Day in the life of a metadata specialist

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Melissa Lohrey grew up in suburban Baltimore, but she remembers visiting her grandfather’s farm in Harford County, Maryland and riding with him on his tractor when she was a child. Other than that, the world of agriculture was far outside her life experience.

Today, agriculture is a big part of her world. She is an LAC Group employee working as a metadata librarian for ARS (Agricultural Research Service), the research arm of USDA (US Department of Agriculture). ARS is overseeing 800 research projects within 17 National Programs and more than 90 locations, including laboratories overseas. This is Melissa’s first LAC Group assignment and her first full-time, information science job.

metadata librarian working at USDAThe recent MLS graduate from the University of Maryland did not begin her job search thinking, “What can I contribute to the world of agricultural science?”. Her interest was in metadata for ebooks, archival information and other general library assets. Yet she has found fulfillment in applying her interest and training in working with metadata in scientific ways, as she is doing now.

We are profiling Melissa because metadata specialists are becoming more valuable in this era of massive information generation, including much that’s not well-documented. Our intention is to help two audiences:

  1. Organizations seeking to know more about metadata as a tool for making better sense and use of information.
  2. Students and other candidates with metadata skills and experience, interested in knowing of job requirements and opportunities.


Melissa’s metadata work started in the fall of 2013, working on a collection of spreadsheet data on a temporary, four month assignment. It has since turned into an annual contract with a variety of additional projects, such as working with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and processing metadata for historical aerial photographs to create a reference that shows how land changes over time.

Most recently Melissa traveled to San Francisco for the LCA 14 Conference, an annual event sponsored by the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLA), an organization that seeks to build knowledge of environmental life cycle management issues for responsible decision-making and development of sound policies and programs. She created and participated in a poster presentation on metadata for Life Cycle Assessment with two USDA colleagues.

On a daily basis, she is responsible for data documentation and management to make data more accessible and understandable for a wide audience that includes the academic community, government, data providers, researchers, regulatory agencies and the multi-billion agriculture industry. (According to USDA, agriculture and related industries contributes about five percent to US GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which equaled $775.8 billion in 2012.)

Her concern is not the data itself but the documentation around it and issues that most scientists and users of data don’t think about, like copyright and rights management and how the data should be used.


All this falls into that category known as metadata – data about the data. Generally, the scientists and data producers are not as interested in the metadata as the data itself, even though increasingly, it’s the metadata that will help them get published, discovered and known.

The value of metadata is making raw data imminently more useful and trustworthy by providing context that will help the audience understand:

  • Who – Who did the research and under what auspices (or we could say, whose dime?)
  • Why – Why was it done, for what intended purpose?
  • What – The data itself along with the collection criteria, standards and methodology.

According to Melissa, metadata for research data is relatively new compared to metadata for bibliographic resources. Each institution and its users have unique needs and technology changes so quickly, so the ability to innovate is very important.


The detailed work of dealing with spreadsheets and other data sets is elevated by focusing on bigger goals, some set by ARS and some personal to Melissa.

“I am on a mission to make researchers aware of the value of metadata so they will take the little extra time required to create it! That information is becoming more of a necessity thanks to this era of big data and the openness of the internet.”

Her goal is to automate as much as she can and to make scientists and academicians aware of the benefits they gain from good metadata:

  • More citations and opportunities to collaborate.
  • More grant opportunities.
  • Greater credibility and visibility.

While Melissa expected to put her metadata training to good use, it’s the need for soft skills that has been something of a surprise.

“I have to discuss my findings and work during meetings, and I have to make the case for whatever practice or course of action I’m recommending. This was something of a surprise to me; I went into this field because I’m a very quiet, introverted person, but working with metadata is very interactive and requires you to collaborate, debate, and teach on a regular basis.”

Melissa enjoys being involved in the scientific community and learning more about the issues in agriculture and agribusiness. She finds the people she works with to be interesting, and also respectful of and responsive to her ideas and recommendations, even if they’re not always implemented.

This is one metadata specialist who keeps her eye not only on the ‘data about the data’ but on the big picture of what the data represent.

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