Researching Collections Management System Options

Margot Note

Margot Note

August 03, 2020

Once an organization decides on its requirements for an archival collections management system (CMS), archivists and their colleagues should research offerings to choose the best one for their needs. 

Archivists should keep abreast of best practices and, if possible, attend conferences to stay current on collection management discussions. They should consolidate their information gathering results to refine the focus and to identify the top collections management system options for their institutions.

Explore the Possibilities

Archivists should assess staff members’ abilities and the institution’s resources. What are the organization’s human, technological, and organizational capacities? Knowing what is possible will determine between collaboration with a vendor with a proprietary system or installation of an open-source CMS. 

Although an open-source solution can suit institutional needs, it is often cost-effective to pay more upfront for a proprietary system. Open source is unequal to free. Consider maintenance and training costs for open source systems. For example, institutions may have to hire a programmer to administer the software; labor is significant in these configurations. Despite using an open-source product, organizations may still have to rely upon external support for proper implementation. 

Custom-Built Systems

Organizations may have systems built to their specifications, especially if they hold unique collections. When planning to have a system built, consider the time commitment needed to identify the current data, communicate the alterations, and evaluate the implementation stages. The costs of building a system exceed the price of a proprietary product. The disadvantage of a custom-built product is that the archives becomes the first to use the program and must work through its problems. The correction of these bugs and development costs in the long-term proves to be expensive. 

Most archives, as distinctive as their holdings are, perform the same tasks. While workflows may be unique to an institution, are they worth recreating in a custom-built solution? Customized CMS products may be unnecessary. Depending on the collection type, size, and documentation level, a commercial CMS product may be the best option.

Commercial Choices

Proprietary systems are tried-and-true solutions, although it may seem expensive to purchase them. Unless the institution has an in-house programmer who understands how the data is used, how data transfer and standards function, and how to maintain or modify data, it is often more expensive to use open-source software or develop a customized system from the bottom up. 

As archives implement off-the-shelf products, the providers improve the programs based on client needs, so the system brings with it the accumulated experience of archival institutions. Vendors update off-the-shelf products following the development needs of its users, offer technical support and training, and can customize systems. With user communities and customer support, collection management systems evolve, ensuring that their functionalities meet needs and stay current. 

Share Experiences

Archivists should talk to colleagues at institutions of comparable size or with similar missions who implemented archival systems. What have been their experiences and lessons learned? In what ways did the CMS impress them with benefits that went beyond the requirements? Does the team wish they could realize comparable results?

Browse sites with the software installed to see how it works outside of the ideal demonstration environment. Archivists may also wish to visit organizations that use the systems on their vendor shortlist. Current users are most likely to give an unbiased review. Use listservs and user groups to review questions and comments about software candidates. Archivists will also want to talk to vendors and explore CMS features through online and in-depth demonstrations to get a realistic view of the software.

Discover Systems that Suit Needs

When it comes to an investment like a CMS, be an informed consumer. Archivists should feel comfortable with the prospects to choose from that will best fit their needs. When archivists complete gathering information, they should be confident that the right system will position their holdings to share them with the world.

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, and register here for her upcoming webinar, Selecting Collections Management Systems: Know Your Options.

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