Can metadata help discover diverse voices?

Photo of Chris Saynor

Chris Saynor is responsible for EDItEUR’s book publishing standards including ONIX, Thema, and EDItX. He joined the organization in late 2016. For the previous eight years, he worked for GiantChair Inc. in Paris as a metadata specialist and project manager, and has been responsible for implementation of the Onixsuite application in many publishing organizations. He’s widely known for his work with French industry liaison body CLIL and with BISG committees. Prior to that, he has a 20-year background in bookselling with Waterstones and WHSmith. Chris will be at Tech Forum delivering a session called Inclusivity, Diversity, and Harmonizing the Metadata Supply Chain: Standards at EDItEURHe’ll also be providing ONIX training at the BookNet offices on March 21.

Amazing books are being written and published. There are books that we can identify with, books that help us understand more about who we are or the places and times we live in. There are books that push our boundaries and help us see things or people through different eyes. There are books that are simply inclusive and extend our vision of a diverse society.

However, it can feel like these diverse voices are being stifled or given only the slimmest chance of being heard — they’re not easily discovered. How can metadata help?

There are many good booksellers out there who will ‘hand sell’ titles to their customers, educators who will use them in class, librarians who will put them on lists, and readers who will blog about them, but it can feel like they have to struggle to get even the basic information so they can do this. The content is hidden by a lack of good information and clear, comprehensive metadata.

While we were working on the last update to Thema — version 1.3, which was published in April 2018 (take a look at the interactive browser) — we received a question from an organization called Inclusive Minds, asking if Thema could help the discoverability of titles that touch on different aspects of diversity and inclusion, particularly in education. And although it’s not a complete answer, Thema can help highlight these titles. We wrote an answer and published this as a briefing paper, but as part of the work to improve the existing documentation and the ongoing review process for the next version, we’ve been researching books around diversity and inclusion themes to identify what needs to be added to Thema in the future, and what existing headings and notes would benefit from modification.

As part of this research, I’ve been visiting bookshops and talking to booksellers in London where I live. On a visit to one of the city’s largest bookshops, I searched for particular titles that covered diversity themes that I’d seen featured on a list of books for toddlers. Unfortunately, this list included only titles, authors, and covers, with a brief description online. As a result, I couldn’t tell whythese particular titles were included. The books weren’t in stock, but when I explained why I was looking for them the bookseller said, “We’ve been making our own list of titles about diversity, and each time we find something new we add it. It’s really hard to find suitable books, though.” She showed me some of the range they had in stock, but then pleaded, “If only there was an easy way a publisher could send us this information.”

Now, there may have been reasons why she couldn’t see all the metadata that publishers do supply, but the point is that she and other booksellers like her, responding to demand from their customers, are manually curating their lists based on books they see or discover almost accidentally. There are knowledgeable organizations, educators, librarians, bookshop staff, and readers who create great lists around diversity and inclusion themes, but it takes time and effort to find the details and put all the pieces together.

As a further part of my research, I was delighted to meet and talk to Cally and Steve at the Willesden Bookshop in North London. They run a specialized service as a supplier of multicultural children’s books to schools, libraries, nurseries, and professional development agencies. I spoke to them about how they find suitable titles. As experienced booksellers, they have deep industry knowledge, but they also showed me some of the issues they face when they’re trying to identify suitable new titles.

They make use of wholesaler and data aggregator websites aimed at the book trade, and these often display only one general subject code, for example children’s fiction, and minimal descriptive detail about a book, so it’s hard to tell if a title is suitable for a particular request. Publishers too often show only limited details on their sites. As an example, they showed me the website of a large London publishing house, which they used to use a lot. It had been totally redone as a consumer marketing site and it now appears impossible to search for books by subject or theme. And when they come across suitable titles from North American publishers, it’s often hard to discover if they are available in the UK — and if so, who to order from.

We need to think about how we can give an equal chance to every diverse voice, how to allow those passionate and curious readers to discover the titles they want to buy, and how to enable those specialist booksellers to enhance the range of titles they hand sell to their customers. We need metadata that gives educators and librarians the right information so they can create their suggested reading lists or promote the most suitable titles to learners. We have to answer the question, “Is there an easy way for publishers to send us this information?” I think part of the answer lies in a better use of existing standards and metadata such as Thema and ONIX.

If you’d like to hear more from Chris Saynor about Thema and ONIX, register for Tech Forum on March 20, 2019, or ONIX training on March 21, 2019 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for the mailing list to get all of the conference updates.