In his groundbreaking book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond argued that Europe’s key advantage over China during the Age of Exploration was the sheer number of European political entities. Christopher Columbus heard “No” from one sovereign and still had another from whom to seek patronage and sponsorship. According to Diamond’s logic, China’s successful unification was a disadvantage when it came to invention, adventure, and spreading horizons.

I saw this for myself when I sat down at a table in Hannover, Germany, for the first summer meeting of DataCite. I was leading a discussion of the Working Group on Metadata. Included in the discussions with me were representatives from these organizations:

  • ETH Zürich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology)
  • GESIS (German Social Science Infrastructure Services)
  • DTU (Technical University of Denmark)
  • British Library
  • Purdue University Libraries
  • TIB (German National Library of Science and Technology)/DataCite
  • ANDS (Australian National Data Service)
  • CISTI (Canada Institute for Science and Technical Information)
  • SNDS (Swedish National Data Service)

Before I left home, I had received some advice from a veteran of metadata standards work, John Kunze. He wrote, “In my extensive experience with metadata standardization, the biggest threat to that process in our community (not the private sector) is non-convergent discussion.  One approach to use…is the “desert island” question: if you know you’d be stranded by yourself on an island for five years and you could only bring 7 books with you, which would you bring?”

Up to this point, the metadata group had met virtually a few times, which is a greater than usual challenge with members spread from Europe all the way to Australia. So our face-to-face time was especially valuable. I took John’s advice and proposed that we focus our attention and efforts on achieving consensus on a core set of required elements. My colleagues readily agreed to this strategy.

We worked for 3 hours and, in the end, settled on 6 required elements. We also achieved a greater understanding of the differences between our various organizations, and that became apparent as we made the case for one metadata element or another. This makes for a better end product, because a standard that can accommodate a wide range of use cases and users is more successful than one that is more narrowly defined. When our discussions bumped into the edges of disagreement, we were able to uncover assumptions, clearing up misconceptions.

The Working Group on Metadata has more work to do, of course. We still have the optional elements to discuss. We must coordinate our work with other standards groups. And, now, we are back to functioning on a virtual basis. But, I think that we head into these remaining tasks with new strength both from our modest successes, and also from the experience of overcoming differences to achieve them.