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Developing collection metadata for export and creative integrations

When onboarding new partners with collections for Urban Archive, one of the first questions we ask is, “How’s the metadata?” For the handful of organizations that joined our project at its start, this posed no real problem. Our founding partners were in a fortunate position that enabled them to easily export and integrate thousands and thousands of previously digitized and cataloged images into our platform.

If this is your first introduction to Urban Archive, we are a tech nonprofit with a focus on local history. As part of our mission to better democratize and equalize the availability of resources for cultural organizations, we’ve built a free “Google-map-like” app that brings together the digital collections of various NY-based institutions. The platform allows users to view historic imagery of buildings and streetscapes as they are out and about in the city directly from their mobile device.

Urban Archive app

Above: A screenshot of the Urban Archive app, featuring a geolocated image of Pier 45 from the New-York Historical Society.

Since launching in 2016, Urban Archive has amassed over 80,000 archives across two cities, with more than 40 historical groups contributing. But as the scope of our project continues to grow, so does our need to develop a framework that encourages organizations with little to no metadata to participate. With this impetus, in these last few months, our team has worked to demystify metadata and eliminate some of the barriers around it.

Although there are various ways to produce collection data for digitized materials, in this post I will provide a few best practices for getting started. It’s important to point out that these tips are by no means perfect. What we are trying to emphasize is the practice of developing clean and consistent data for integration. Our aim is to help “move your collections” in the right direction by opening them up so that others could meaningfully build on top of them down the line. And with that, let’s begin!

Building blocks

Contributing material to a project that gets your collections out in the open doesn’t have to be complicated. At Urban Archive, we just need image files and the corresponding metadata. Organizations that have already completed the metadata work usually send us these assets in the form of an Excel Sheet using a free cloud service like WeTransfer, DropBox, or GoogleDrive. Since there are no standards around metadata, it is common for the metadata fields to vary from collection to collection. This is no problem. As part of our work, we interface the information into our CMS in a way that indexes its content in a central data dashboard without tampering with the original files.

custom-built CMS

Above: Our custom-built CMS standardizes collection information across various organizations and powers our mobile experience.

What’s in the metadata?

Whether your organization is enhancing collection metadata or putting this information together for the first time, there are a few key ingredients to keep in mind. For organizations that have access to collection software that either manages and streamlines inventory process, we recommend that you include the following base fields in your metadata as they apply:

1.     Identifier- a unique value that is assigned as the image file name or ID

2.     Description- key photograph details (i.g. who is in the photograph? what is occurring? why the photograph was taken?)

3.     Address- where the photograph was captured as it would appear on a present-day map  (use coordinates where applicable)

4.     Portal link- a URL that points back to the image file source, it could be a link to Flickr or collections page

As the building blocks of our platform, we use these base fields to visualize and deliver collection data to the public in creative and contextual ways.


collection data

Above: Using this collection data, we are able to map historical images (like this picture of 85 Hester Street sourced from Museum of the City of New York) and then send them to nearby LinkNYC kiosks in proximity to the location of capture.

Albeit, these fields are just starting points. We also welcome a field for date and other key details that are valuable to the photograph. If you’d like to take a more “industry standard approach” to creating metadata, you can explore options like Dublin Core or Schema. We’ve worked with both seamlessly at Urban Archive.

Free and nearly free tools

Our team is increasingly partnering with organizations that cannot outsource this work or pay for collection software. If you fall into this category and are developing metadata from scratch, you’re not alone! The good news is that there are tons of free and affordable resources at hand.

At Urban Archive, we’re big fans of Airtable but would also recommend the classic Google Sheets option. For anyone undertaking this data journey, we created a public Google Sheet for you to easily duplicate as your own.

google sheet

You’ll notice that the spreadsheet includes a new field titled Special Name. This field is specific to Urban Archive’s work and relates to how our team names geolocated archives in our public-facing platform. Here’s our definition of the term and how it’s applied:

Special Name can be used in place of an address field. It’s used where applicable to give a non-address title to places of significance. I.g. Madison Square Garden versus 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY 10001.

If you’re up for trying something new, we highly recommend a platform like Airtable. While similar to Google Sheets, it’s optimized for advanced filtering and has several useful features. The platform allows you to upload up to 1,200 images (or store up to 2GB of data) before upgrading to a paid plan.

We suggest importing your image files directly into Airtable for a project like ours. Since the images and collection data would be recorded in the same place, it would eliminate the need to manually create an Identifier (or title) field in the metadata. The screenshot below highlights this Airtable workflow for My Archive, which is our organization’s crowdsourced collection.


Aside from its ease of use, another reason we love using Airtable is that it’s developer-friendly. When it comes time for integration, our team will be able to pull your collections directly from the platform with an API and no heavy lifting on your part. Should you make an update to your collection in Airtable, we could easily rerun a script to reflect these changes in Urban Archive’s records. You’ll also be able to download the Airtable view as a CSV at any point in time.

All that said, these tools and tips are meant to help you get metadata out of the way and working on your behalf. Rather than producing metadata in one-off-way, through this process, we hope to enrich your collections as well as open them up to other valuable integration opportunities down the line.

If you have questions on any of the ideas or terms discussed, please do get in touch! You can email us directly at or download Urban Archive for iOS here.

About the author – Sam Addeo

Sam Addeo is the Director of Community and Development at Urban Archive and an urbanist based in NYC. Her work explores the creative intersection between the processes and pressures of urbanization and the culture of urban life. Sam holds an M.A. in Urban Affairs and has previously worked with 100cameras, the Queens Historical Society, and the Office of Community Studies at Queens College. In each of these roles, Sam has helped organizations build projects and partnerships that emphasize civic engagement through technology, new media, and community.

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