Collections Management Systems: Investing in Major Change

Margot Note

Margot Note

May 26, 2020

When installing a new collections management system (CMS) or migrating from a legacy system, archivists face challenging questions. In addition to exploring these in my blog posts, I will address these challenges in an upcoming webinar, Improving Archival Work through Collections Management Systems.

How much of their resources—financial and human—should the organization dedicate to the project? What strategies will the team deploy to find the best system? How do they measure the value of such an investment? How do they persuade institutional leaders to implement a CMS, when so many other needs compete? 

Repositories question investing in collections management systems because they fear that today’s choice will be outdated in the future due to rapidly changing technology. However, the cost of maintaining the status quo with subpar or nonexistent collections management systems is astronomical. 

Making Technology Work for You

When repositories lack a stellar collections management system, archival work becomes more laborious. Collections are often backlogged, unavailable, or unknown. They risk being damaged, lost, or stolen and difficult to recover. Poor donor relations result from delays in processing collections. If the materials have finding aids, they might only be used on-site. Users underutilize or ignore nonstandard guides and noncurrent card catalogs. Collection access becomes staff-dependent, to the institution’s and its patrons’ detriment. Long-time staff members become experts in their collections; when they leave, institutional memory departs too. 

Many organizations jerry-rig methods to organize and access collection information, such as using Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and Access databases. Historically, several factors caused difficulties in supporting and using these. Most ad-hoc systems are institution-specific, their methodology known only to their creators. As the archival collections’ size increases, these recording methods become less effective for organizing complex relationships between different data types. Disparate systems established at the local level, or during different periods in an organization’s history, inhibit uniform and comprehensive access to information. For example, systems may obscure the data’s source or the date. In addition, the data may be inaccurate or incomplete. 

I can attest to this jumbled experience directly; at a past position, I navigated through a hodge-podge of legacy recording instruments that documented our collections. As a lone arranger, it took me about a year to get familiar with the peculiarities of the homegrown systems. Over time, I tried to streamline these structures and document their workflows, yet so much collection information resided in my mind. When I left, a decade’s worth of deep knowledge about the collection did too.  

How Users Experience Inefficient Practices

From the users’ perspective, when archivists store collection information outside a CMS, the search process requires researchers to examine individual finding aids to locate materials related to their topic of inquiry. Researchers are unable to explore the various collections at once, which creates barriers to discovery and frustration, especially for those familiar with Google. The user experience at archival repositories often feels intimidating, and navigating through non-intuitive discovery methods can be challenging.

Deciding Change is Necessary

Even if an archival repository already owns a CMS, there are many reasons to consider an upgrade. Archivists struggle with outdated systems that lack customer support, necessitate workarounds, or require complicated workflows. An outdated legacy system becomes cumbersome, making queries, searching, and reporting difficult. Old systems gain technical debt, which requires extra work to fix things in the short run instead of applying the best overall solution, which may be migrating to a new system. If the CMS cannot connect to the website, it prevents collections from going online, limiting exposure to researchers. Delaying a CMS upgrade means data continues to be added to the old system, making the eventual conversion longer and more expensive. 

It is daunting to consider investing in a notable change like installing a collections management system. Once you have gotten used to systems and workflows—even if they are less than ideal—it is hard to give up what is known and tolerated for an unknown, even if you know it will be better. But considering a new or updated collections management system can make archival labor easier, allowing archivists to focus on serving communities and preserving history. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and sign up here to register for her upcoming webinar, Improving Archival Work through Collections Management Systems.

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