crim. Sci. 4, 1–16.

Loukissas, Y.A., 2017. Taking Big Data apart: local readings of composite media collections. Inf. Commun. Soc. 20, 651–564.

Margulies, S., 2017. Metadata and digital photography, in: Peres, M.R. (Ed.), Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science. Focal Press, Amsterdam, p. 846.

Mayernik, M., 2020. Metadata. ISKO Encyclopedia of Knowledge Organization [WWW Document]. URL

Mitchell, W.J., 1994. The reconfigured eye : visual truth in the post-photographic era. MIT Press.

Pierce, R., 2019. The Female Gaze? Postmodernism and the Search for Women in the Digitized Photographic Collections of Swedish Memory Institutions. Open Inf. Sci. 3, 61–75.

Piotrowski, P., 2009. Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde, in: Europa! Europa? The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent. De Gruyter, Berlin.

Pollen, A., 2016. The Rising Tide of Photographs. Not Drowning But Waving? Captures 1.

Riley, J., 2017. Understanding metadata. What is metadata and what us it for?, NISO Primer Series. National Information Standards Organization (NISO), Baltimore.

Riley, J., 2009. Seeng Standards: A Visualization of the Metadata Universe [WWW Document]. URL

Ritchin, F., 1990. In Our Own Image. Aperture.

Rodini, E., 2018. Mobile Things: On the Origins and the Meanings of Levantine Objects in Early Modern Venice: On the Origins and Meanings of Levantine Objects in Early Modern Venice. Art Hist. 41, 246–265.

Rubinstein, D., Sluis, K., 2013. Concerning the undecidability of the digital image. Photographies 6, 151–158.

Schwartz, J.M., 1995. “We make our tools and our tools make us”. Lessons from Photographs for the Practice , Politics and Poetics of Diplomatics. Archivaria 40, 42–46.

Schwartz, J.M., Cook, T., 2002. Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Arch. Sci. 2, 1–19.

Waldron, Z., Reser, G., Webster, M.N., White, Layna, Williams, S.J., White, Lynda, 2017. Cataloging and Metadata Practices Survey Report. Visual Resources Association (VRA).

Zhang, Junjie, Wu, Qi, Zhang, Jian, Shen, C., Lu, J., Wu, Qiang, 2019. Heritage image annotation via collective knowledge. Pattern Recognit. 93, 204–214.