Open Source or Proprietary? Weighing Your Archival CMS Options

Margot Note

Margot Note

January 06, 2020

A one-size-fits-all solution for any collections management problem rarely exists, especially for archives software. The software market ranges from proprietary to open source systems, with a variety of hybrid and customized solutions in between.

Archivists, faced with shrinking budgets, are looking for ways to reduce costs, such as reconsidering their software. Even though many institutions have adopted proprietary systems, open source products provide an alternative—and exert competitive pressures, both in price and innovation.

Community-Oriented Development

Open source software represents not only a type of license that encourages users to share, modify, and reuse the source code, but it’s also associated with a model of community-oriented development. Software created for and by archives with community involvement presents an opportunity to align technology with archival needs and values. Participation by archivists who will use the software narrows the chasm between developers and users. Sometimes, the developer is a user. Archivists bring knowledge of their tasks and organizational priorities to the archival collections management solution.

While open source products have become a segment of the software industry, their levels of success have been uneven. Given the resonance of open source with archival values, the software gains an advantage when users perceive the cost and functionality as being equal. But open source doesn’t surpass other considerations. To stand as a practical option, an open source product must offer competitive levels of functionality, a sustainable business model, and a user group for ongoing development. The success of an open source project depends on factors outside of one entity’s control.

The True Costs of Ownership

Open source software avoids license fees, but all technology projects have expenses. The budget for an open source project includes costs related to hardware, hosting services, configuration, and support. Those adopting open source software must understand the costs of ownership involved—often more than initially thought—and should evaluate their value and benefits compared to proprietary products.

Open source software is challenging to install, configure, troubleshoot, or upgrade. If users are unable to do the work themselves, they research solutions, consult with the community, or hire experts. Maintenance of open source software becomes dependent on external consultants, which proves expensive when compared to dedicated support from a commercial vendor. Using outside experts often omits lessons learned by others and fails to take advantage of solutions that already exist, leading to unnecessary work, costs, and frustrations.

Supporting Users

Vendors control proprietary products; which users cannot alter or copy. Repositories rely on the vendor for software development, problem resolution, and service enhancements. Commercial archival collections management software may have more features and be more user-friendly than open source software. And commercial software companies respond to requests for problem resolution, recognizing the importance of excellent customer support to ensure success.

Aware of the customizations afforded by open source software systems, vendors have enhanced their products to compete. Proprietary software should be customizable by the end-user to meet the specific needs of the archival institution, without the need for coding. In addition, the software should integrate with other systems via an API and offer flexible import and export capabilities.

The perception of risk and security issues around less than robust deployments of open source systems—together with the need for constant maintenance—are the major areas of concern for archives that ultimately opt for the comfort of commercial systems. Vendors provide stability, security, and support, along with ease of installation and user training. They bundle the cost of upgrades and maintenance into their price, and understand the importance of guaranteeing continual software enhancements to optimize the value of the initial software investment.

Choose What’s Right for Your Needs

Archivists should keep abreast of software innovations and choose the appropriate archival collections management solution based upon their specific needs. They should balance the true costs of software without sacrificing services. At a time when archival repositories are increasingly interested in making their collections more available to researchers, software—open source or proprietary—will allow them to expose previously hidden archival collections to scholars.

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. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and get your free copy of Margot’s latest book for Lucidea Press, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success.

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