A Proposal for Web Metadata Operations

Draft v0.1, April 29, 1997


This document provides rationale for why metadata support for Web resources is desirable, gives a model for separating existing metadata into small chunk and large chunk metadata, lists requirements for how to manipulate Web metadata, and provides a proposal which meets these requirements for how metadata can be created, deleted, and queried on Web resources using a set of extensions to the HTTP (version 1.1) protocol.


In its most abstract form, metadata is "information about information." Information on the Web, known as Web resources, have many pieces of associated descriptive information which is often not explicitly represented in the resource itself. Examples of metadata include the creator of a resource, its subject, length, publisher, creation date, etc. Such descriptive metadata can be used to make information easier to locate by improving Web searches [Weibel, 1995], rate information to protect children from indecent content (e.g. the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) [Miller et al., 1996]), capture copyright information, contain a digital signature, or store cataloging data. Many other uses are also possible.

Another type of metadata is the relationship. A relationship captures an association between two or more resources, and can be one to one, one to many, or many to many. Relationships can be used to capture navigational relationships, such as "go to this resource next," or a table of content, and can also express hierarchies (parent/child, successor/predecessor) [Maloney, 1996] Relationships have many domain-specific uses, such as a piece of software which has many "implements" relationships with a requirements document. Annotations are another use of relationships in which the relationship points to commentary material on the resource. The use of relationships to capture associations between data items is an old idea, stemming from semantic data modeling [Abrial, 1974][Hull & King, 1987], and early hypertext work on the NLS [Engelbart, 1968] and Xanadu [Nelson, 1981] systems.

Characteristics of Metadata

To date, there have been many techniques for describing metadata information. On the Web there have been many mechanisms and proposals for metadata, including PICS [Miller et al., 1996], PICS-NG, the Rel/Rev draft [Maloney, 1996], Web Collections, XML linking, several proposals on representing relationships within HTML, digital signature manifests (DCMF), and a position paper on Web metadata architecture [Berners-Lee, 1997]. Related to the Web, but coming from a digital library perspective, are the Dublin Core [Weibel et al., 1995] metadata set and the Warwick Framework [Lagoze, 1996], a container architecture for different metadata schemas. The literature on metadata includes many examples of metadata, including MARC [MARC, 1994], a bibliographic metadata format, RFC 1807 [Lasher, Cohen, 1995], a technical report bibliographic format employed by the Dienst system, and the proceedings from the first IEEE Metadata conference describe many community-specific metadata sets.

Participants of the 1996 Metadata II Workshop in Warwick, UK [Lagoze, 1996], noted that, "new metadata sets will develop as the networked infrastructure matures" and "different communities will propose, design, and be responsible for different types of metadata." These observations can be corroborated by noting that many community-specific sets of metadata already exist, and there is significant motivation for the development of new forms of metadata as many communities increasingly make their data available in digital form, requiring a metadata format to assist data location and cataloging.

Based on an examination of many Web metadata proposals, it appears that Web metadata can be broadly characterized into two categories, termed small chunk and large chunk. These are described below.

Small chunk metadata

Small chunk metadata includes data items such as:

While developing a stringent definition of "small" is most likely impossible, since the definition is arbitrary, and seems to be based on unstated assumptions about retrieval performance (e.g., retrieval of small chunk metadata should be "trivially" or "unnoticeably" fast), much metadata has a small chunk flavor to it.

Characteristics of small chunk metadata include: fast retrieval speeds, no need for content negotiation, no requirements on ordering, no need for "trust" information (e.g., digital signature, author information, hash of contents, date of creation), and relatively simple value information.

Large chunk metadata

Large chunk metadata includes data items such as instances of:

Like the smallness of small chunk metadata, the largeness of large chunk metadata is similarly difficult to define. Characteristics of large chunk metadata include: requirements on the ordering of fields, encoded trust information, pointers to metadata schema descriptions, complex data models, and multiple levels of containment. Large chunk metadata often contains several instances of small chunk metadata. Typically large chunk metadata is larger than small chunk metadata, although it is easy to develop classes of both for which this assertion does not hold. As a result, there is an assumption that large chunk metadata takes longer to transmit than small chunk metadata. Large chunk metadata, when stored as a separate resource, has the advantage that several different representations of the information can be stored, such as translations into different natural languages, and then used in content negotiation.

Mapping of metadata to the Web data model

The mapping of metadata to the various data containers (resources, headers) in the Web data model varies depending on whether the metadata is stored on, in, or as a resource.

On resource. In this case, the metadata is stored with the resource, but is not a part of the resource itself. Examples include HTTP links, HTTP headers, PICS labels (using the PICS-Label header). On resource storage is typically used for small chunk metadata, and on resource metadata is retrievable after 1 network request (a HEAD or GET).

Within resource. The metadata is embedded within the resource, and is a defined part of the document type description. Examples include HTML REL/REV links, the HTML META tag, various HTML metadata proposals, Microsoft Word .DOC documents, and Web Collections. Within resource metadata is retrievable in 1 network request (GET). Within resource metadata has the advantage of being independent of access protocol, and is portable (when the resource moves, it does too). Within resource metadata tends to be small chunk.

Is (whole) resource. The metadata is itself an entire resource. When the metadata is an entire resource, there usually exists a relationship (link) between the described and metadata (describing) resources. Examples include Web Collections, Warwick containers, Web pages. Typically large-chunk metadata ends up as whole resource metadata, such as the MIME encoding of Warwick containers described in [Knight, Hamilton, 1996]. Typically retrieval of whole resource metadata requires 2 network requests (one to get the links, one to get the metadata).

Consistency maintenance

Many sources have noted that metadata can be viewed as an assertion about the described data. In this view of metadata, an author attribute is viewed as an assertion that a particular person is the author of the information being described. Since the Web is a client-server system, there are two points of control over these assertions. With client controlled (or user) metadata, the consistency of the assertion is maintained by the user. Typically the server is unable to perform any validation of client controlled (or maintained) metadata. Alternately, the server can control the consistency of metadata assertions; one example is the last modified date of a resource.

When metadata can be set by many different principals, as is the case on the Web, it is desirable to have some way of determining whether a particular assertion should be trusted. Trust information is a prominent aspect of the PICS container format, which contains a digital signature, contents hash, author information, and a valid date range which can be used to assess the trustworthiness of the assertions contained in the package.

Requirements for Operations on Web Metadata

The following are the relevant requirements for operations on Web metadata as specified in "Requirements for Distributed Authoring and Versioning" [Slein et al., 1997].

[5.1.1] It must be possible to create, modify, query, read and delete arbitrary attributes on resources of any media type.

[5.2.1] It must be possible to create, modify, query, read and delete typed relationships between resources of any media type.

Proposal for Metadata Operations

In early WebDAV proposals [Goland et. al, 1996] all metadata was whole resource metadata, with the exception of the links used to hold the relationship between the described resource and the metadata resource. While this approach handles large-chunk metadata well, it does have significant drawbacks for maintaining the referential integrity between metadata and the resource(s) it describes, especially when they are controlled by different principals. To ensure that metadata could be created and retrieved in one method invocation, several convenience functions were proposed which created a link and the metadata resource in one action. However, this led to difficulties in specifying the operations due to atomicity problems, and would be difficult to implement since a partial failure (e.g. link created OK, but metadata resource creation failed) would require rollback capability in the server. Another significant drawback to this approach is the difficulty of providing searches on the value of the metadata. While it was easy to propose a full-featured search on the type space of the links to the metadata, searches of the metadata itself quickly led to a consideration of the full resource searching problem, and difficult issues such as handling the wide range of natural languages and media types of resources being searched.

Another early draft, the Netscape proposal [Cunningham & Faizi, 1996], gives operations for setting and retrieving attribute-value pairs stored in an attribute sheet associated with the resource. While this approach provides basic support for small chunk metadata, it lacks an attribute search mechanism, placing the burden of attribute searching on the client. It also has no support for large chunk metadata, although this could be provided in a limited way by storing a URI pointer to large chunk metadata in the value of an attribute.

Neither a pure whole resource metadata approach, nor a pure on-resource approach is able to handle the range of current and proposed Web metadata. The whole resource approach has referential integrity problems, and the on-resource approach cannot handle the many large chunk metadata formats. As a result, the proposal in this document uses a mixed approach for handling metadata, providing support for both on-resource, small chunk metadata and whole resource, large chunk metadata. This mixed proposal provides operations for creating, deleting, and querying attribute-value pairs stored on Web resources. Simple binary relationships are stored in "Link" metadata, which can point to large chunk metadata resources.

The mixed proposal requires a modification to the object model for HTTP/1.1 resources to provide a repository for metadata state information in addition to the current repositories of state within an HTTP resource: the body and headers. This new state information consists of attribute-value pairs, in which the attribute's name is a URI, and the attribute's value is an untyped octet stream. URIs are used for attribute names to provide a distributed, extensible name space for attribute names. URIs also have the capability, if dereferenced, of providing descriptive information on the syntax, semantics, and use of the attribute.

Disadvantages of storing metadata in the existing HTTP object model lead to the desire to modify it. While HTTP headers can and are used for small chunk metadata, they have drawbacks for distributed authoring. Since users may potentially create the name of an attribute, this raises the possibility of name collisions with existing headers. More importantly, since there could be potentially many attributes stored on a resource, it is important for network efficiency that these attributes not be returned with every GET or HEAD request. There are many proposals for placing metadata inside a Web resource (e.g., placing a PICS record inside a resource), however, there is no general way to define metadata in the body of resources of any media type. As a consequence, placing metadata in the body would reduce metadata use to just a few specific resource media types, limiting the general use of metadata. Since metadata in headers leads to network inefficiency, and metadata in bodies is impossible to generalize across all media types, it is necessary to add new state for attribute-value metadata to the HTTP/1.1 object model.

The sections below describe in detail new HTTP methods which can be used to create (ADDMETA), delete (DELMETA), search and retrieve (GETMETA) attribute-value metadata, including simple bidirectional links. All of these methods may return a message body that contains a listing of attribute name/value pairs, however, the syntax for how to package these name/value pairs has intentionally not yet been specified. It is hoped that one of the Web metadata packaging proposals currently being discussed (e.g., Web Collections or PICS-NG) will be useable as the return format for WebDAV metadata methods. Until these specifications have settled, it is premature to use them in a specification.



Body = *Pair
Pair = Name HT *Value CRLF
Name = URI
Value = Octet-CRLF | (CRLF HT)
Octet-CRLF = <Octet excluding CRLF>


The ADDMETA method is used to create one or more new attribute-value pairs on the resource specified by the Request-URI. The body of the message MUST be of content type text/tab-separated-values, containing a sequence of attribute name/value pairs. Each name/value pair consists of a URI attribute name, followed by a TAB, followed by a stream of octets which specify the attribute's value. The value of the attribute may extend over several lines in the body, each extension line beginning with a TAB. The name and value uniquely define a metadata item; there may be multiple instances of the same attribute name with different values, but only one instance of a particular name/value pair. When used as the name of an attribute, the octets which comprise the URI are used to determine its uniqueness; if two (or more) URIs have different octet values, but are equivalent names for the same network resource (e.g., http://foo.com/bar.html and ftp://foo.com/bar.html), they are still considered to be different attribute names.

The server MUST attempt to create all the included name/value pairs. The return message body (TBD) will indicate which creation attempts failed.


ADDMETA /foo.html HTTP/1.1
Host: ics.uci.edu
Content-Type: text/tab-separated-values

http://www.purl.org/W3C/Dublin/Author<TAB>Jim Whitehead
<TAB> Source = "http://ics.uci.edu/foo.html"
<TAB> Dest = "http://ics.uci.edu/foo.html/version_history"

Response Codes

200 OK indicates the server successfully created all of the name/value pairs described in the request body.

A server may reject entries because they are not consistent with the definition of the attribute. In that case a 406 Not Acceptable should be returned.

Error conditions: empty body? Partial success/failure -- could not create one of the name/value pairs.

TBD: A response message body indicating which name/value pairs the server was unable to create.



The body may either be of content type text/tab-separated-values, using the syntax defined for the ADDMETA body, or of content type application/dav-meta-search, using the syntax defined for the GETMETA body.


The DELMETA method is used to remove a name/value pair from the resource specified by the Request-URI. When the message body is of content type text/tab-separated-values, the server MUST remove any attribute name/value pair defined on the resource which exactly matches a name/value pair specified in the message body.

When the message body is of content type application/dav-meta-search, the server MUST remove any attribute name/value pair defined on the resource which satisfies the search specification in the message body. If a server implements the GETMETA and the DELMETA methods, it MUST provide support for search specifications of content type application/dav-meta-search, and MAY accept search specifications in other formats and/or content types for the DELMETA method. All search formats accepted by GETMETA SHOULD be accepted by DELMETA.

Response Codes

TBD -- need to reuse the response format from ADDMETA to return the name/value pairs which were removed.

Error conditions: Syntax error in search syntax.



Search = "(" "OR" *And-Expr")"
And-Expr = "(" "AND" Name Value ")"
Name = "(" "name" search-pattern ")"
Value = "(" "value" search-pattern ")"
search-pattern = <">*("*" | "?"
         | SpecialOctet | escaped-octet) <">
SpecialOctet = <OCTET without <"> or "*"
        or "?"  or "\">
escaped-octet  = "\" OCTET


The GETMETA method returns all attribute name/value pairs defined on the resource specified by the Request-URI which match the search syntax specified in the message body. If a server implements the GETMETA method, it MUST provide support for search specifications of content type application/dav-meta-search, and MAY accept search specifications in other formats and/or content types.

application/dav-meta-search media type

The application/dav-meta-search media type uses a subset of the s-expression syntax to specify an attribute search syntax. Searches are a logical or of limited regular expression matching of attribute name/value pairs. Each name/value pair search is a logical and of regular expression matching on the name and the value of the attribute. The "*" operator, which matches any sequence of zero or more octets, and the "?" operator, which matches a single octet, are the only regular expression operators allowed. If a search needs to specify a literal "*" or "?", these characters are escaped using the slash "/" convention, hence literal "*" is represented as "/*" and literal "?" is represented as "/?".


GETMETA /foo.html HTTP/1.1
Host: www.ics.uci.edu
Content-Type: application/DAV-meta-search

(OR (AND (name "http://ydfh") (value "*"))
    (AND (name "foo:blah")(value "*")))
GETMETA /foo.html HTTP/1.1
Host: www.ics.uci.edu
Content-Type: application/DAV-meta-search

(OR (AND (name "*y?f*")(value "*"))
    (AND (name "f*?h")(value "*"))

Assuming that the metadata available on http://www.ics.uci.edu/foo.html did not change between the requests, the response to the second GETMETA request should, at a minimum, include all the responses from the first GETMETA request.

GETMETA /index.html HTTP/1.1
Host: www.ics.uci.edu
Content-Type: application/DAV-meta-search

(OR (AND (name "*")(value "*")))

The server will return a list of all attribute name/value pairs defined on the resource http://www.ics.uci.edu/index.html.

GETMETA /index.html HTTP/1.1
Host: www.ics.uci.edu
Content-Type: application/DAV-meta-search

(OR (AND (name "DAV:/LINK")(value "*")))

The server will return a list of all links defined on the resource http://www.ics.uci.edu/index.html.

Response Codes

The response format for matching name/value pairs is TBD.

Error conditions: syntax error in search syntax. No matching name/value pairs?

Link Metadata Type

Link := linkname HT linkvalue
linkname := "DAV:/Link"
linkvalue := Type SP Source SP Destination *(SP link-extension)
Source := "Source" "=" <"> URI <">
Destination := "Dest" "=" <"> URI <">
Type := "Type" "=" <"> URI <">

link-extension = token ["=" (token | quoted-string)]

A link can be viewed as a piece of metadata stored on a resource, which can be stored in an attribute name/value pair. The Link predefined metadata type provides a standard syntax for expressing typed links with two endpoints. By definition, the name of a link attribute is "DAV:/Link" and the value of the attribute is a triple consisting describes the link's type, source, and destination, and potentially some extra descriptive information.

When recoding a DAV:/Link attribute, a server is only required to record the Source, Destination, and Type. It may drop all other information in the attribute value field if it so chooses. In addition a server MUST not record two links which have the same source, destination, and type but differ on other attributes. A link is uniquely identified by the source/destination/type triple.

Please note the use of ":=" in the BNF productions above. This means that white space is never implicit, simplifying link search specifications.


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Jim Whitehead
Last modified: Tue Apr 29 17:19:32 PDT