Metadata that kills

Peter Brantley

Recently I was advising a friend who works at a not-for-profit that distributes ebooks to underserved populations around the world. “Is there a way,” she asked, “to limit or select what portions of an ebook catalog are displayed to readers in one country versus another?” Was this an issue of rights, I wondered? “No,” she said. “In some countries, particularly for women, being caught reading the wrong book can have mortal consequences.”

It was a poignant point which caught me flat-footed. This is not a hard technical problem; depending on the distribution platform and reading system, title masking is not difficult. But it hadn’t occurred to me that metadata — or the lack of it — could quite literally translate into the death by stoning of a young girl brave or foolish enough to read a forbidden book. This is a world where there may need to be an ebook catalog for open societies, and another for countries in which the lives of women, for example, have no value.


In the United States and Europe, publishers and authors pushing on the boundaries of what is socially acceptable might get a title’s distribution restricted, at worst; after all, angry conservative parents still protest the reading of Huck Finn in public schools. But the real risks of censorship in modern Western societies is low, and even in past decades, the most savage legal reaction has been more toward fines than imprisonment. In 1958, Vladimir Nabokov could get his masterwork of pedophilia, “Lolita,” published and break the record for one-week sales set by “Gone with the Wind.” At a time when Vanity Fair can publish an article online about a dating culture that permits men to solicit women who want to be “choke-fucked,” it’s hard to imagine that there might be sharply negative consequences to reading the not-so-long ago translated Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc, the story of an intimate affair between two girls at a French boarding school.

And yet, as W. H. Auden would have declaimed, here we are to suffer all of this again. This conflict between the expression, in rules, of a society, and our understanding of it, is not novel in publishing. Librarians are expert at describing literature, and are keen to debate the fine points of the subject classifications and descriptions that modern librarianship demands. Working within a liberal profession, they recognize the deep-seated historical prejudices that mapped out the beliefs of their dominant society through the Dewey Decimal System, which has a hard time recognizing anything other than Christianity, or even the more contemporary Library of Congress Subject Headings system. Whole swaths of geography, and whole systems of understanding of how we choose to love and care for another, were never encoded in these bibliographic models.

Recognizing that we have a problem with our understanding of the world emerges slowly from the shadows of our belief systems. The realization that a world in which conservative, radical, militants in the Middle East consider the rape of young girls to be an expression of holiness shines a harsh light on the consequences for how we describe literature. What are we not describing, that might matter in a world of orthodoxy? Even readers’ guides don’t capture anything more focused than “strong female lead character” or “coming of age.” Do we have an obligation to attempt to encode sexual explicitness? The dominant religious expressions? The types of violence depicted? As publishers and librarians, when we work to make books more discoverable, social understandings stand silently in the back of our minds, guiding our choices.


Descriptive metadata is never neutral. It reflects our understanding of our society, and our interpretation of how we think the world should be. It is unavoidably evocative of not just a book, film, or song, but rather the whole society which gave it genesis. When developed, particularly Western, countries wind up determining codes and classifications, a very specific illustration of the world is drawn which is a slim sliver of human understanding of the world.

The question of how we describe books extends naturally to which books we choose to make available in libraries for lending, and through retail for sale. Although not universally shared, a central ideological tenet of Western society holds precious the assumption that challenging pre-conceived notions of thought is both progressive and liberating. This rationalism is fundamentally bound into our core economic system of capitalism, in which increasing productivity and greater financial returns are spawn from the contest between established business systems and innovation. The growth of jihadist movements today, as was the case with conservative Christian movements in times past, ably demonstrates this is not the only organizing framework that people find compelling.

I tremble at the thought that we must be careful about where in the world we make available picture storybooks that explain what menstruation is, for young women. Nonetheless, when European-based publishing ideologies move into other environments, we must struggle to find a balance between respecting local systems of belief on one hand, while honoring our insistence that rational thought, and ultimately, a liberal interpretation of opportunities for women and all social minorities, should be fundamental rights for humankind. A blind insistence that liberal thought is a pre-requisite for literacy could shut and bolt the doors to that opportunity in the very societies that might benefit the most from it — where ever, per Auden, conservative dictators drive enlightenment away.

There is no hard and fast solution to this conundrum. We must all consciously choose. I believe in the values of progressive and liberal thought. I would have us steer to that pole, perhaps tacking left, and then right, with an assuredness that the ultimate path lies straight ahead towards that dawn. Let us have the grace to acknowledge, however, that there might be other fundamental values that could place human society in greater harmony with the world that our current understandings can, that do not preclude our obligation to treat one another with love and respect. That greater questioning, and the self-awareness it brings, it what we must carry with our stories and songs into the lands of orthodoxy.


An earlier version of this article was published by Publishers Weekly in the Frankfurt Book Fair, Daily Edition, 14 October 2015.

Peter Brantley

Written by

Director Online Strategy, Library, UC Davis. Affiliated Researcher, Center for Information Research in the Interest of Society, UC Berkeley.

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