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Metadata for e-books guide for publishers

Please note that this guide is in the process of being updated

Why good metadata matters for e-books

You can learn a lot about a book if it is in front of you in a library or bookshop – who it is by, who published it and what it covers. Some of this information is also recorded in bibliographic and book-trade databases, and can be used to identify and acquire a book.

An e–book is rather different: hard to inspect directly, users, libraries and booksellers have to be much more reliant on accurate and comprehensive metadata to provide essential information. This means structured digital information that can be used for many purposes. Metadata is a great enabler: it can help readers to find the e–books they need and to ensure that they have the right to use it. Very importantly, it also enables systems to exchange information about e-books between themselves without human intervention.

To be useful, though, metadata has to be high quality. Quality can be hard to define, but is often taken to mean 'fit for purpose': so publishers will need to decide what it is that their users really want from metadata.

Associated standards and their advantages

ONIX is widely used by content providers for physical books as well as e–books. An ONIX record for an e–book provides the richness of information required for discovery, acquisition and retrieval. One of the main functions for ONIX metadata is to facilitate trading, so it includes information on price and availability as well as descriptions, reviews and tables of contents. It also includes data specific to e–books, such as the type of device that it runs on.

MARC is almost universally used by librarians in one national 'flavou' or another. It is designed to automate the creation and communication of library catalogue information, some content providers are creating MARC records to help their library customers by providing a ready to use catalogue record for e–books. MARC provides a rich record for library purposes, but does not include the range of purchase related information that ONIX does.

Cataloguing rules are applied when cataloguing using MARC. These rules ensure that cataloguing is consistent (for example, that authors' names and initials are always presented in the same way, and that standardised spellings are used) so that the same item will always be described in the same way wherever and whenever it is catalogued. This imposes standards for consistency – essential if users are to be able to identify the e–books they need. The international standard is the Anglo–American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2).

Dublin Core provides a limited set of data elements. Dublin Core metadata can certainly provide a level of assistance in discovery, but the lack of information about source of supply, price etc is a serious limitation for acquisition and management purposes.

In future, Learning Object Metadata (LOM), designed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to describe learning resources, may also be useful for e–books although it is not widely used at the moment. Its main benefit over the other metadata schemes mentioned is its ability to assign learning related metadata elements such as Typical Age Range of the Reader, Difficulty, Typical Learning Time, Interactivity Level etc.

Metadata can be converted between these formats, but the process can be complex: there is information in some formats that has no equivalent in others, and where there are common elements they may be used inconsistently. The Jisc–commissioned project, the Testbed for Interoperable Metadata for E–books (TIME), developed solutions for converting between metadata formats.

Content provider benefits

The main benefits of high quality e–book metadata for content providers are in providing good service to their customers and in managing the digital assets used to produce an e–book. Because it is useful to all participants in the supply chain, good metadata using the appropriate standard can provide valuable support for marketing and facilitates transactions.

User benefits

Appropriate metadata enables users to locate the e–books they need, to acquire them, and (in the case of libraries) to manage them and to enable readers to access them. Good metadata could help readers to manage their personal collections of e–books as they build them up.

Ensuring quality

Regardless of the schema that is used, if people and systems rely on metadata to locate e–books and to exchange information about them, that metadata has to be of good quality. No single solution will produce higher quality metadata. A strategy for developing high quality metadata might include:

  • better understanding of user requirements
  • better guidance and rules
  • better briefing for authors
  • better training
  • regular short training sessions
  • improved metadata entry systems
References and further information

Last updated: March 2016