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What I want from my collections management system

by on July 26, 2011

One of the first problems I identified on becoming director of the museum was its collections management system. It infuriated me. The interfaces were arcane. The data was imprisoned in a proprietary system – one that seemed designed to make reports difficult and information sharing impossible. It was complicated, to the point where most of the staff just stayed away and asked the one person who could figure it out to use it.

I’m not mentioning names. It’s a fairly common problem.

Like most collections management systems, it was designed to make registrars happy – and with its careful tracking of changes, its built-in thesauri, its many, many fields – it served the key purpose, and the key audience. It just wasn’t designed to be used to share information.

I looked into changing it, and ran into the perfect storm of bureaucracy, money, staff expertise. Who could tell us what the university might provide as a server? What would it cost? We needed to know more from the vendor. The vendor was in the process of bringing out a whole new system that would solve all our problems, any month now. (A year later, still to come.) Getting straight information was difficult; getting all of the people who would be necessary to understand how that information would work in our context into one room, real or virtual, was almost impossible.

And so I put off a decision on replacing the software, and looked into other possibilities. What if we kept the collections management system and occasionally dumped the data from it into an online system like Omeka? What if we set up a database server online? How about the Library of Congress’s Recollection? The data, it turned out, was pretty well trapped in our existing system. Who owns that data, anyway? There should be a guarantee, with any system, that you can get your data out.

A year later, I’ve started to consider this again.

Let’s consider first what I want a system to do. It needs to serve the registrar, of course. But what if my goal was not only to keep track of what we have at the museum, but rather to make the information about it available as freely as possible? What if I wanted to not only let users search it and view it online, but also to link to it? The point of a thesaurus is to allow for interchange, after all. Why shouldn’t they be able to download the parts of the database useful to them, to do with it whatever they like? Why can’t there be ways to call up collections from several museums to compare? Or to consider as a single whole? Anthropology museums use “cultures” to categorize their collections – why can’t I see all of the objects from a “culture” in all museum collections?

Museum collections systems now are instruments of control over objects. That’s the word librarians and registrars use: physical control and intellectual control. But what if we said they are instruments of access, first? Take control for granted, and think about ways to make the information available. That’s what makes museums useful.

I don’t know if information wants to be free, but I want my information freed!

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One Comment
  1. It’s an interesting situation. IMHO it seems like the whole idea of a “collections management system” is kinda funky. If all anyone needs to do is manage a collection of things in a database it would seem like most things beyond filemaker pro are just soaking up cash.

    Now what I think is nice about things like Omeka and for that matter Recollection is the idea of working with and providing linked data. You’re right to point out that the idea that an object is in one museum over another is (largely) irreverent to end users. I would suggest that the coolest thing about the web is that we now have the infrastructure for one big library (thinking here of these folks ideas http://onebiglibrary.yorku.ca/index.php?title=Background_Reading ) The same is true of museums and archives. We just need to start using systems that make it as easy as possible for anyone to get anything out of them and walk it over to other places.

    I remain slightly hopeful that things like LOD-LAM can take off, I think it is a great idea to start getting institutions to reflect on the scale they put together for rights on metadata. http://lod-lam.net/summit/2011/06/06/proposed-a-4-star-classification-scheme-for-linked-open-cultural-metadata/

    Yet, at the end of the day, I’m not sure all that really helps you right now. Vendor lock-in stinks…

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