The terms "meta data" and "repository" have been with us for many years now, but there always seem to be questions about their definitions and many divergent opinions as to what they represent. Broadly speaking, meta data is data about data and a repository is something that stores meta data. Many people provide good reasons to object to this rather simple definition of meta data, and there are also many views on what a repository is. Underlying these difficulties is a notion that meta data is a fixed set of knowable facts about the structure, organization and behavior of any set of enterprise data and that if we design a good repository, we will be able to capture and manage the meta data. However, this article will argue that the meta data that can pertain to any database is potentially unknowable and infinite and that attempts to build a single general-purpose repository to house it all are unlikely to be successful.

There is little argument that data can be defined as the stored representation of a fact. Computerized information systems work by converting facts to an encoded form and placing them in a medium from which the facts can later be decoded and communicated to an intelligence capable of understanding them. For instance, an account number is entered into a computerized system by a human being and is converted into binary digits that are then encoded again when they are placed in a magnetic medium on a hard drive as part of an organized collection of similar facts called a database. The means exist to get the account number out of this storage, return it to its original format and present it on screens and reports to other human beings.

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