Career Profile: Metadata & Digital Collections Specialist


Arel Lucas

Title of current position:

Metadata and Digital Collections Specialist

Current employer:

San Diego State University Library & Information Access

Please provide a brief description of your job including a general overview of your responsibilities.

I’m an LSS (Library Specialist) III, meaning I have staff and not faculty status. I provide metadata for images digitized in our department or (rarely) elsewhere, including Special Collections and University Archives. In my particular position I also do some student assistant supervision and take care of their paperwork associated with their jobs. I also do some research on collections with little context for my lead, and I proofread, critique, and fix metadata done by others who are not metadata professionals. I keep a controlled vocabulary up to date and add to it as possible.

How did you choose your specialty (i.e. music cataloger, metadata specialist, technical service manager, etc.)?

I didn’t. It was an available job that fitted what I had done before almost incidentally to my other tasks as a librarian or archivist.

What specific skills, aptitudes, training, or education does your specialty require?

Research skills, attention to exquisite detail, ability to follow instructions, ability to give detailed and understandable instructions (including written), people skills, writing skills, editing skills, ability to write short and accurate descriptions based on research, flexibility (ability to jump out of one task and into another, turn on a dime), curiosity, large general knowledge, search skills.

In what ways did your formal education prepare you for your career? What did you need to learn outside of this?

My formal training (MLIS) did include a course in indexing that was a helpful beginning. I needed to learn to write those short and accurate descriptions, knowing when to cut, when to stop. I needed to develop a world perspective, understanding that what I write may be seen by anyone with a command (no matter how tenuous) of English, and my written word needs to be objective and clear. I needed to learn about digital asset management systems, how they work and don’t work. I needed to improve my people skills and learn to work within academic hierarchies. I needed to increase my general knowledge so that more things would be within my ken. I needed to learn patience and skills to reduce boredom for those hours when I’m working on collections that have little in the way of interest or context (unidentified people and places but still valid records that could prove useful).

What do you find rewarding in your career?

Working on collections of interest to scholars to which I can contribute context and clarity. Meeting people associated with those collections (sometimes). Discovery. I also love research and writing.

What do you find challenging in your career?

Boredom when working with collections with few identifications and little interest (old archival photos with no information). Trying to find information without knowing where to start.

How do you keep up with trends in the field (i.e. involvement in professional organizations, email lists, publishing and research, professional reading, etc.)?

I do research and publish when I can. I am a member of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). I was a member of the American Library Association (ALA), Society of California Archivists (SCA), American Society for Indexing (ASI), and Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) (my real love is film). I am on a digitization email list and the SAA email list. I read a lot of stuff, talk to colleagues, and attend conferences as part of professional development.

What advice do you have for those considering a career in your specialty?

This should be a good time to get into metadata, since it is the bottleneck for public access to digitized materials or digitizing projects. It’s time consuming, takes a fair amount of training (editing, proofreading until the specialist gets good at it), and not everyone finds it interesting, to say the least. If you want to get into this, don’t totally unleash your curiosity, but figure out how long the leash needs to be so you can do research on a time budget and compress it into a few lines in a database. Not everyone cares as much as I do about something I’m writing about at the time, but I still have to provide accuracy, objectivity, and clarity.

What do you see as the career outlook in your field (i.e. job prospects, changes in responsibilities, etc.)?

I do think that more and more time and positions will be dedicated to metadata in the near future as administrations scramble to keep up with new digital priorities.

How do you strive for a work-life balance? Do you have any hobbies or interests outside work?

I like many of the same things outside work, so I write for a website, requiring many of the same skills I use at work, including research. I enjoy cooking and baking when possible, hiking a bit, exercise in general, reading, keeping up as much as possible with science, technology and medicine. I try to go home without taking work with me, but sometimes that’s difficult, especially when I’m working with emotionally charged collections. Fortunately, I have an understanding partner.

Is there any additional information you would like to provide?

It has been an interesting journey so far. I’ve done a lot of different things to make a living, and this is a good one.

This career profile is one of 14 developed by the Cataloging & Metadata Management Section (CaMMS) Recruitment & Mentoring Committee in 2017. To view a list of all profiles, see Career Profiles in Cataloging, Metadata, & Related Fields.

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