USDA Forest Service

Forest Service Metadata Users Guide

FS Metadata
User Guide
Policy & Guidelines
Purpose and Scope
How to use this Guide
Step 1
Gathering Metadata
Step 2
Step 3
Creating FGDC Metadata
Step 4
Step 6
Maintaining Metadata
Feature Level Metadata
Contact Information
Glossary & Terms
Other Resources

USDA Forest Service -
Geospatial Advisory Committee
Last Modified:  3/31/05

Step 3

Metadata tools help you document your data.  A number of tools are available to create FGDC (Federal Geographic Data Committee) compliant metadata.  The Forest Service has migrated to the ArcGIS environment.  ArcCatalog is an organizational tool within ArcGIS that helps the user view, manage, and document data. All units are strongly encouraged to use ArcCatalog for creating metadata, not only for standardization, but because it has many features to aid in metadata creation.

ARC Catalog fully integrates with the ArcGIS environment allowing you to view metadata along with the data.  ArcCatalog has a number of features to assist you in creating metadata including:

  • ability to automatically gather information from your dataset
  • ability to import existing metadata,
  • a robust FGDC metadata editor.
  • ability to copy and paste from other documents

The metadata you produce travels with the dataset when you copy, move, or export it using ArcCatalog.  When someone imports data, the metadata will be visible in ArcCatalog.   Metadata can also be exported to a number of styles and formats for web publication using ArcCatalog. 

This guide will discuss:

Accessing and viewing metadata

Creating Metadata in Arc Catalog Overview

FGDC metadata editor

Exporting and publishing metadata

Creating Metadata templates

Documenting Feature Level Metadata

Accessing and Viewing Metadata

ArcCatalog provides a view into your computer file system. You can see the file structure, previews of geography and tables, and metadata records.  To view the metadata, click on the data set you would like to view and select the tab on the right that says ‘metadata’.

    view of metadata window

Style sheets

You can view metadata using one of the several FGDC or ISO (International Organization for Standard) style sheets.  Most user should choose one of the FGDC style sheets.  Otherwise, you will not be able to see the full FGDC metadata record . Use ISO style sheets. when viewing international dataset's.  The raw XML format is also available and is useful for viewing  FGDC and ISO information at the same time. The example below uses the FGDC ESRI style sheet.  Style sheets. use hyperlinks, expandable headings, and/or tabs for navigation depending on which style sheet you chose. Look in help under "Exploring an item's metadata" for more details.

View of ArcCatalog window- selecting a style sheet

Creating Metadata in Arc Catalog - Overview

Automatic Metadata Creation

If metadata has not already been created, ArcCatalog automatically creates a metadata record and fills in what it can gather from your dataset such as information about the coordinate system, bounding coordinates, features, and attributes*.  Information automatically gathered by ArcCatalog is limited.  You will have to provide the rest by using the FGDC metadata editor. 

Throughout ArcGIS, you will find that it is essential to define projection and datum.  This particularly true for creating metadata because ArcCatalog cannot automatically document projection and datum unless they have been defined.  See "Defining a coverage's coordinate system" and "Defining a shapefile's coordinate system" in help.

* ArcCatalog automatically gathers information about your data set if the option to do so has been checked under TOOLS|OPTIONS menu.  Otherwise click the create/update button

.view of create metadata on toolbar

Importing Metadata

You can also import a existing metadata record or template that contains information appropriate to the dataset you want to document.  Using a metadata template is strongly recommended because it enables you to display information consistently and reduce workload. See "Importing exporting metadata" in help. IMPORTANT: Importing a file will write over the previous metadata record.    See Import Caution.

view of import metadata button on toolbar

Import metadata dialog box

FGDC metadata editor

Finally, you will use the FGDC metadata editor to add and update information that cannot be supplied by either automate metadata creation or importing existing metadata record.  The next section discusses how to use the FGDC metadata editor.

 view of tool bar showing Edit Metadata button

FGDC metadata editor

Before starting the editor, locate the dataset to edit in the catalog tree and click the metadata tab.  Then click the Edit button as shown

below to start the editor.

View of FGDC Metadata Editor interface


1.       Across the top of the Metadata Editor window are the seven tabs representing broad FGDC metadata sections: Identification, Data Quality, Data Organization, Spatial Reference, Entity Attribute, Distribution, and Metadata Reference.  As a metadata section is selected, its name is bolded.

View of FGDC Metadata Editor entry form

2.       When a section tab is selected, several tabs appear in the row immediately below and represent groups of metadata elements that go with the selected section.   In the Figure above, the  Identification section has been selected. Some of the tabbed data entry areas contain additional “sub-tabs”, sub-menu forms, drop downs, or buttons, which open additional metadata “sub-windows” (i.e., for entry of “one-to-many” metadata elements).  In other words, various nested hierarchies of metadata entry fields will present themselves.  In the Figure above data entry fields for elements under the “General” tab of the “Identification” section are displayed.

3.   Begin entering your metadata into the fields under the appropriate sections and elements.

What to enter?

At first glance, the sheer number of fields available for data entry may seem a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, the editor highlights FGDC required fields in red.  It also helps to focus on the main purposes for creating metadata which are to enable a user to understand what the data represent, evaluate the applicability of the data for their own needs, understand how to use the data, and learn how to acquire the data.   Additionally, information to help you understand 'what goes where' in the editor is provided by the ArcCatalog help system and by the FGDC Metadata Workbook and other metadata guides.   See FGDC metadata editor help below.

Two schools of thought exist on how much metadata to enter.  One school says to do a thorough job now, because you won't get back to it later.  The other school says that if you try to create perfect metadata, the job is too big a job. You won't do it at all.  The answer, of course, is to do what you can within time and budget to create FGDC compliant metadata, but do not fail to document critical information that is easily lost or forgotten as time passes.  Remember that field crews go back to school, experts retire, and our memories fail.  Don't put it off.  And do not fail to provide critical information necessary to help the user understand, evaluate, acquire, and use a dataset.

If you intend make data by publishing the metadata on a website, it is essential to provide the location by filling out the 'Online Linkage' field under 'IDENTIFICATION', 'Citation', 'details'.  For publishing metadata on the Forest Service FGDC clearinghouse, certain fields must be also completed. See discussion about 'FGDC Theme Keyword' and 'FGDC Resource Description' in  Step 4 - Publishing Metadata    See also Exporting and Publishing Metadata below.

Problems with automatic entry of spatial information

All you spatial information should be captured for you. If, however, no data exists in the spatial information fields (bounding coordinates, etc), you may need to exit and check your coverage for projection files. On occasion, there have been 0’s in the bounding coordinate fields. If this is the case, go back into the editor, open the tab, and delete the 0’s, leaving the x and y coordinates blank. Exit the editor, and hit the update

 information button . View of Create Meatadata button on toolbar  Go back into the editor, and the fields should be correct if you have projection information. You can enter and exit the editor and it will not change your file (unless you change the raw data). You can leave the editor, and look at the results of your work under the metadata tab.

FGDC metadata editor help

The following subjects are accessible through the ArcCatalog help system:

1.   Search help in ArcCatalog under "FGDC Metadata Editor" - for an overview of the FGDC metadata editor, a discussion of FGDC metadata sections and elements, and description how to get help while using the editor. 

2.   While in the Editor, clicking help brings up "Using the FGDC metadata editor to document your data"  which discusses the meaning of each field in the editor.  Also while in the editor, you can click the "?" in the upper right corner then click in the editor for context sensitive help. 

3.    Searching help under "Editing Metadata" brings up a discussion of FGDC versus ISO standards and how to pick either the FGDC metadata editor or the ISO wizard.   under TOOLS|OPTIONS. The FGDC editor is the default and you won't need to change this option unless you are working with international.

The FGDC metadata workbook explains what data goes where and what the elements mean.  The workbook is available at the Federal Geographic Data Committee web site.  

Mike Martischang and Steven Bown have written comprehensive metadata guides which will provide additional insight in understanding and using metadata.  Click on their names to download the MS Word formatted documents.

Completing the edit session

When you have completed your edits, simply save and the editor will close. Click the Create/Update button to update your metadata record after editing. 

View of Create Meatadata button on toolbar

If the dataset is a coverage, the file is stored as  'metadata.xml'  within the coverage folder. If the dataset is a shapefile, the metadata file is stored with the same name as the dataset but with the xml extension within the same folder.  If the dataset is a personal geodatabase, the metadata is stored in a metadata table within the geodatabase.  The metadata reside with your dataset and will travel with your dataset automatically when you copy, move, or export it. When someone imports, the metadata will be visible in ArcCatalog.

Exporting and Publishing Metadata


ArcCatalog by default stores your metadata in XML format.  This format is not easy to view.  To improve the look, export your metadata file into one of the many HTML formats in ArcCatalog and save it with your coverage or use it for publication on a website. 

Experiment with various export formats to decide which is most appropriate for you needs.  See "Importing exporting metadata" in help.

Export metadata button on toolbar

Export metadata dialog box

FGDC CSDGM (HTML) is the standard FGDC look with hyperlinks for navigation.  FGDC CSDGM (FAQ) uses hyperlink attached to common 'who', 'what', 'where', 'when', 'why', and 'how' questions about the data.

screen capture of FGDC metadata edtior FAQ

Web publication

The metadata you create in ArcCatalog will be the foundation for web publication. The Geospatial Service and Technology Center (GSTC) is in the process of developing Forest Service FGDC metadata clearinghouse that will have specific metadata requirements for publication. 

Creating Metadata Templates

Standardized metadata templates enable you to display information consistently and reduce workload. The template metadata record contains information that applies to more than one dataset such as contact name and address, distribution policy, liability statement, metadata contact information, perhaps location keywords. A general template for an FS unit will contain information that is the same for most data sets. More specific templates, may also provide standard information representing multiple dataset's for a particular theme such as soils or vegetation. The extent of the repeating information will depend on your situation.

Creating metadata templates is usually responsibility of unit data managers and data stewards.   National Data Stewards will be creating standardized metadata templates for GIS Data Dictionary compliant dataset's. As these become available, they should be used as the starting point for creating metadata templates for your unit. Instead having one template, you may have several. See Import Caution

Step 1.  Create and save an empty metadata template file (e.g., “metadata_template.xml”).

  • Open an ascii text editor such as TextPad or Notepad.

  •   Add the following two lines to the text file:

  • Save the text file with a .xml extension (e.g., “metadata_template.xml”) at a location on the server where any potential metadata author in the cell can access it.

Step 2.  Start and navigate ArcCatalog to where the metadata_template.xml file has been stored.

To begin populating the “metadata_template.xml” file with those metadata elements that will be the same for all (or the majority of) the data sets for which you’ll define metadata (i.e., your “corporate”, data dictionary coverages), start ArcCatalog  and navigate to the “metadata_template.xml” file created in Step 1.

You may need to connect to the folder before you can see the file.  See "Adding Folder Connections" in help.

Loading the metadata_template.xml file to ArcCatalog.

  1. In the navigation tree on the left side of the ArcCatalog window, navigate to the subdirectory where metadata_template.xml is stored, select the metadata_template.xml file and…
  2. Click on the “Metadata” tab in the right side of the ArcCatalog window.
  3. All that ArcCatalog will display in your metadata_template.xml file is the line “Metadata:”

AcrCatalog screenshot  showing style sheet selection

Step 3.  Start the FGDC metadata editor and begin entering “default” text to your metadata_template.xml file.

Edit Metadata button on toolbar

 Click once on the “Edit metadata” button and the FGDC “Metadata Editor” window  opens.

The metadata editor will open and you will have several tabs of data to view and fill out. Select the appropriate elements and enter information that should be displayed consistently, such as contact information and liability statement. As you create metadata you might discover more to add to the template. You can leave the metadata editor and go back in whenever you like.  The following examples show you where to look in the editor to fill-in contact and liability information.

editing template dialog box

Contact Info  entry dialog box

Fill in the items you want to standardize and leave all other items blank! 

Now go to the dataset you want to document

IMPORTANT: Importing a file will write over the previous metadata record.   See Import Caution

Screenshot  showing file locations

  1. Select the file you want to document in the Catalog Tree 

  2. click the metadata tab

  3. click the import button. 

  4. Browse to the template

  5. Open it.

  6. Click edit and finish documenting your dataset

View of file import dialog box

 edit metada button on toolbar           

'Import' Caution

Note: Importing a metadata file will write over the previous metadata record.  The order of operations is important.  For example, any information automatically pulled from the dataset (ex. entity attribute information) and any information you have entered directly into the FGDC metadata editor will be overwritten.  No automated method  is currently available to preserve locally important or dataset specific information when importing metadata from generalized templates.


  • Use generalized templates as a starting point for creating local and dataset specific templates.

  • If local templates or dataset specific metadata already exist, use copy and paste while in the FGDC metadata editor rather than import to incorporate template information.

  • Create a theme or layer specific templates by exporting the XML files from your local corporate data.  Copy and paste information from standardized template (ex. GIS data dictionary layer templates) into this local XML file using the FGDC metadata editor.  Importing the metadata from this template will ensure that theme specific and locally important information are preserved.

Documenting Feature Level Metadata

A full discussion of Feature Level Metadata is now located here.

USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.