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Metadata are data about data. Metadata are used to answer such questions as what data were collected, how they were collected, why they were collected, how reliable they are, and what issues should be accounted for when working with them. Metadata also describe how to get the data, what tools are needed to work with the data, and other related matters. The objective of data documentation is to provide enough information about the data set to allow someone to readily work with the data 20 years from now.

Metadata are so important to documenting data sets that standards have been created to help us remember everything we need to document and to format the content in a consistent way. This archive uses the Federal Geographic Data Committee: Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata (FGDC CSDGM) and the FGDC Biological Data Profile (BDP). See Metadata Standards for more information on these standards and why they are used.

We currently provide metadata in two different formats: XML and HTML. We provide metadata as HTML because it is a simple and easy way to share metadata with others. XML however is more commonly used and has the added advantages of being searchable (in a metadata clearinghouse, for example) and displayable via style sheets. See Using Our Formats for more information on the different formats of metadata documents.

If you would like to learn more about metadata and considerations for writing good metadata, there is an excellent article on research data management that is free to everyone. Metadata are talked about throughout the paper due to their importance in many phases of research data management. The section that focuses on metadata (“Describing Data”) starts on page 458.


There are many tools available to help users write metadata in the FGDC and BDP formats. Below is a list of those we most commonly use.

ESRI ArcGIS: This is a program for geospatial data that allows users to organize, analyze, and plot data as well as many other things. ArcGIS contains ArcCatalog, which is a tool that can be used to create metadata content in multiple formats, one of which is Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) metadata standard. The documents it creates are in XML format.

Metavist: This is a R&D software program written by Dave Rugg that is available at no charge. Metavist helps you develop a metadata document that is compliant with the Biological Data Profile (BDP) metadata standard, which works for nearly any type of data. You can also write a metadata document for purely geospatial data that is compliant with the FGDC metadata standard. The documents it creates are in XML format and can be exported as HTML. The metadata documents can be read by ESRI ArcCatalog and by USGS ScienceBase.

Download one of the following zip files, unzip it to a folder on your computer [anywhere other than downloads], and then double-click on Metavist.exe to run:

For help using Metavist see

Microsoft Word Form: This simple metadata form allows the user to easily create metadata that would meet minimal BDP standards.