Rich Textual Metadata: Implementation and Theory

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Mark Olsen

    University of Chicago

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Rich Textual Metadata: Implementation and Theory


University of Chicago


University of Tübingen







Textual metadata is widely and extensively supported in various encoding schemes,
from the most basic representations such as Simplified Dublin Core to the almost
limitless extensions supported by the Text Encoding Initiative. Defined as
"structured data about data" metadata functions, in both computerized and
non-computerized (such as printed library card catalogues) primarily as means to
manage and find information resources. The limits of what might be considered
metadata, or more specifically textual metadata, are hazy. Many scholars in the
human sciences have used data about text, which might not typically be
considered to be metadata, to further analytical objectives. In my own work for
example, I have used data about the production and distribution of printed books
and the performance of plays to examine "reader response" to texts and to track
the "consumption" of text in social, cultural and political contexts.[1] For example, Mark Olsen and Louis-Georges Harvey, "Reading in
Revolutionary Times: Book Borrowing from the Harvard College Library,
1773-1782," in Harvard Library Bulletin (1993):
57-72 and Emmet Kennedy, et. al. Theatre, Opera, and
Audiences in Revolutionary Paris: Analysis and Repertory
(Greenwood Press, 1996). Rich textual metadata may serve as more than
a vital means to manage and find information, but act as a basis for a variety
of analytical functions and focus attention back to questions regarding the
nature of textuality.
This paper will first address extensions to the textual object model under
PhiloLogic, the "chunky soup model"[2] Leonid Andreev et al,
"Re-engineering a War Machine: ARTFL's Encyclopédie" in Literary and Linguistic
Computing Vol 14, No. 1 1999, pp. 11-28., in which all
elements of textual databases from words to documents may be considered to be
objects with attributes. The utility of this model will be demonstrated by
reference to databases produced by Alexander Street Press in conjunction with
the University of Chicago, which combine a wide array of metadata, full text
tools, and hypermedia integration. Finally, the ability to manage an almost
unlimited array of textual metadata poses a set of questions about the nature
and organization of text and metadata.
PhiloLogic is a modular system, in which a textbase is really a set of
coordinated or related databases, typically including an object database, a word
forms database, a word concordance index mapped to textual objects, and an
object manager mapping text objects to byte offsets in data files. Each of these
databases is stored and managed using its own subsystem. To support a rich
textual metadata, I implemented a perl/SQL object manager containing one or more
SQL tables with full relational capabilities between them, linked by unique
object identifiers to the text data. This unique key is, in most
implementations, a logical address of the object. Typically, these are defined
in a hierarchy descending from a document down to a word, without reference in
the object mapper, to the type of object -- book, chapter, article, dictionary
entry, poem, verse, sentence, etc. -- allowing for searching of words in
selected objects and navigation up and down the hierarchy. The independence of
the object hierarchy from the data associated with it allows for query driven
access to any object at any level. Equally, this model supports creation of
multiple metadata representations to support different query capabilities into
the same textual database.
The paragraph in Diderot's Encyclopédie, for example,
containing the phrase étincelles lumineuses has the
logical address: 35:78:0:51, being the 51st child object of the 78th top level
object, of the 35th file (or document). The metadata associated with this object
is stored in an SQL table points to 35:78 indicating that it is the main article
Electricité, by d'Aumont, in the class of
knowledge Physique, and is associated with the page
object 35:43, the 43rd page object (not the page number which is stored in a
related table) of the 35th file. In some databases, an individual file would
correspond to a text or document, but this is not required since document
definition is built dynamically from the metadata. This model may be extended to
any depth of object and associate an arbitrary amount of metadata to any
particular object. One may also create of multiple, related, metadata tables to
permit handling objects of different granularity and definition.
Chadwick-Healy's English Poetry database, for example, may be defined as a
collection of volumes of poetry, with the typical metadata, such as author,
title of the volume, date of publication. A second "look" into the same database
may associate a different SQL table to individual poems, including year of
composition, title, and type of poem. The poem "Vpon a Diamond cutt in forme..."
in The English and Latin Poems of Sir Robert Ayton...
is identified as object 1143:1:44 in the database. Two automatically generated
SQL tables support different "looks" into the database, one as "books of poetry"
and one as individual "poems", with data corresponding to the level of
representation related by unique object identifier.
The collaboration between the University of Chicago and Alexander Street Press
(ASP) to develop large and important textual databases with unprecedented levels
of metadata allowed me to implement, test and refine many of PhiloLogic's object
and metadata handling capabilities. The currently released databases, North American Women's Letters and Diaries (currently
14,700 documents, with a final projected size of over 40,000) and Civil War Letters and Diaries --and those under
development including Early Encounters in North
America, Black Drama, and American Film Scripts Online -- are each composed of
many SQL metadata tables containing of anywhere from 30 to well over 100 fields,
associated with textual materials in various ways.
Complementing normal kinds of metadata one would expect, such as author, date,
genre, the editors of each database select different kinds of metadata to be
included in the database. Some of these extend direct descriptions of the text,
such as the social context of composition, occupation or social status of the
author, names of battles or tribes, flora and fauna described, and so on. The
databases also make use of extensive document indexing, such as subject,
geographic, historical, personal events, and other controlled terminology
descriptions of the contents of each document or object. Thus, for example, one
can find or search documents referring to Lincoln's assassination where neither
the word "Lincoln" nor "assassination" appear. The full paper will present
examples of the interaction of rich metadata and full text searching to
illustrate the utility of the object model in PhiloLogic and specific
theoretical issues.
The textual object model allows creation of multiple tables to support different
looks into a textual database. Tables of chronological events may have data or
descriptions regarding battles or encounters with native tribes. Tables of
authors, might include number of children or number of marriages, military rank
or age at death. These tables may include heterogeneous data types that might
not be typically considered to be textual metadata, such as winners and losers
of Civil War battles, commanding generals, and even the number of combatants and
Rich metadata also allows for greater flexibility definition of documents and how
texts may be dynamically constructed. To date, ASP implementations are based on
relatively small document segments as a basic unit of analysis. Rich metadata
allows these small segments to be multi-threaded, providing an arbitrary number
of lines of document definition and sequence, including the order in which
documents are published in source volumes, letters to and from particular
authors across published accounts, or sequence descriptions of particular events
such as battles or encounters. Such threading may also serve as a means for
handling hypertext/media relations, from one object to another.
The textual object model outlined here blurs the distinctions between text and
context, data and metadata. Metadata may well be found in places least expected,
not limited to headers. Consider the type attribute of a line group
tag<lg type="Epithalamion">
It appears outside of a header but might be considered to be metadata because it
is structured data, subsequently added, about the nature of the data contained
in the line group. In the textual object model this would be accessed in the
same way as any other metadata object, as an element in an SQL table. A rich
textual metadata environment opens significant editorial and analytical freedom
regarding the appropriate contexts for particular views of textual material and
how these might be associated as metadata.
The ability to manage practically unlimited amounts of multi-tiered metadata in
an object oriented model might serve as an example of the intersection of
humanities computing and digital librarianship. By adopting and extending
indexing practiced by librarians, to include information not typically
considered textual metadata, with fulltext analysis from humanities computing,
we can further the goals of improving access to materials and introduce new
analytical capabilities to large textbases.

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Conference Info

In review

"New Directions in Humanities Computing"

Hosted at Universität Tübingen (University of Tubingen / Tuebingen)

Tübingen, Germany

July 23, 2002 - July 28, 2008

72 works by 136 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ALLC/EADH (29), ACH/ICCH (22), ACH/ALLC (14)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None