On December 11, Dr. Yanni Loukissas gave a lecture to Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows on his project entitled “The Life and Death of Metadata.” This project brings together accession data from Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum and interviews with Arboretum staff and scholars. Loukissas served as a principal in the metaLAB at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where he spent two years analyzing records of 70,000 different plants accessed by the Arboretum.
His project and his lecture highlight the relationship between data and their contextualizing narratives. The collected interviews provide a context within which to interpret data and open a conversation about the role of data in understanding history. “Over here, you can see an interesting gap towards the end of December. That’s Christmas. Here there’s a blank ring that goes all the way around in the ’40s. That’s World War II. . . . You have this sense of the ways in which this data set is rooted not just in a scientific institution but in a broader culture,” he explained.
Loukissas’s work takes on questions of data as cultural artifacts: “We’re only beginning to uncover how we see data from this digital perspective, how we might think of them as entities that are rooted in a place, in a culture, in a community.”