Visual-Meta is a method of including metadata visibly in a document, in a human and machine readable appendix, on the same visual level as the content, rather than hidden in the datafile, making ordinary documents richly interactive. 

Instead of inventing a new document format to unleash the potential of richly interactive digital text, this approach takes ‘normal’ PDF text and makes it interactive, robustly.

It is currently technically possible to embed some metadata into a PDF but it is rarely done and does not include structural information.

Visual-Meta is very low cost in terms of user investment and technical implementation, since most of the metadata is simply taken from the source document. Let’s first look at how metadata is ‘imprinted’ in a paper book:

Traditional Book Approach

A printed book features a page, before the main text, with ‘meta’ data ‘about’ the book, including the name of the author, title of the book and imprint information and so on:

Copyright © 2010 Alberto Manguel.
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America. Library of Congress Cataloging-  Manguel, Alberto. A reader on reading / Alberto Manguel. p. cm. Includes  bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-300-15982-0 (alk. paper) 


The Visual-Meta Approach


Visual-Meta puts this metadata into an Appendix at the back of the document instead of at the front (to make it less obtrusive), written out as plain text in the very human readable format of BibTeX, as shown below.

The PDF viewer software can then use this to make the normal PDF text in the document interactive. Here is a basic version of what Visual-Meta can contain:


author = {Manguel, Alberto},
title = {A reader on reading},
year = {2010},
isbn = {978-0-300-15982-0},




This method of storing metadata is robust since as long as the content of the document is available, the metadata will also be available, even to the point of printing the document, then scanning it and performing OCR on it. 

Furthermore, the actual Visual-Meta contains instructions for how to implement it, in plain language, which will allow any developer to integrate Visual-Meta import or export, now, and in hundreds or thousands of years in the future. This is far and away the most robust way to store rich digital text metadata currently available.


Legacy Compatible 


This approach does not violate any PDF standard since it is indeed just text at the end of the document and thus PDF documents with Visual-Meta can be opened by any PDF viewer.




Above all, Visual-Meta is a promise. It is a promise that if we put rich metadata into a document in a robust form, interactions we cannot even imagine now become possible. Visual-Meta is a statement of intent to preserve and use our knowledge as richly and–and I repeat; as robustly as possible. 


How to Implement Visual-Meta


If you consider implementing Visual-Meta, please have a look at the Visual-Meta Structure and Implementation Notes. Visual-Meta has been implemented in the Augmented Text ‘Author’ & ‘Reader’ as proof of concept so that you can try it and see how it feels in use.


The Bigger Picture & Community


You may want to watch one of the recorded presentations on Visual-Meta with Co-Inventor of the Internet Vint Cerf and founder of the Modern Library of Alexandria, Ismail Serageldin. You can also to read more about the benefits of this approach and what metadata the system is designed to handle.

The Visual-Meta approach is part of the Future Text Initiative which also includes the book & symposium The Future of Text. Our community is at which you should feel free to visit and perhaps even join, it is no cost.


Frode Hegland
London 2021


To get involved, please feel free to contact the developer of Visual-Meta Frode Hegland :



Postscript & Why

The documents we share with each other today are generally paper-facsimile with few digital interactions afforded to them.

To truly unleash digitally connected discourse we need documents to ‘know’ what they are; who authored them, what their title is, when they were published, how they connect to other documents and so on, as well as what their structures are.

The purpose of this approach is to encourage and enable more thoughtful dialog via purposefully shared documents, in academia and in the general populace, instead of having our discourse rendered in never-ending social media streams where the design is to benefit the owners of the platform, or through via academic papers devoid of digital interactions.

To achieve this, it must be done in a robust way so that this enabling metadata does not get stripped from the document over time.

It is relatively easy to invent such a format but with the ubiquity of PDF it would be prohibitively expensive to promote as a universal standard.

It should therefore bootstrap what we have, it should augment PDFs.

This achievable–it can be as simple as simply writing a few lines at the back of the document.