Lesson
UC10153 -- Working with collections -- Week 5

Draft, 05 September 2016
This page should be in a useful state, but still needs work before it's finished.


Systems and workflows

Last week we had a go at preparing some object descriptions based on the Small Museums Cataloguing Manual. But of course in most modern workplaces it’s unlikely you’ll be filling out paper worksheets. The work of collection description and management is generally done through a variety of digital systems. Today we’re going to have a look at the sorts of systems you might meet, and explore their differences and similarities.

But first…

Assessment number 2 is fast approaching. Please review the details on Moodle, and let me know if there are any difficulties.

You’ll note that the assessment pulls together a number of the topics we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks – particularly collection policies, significance assessments, and descriptive standards.

Some key points:

  • Your proposal has to argue a convincing case. Why is your collection significant? What will it add to the institution?

  • You are welcome to be creative and invent an institution to make your proposal to. In that case there obviously won’t be an existing collection policy to address, so make up a few key points that summarise your institution’s policy and address them in your proposal.

  • Your collection may be items in your possession, they may be items held in existing collections, or they may be other items that you’ve identified online. You just need to be able to identify and describe them appropriately. For this proposal you don’t have to individually identify all the items in your collection, just explain the nature of the proposed collection. However, some examples would be useful.

  • Remember that in Assessment 3 you actually have to assemble and describe the collection – so make it something achievable.

  • Once you’ve identified the scope and nature of your collection, you need to think about how you are going to describe it. Your proposal should include a summary of the fields you will use to capture information about your collection and how these relate to existing standards or guidelines, such as the Small Museums Cataloguing Manual or the Dublin Core standard. You’ll also need to think about appropriate keywords, subject headings, or controlled vocabularies – how can you make sure that people can find and browse your collection?

Next week we’ll be looking in-depth at Omeka, the system you’ll be using to create and describe your collections.

The digital environment

Once we move into the digital environment our collection descriptions become data – we can not only read them, we can search and manipulate them in ways that that are not possible within the analogue environment. Digital collection management improves efficiency, encourages standardisation, extends discovery, and enables reuse. We can do much more with the same set of descriptions.

But there are also new challenges! Often we have to deal with different varieties of data spread across multiple systems.

For example, even if your descriptions are captured in digital form, that doesn’t mean you can automatically make them available to the public. Management systems are often completely separate from the systems used to deliver collections online. Digital images of collection objects can also be stored outside of collection management systems in specialised repositories (such as Digital Asset Management Systems). What about the content of exhibitions, help documentation, or information about users? All of this might be connected in some way to your collection descriptions, but it can managed quite separately. Things can get messy.

To the world Trove is a website, providing access to millions of resources, but if you look at how that information is managed it’s a much more complex (and messier!) picture.

Trove system diagram

So while we’ll be focusing on collection management systems it’s worth remembering that they will often exist within a complex ecosystem of datatabases, repositories, and indexes. And while we’d like to think that they’re all seamlessly interconnected, it’s possible that they won’t even talk to each other!

When is a CMS not a CMS? One of the most confusing things is that many cultural heritage institutions will have two different systems known by the same acronymn – CMS. A CMS can either be a Collection Management System, like the ones we’re going to look at today, or it can be a Content Management System. Content Management Systems, like Drupal or WordPress, are used to create and manage whole web sites. Beware!

Collection management systems

Here are a few well-known collection management systems:

  • Vernon – used by the National Gallery of Victoria.
  • TMS – The Museum System – used by the Australian National Maritime Museum.
  • EMu – now part of the bigger Axiell group of CMS products; used by the National Museum of Australia.

These systems are designed for larger institutions and have a price tag to match – although pricing information is hard to find as the systems are generally customised to the specific needs of institutions.

Over recent years, open source (ie free) alternatives have developed that match many, if not all, of the features of the proprietary systems. Of course, just because the code is free doesn’t mean there are no costs for implementation – once again considerable work can be involved in configuring, customising, and hosting the system. Open source options include:

In between the large proprietary systems and the open source alternatives are a growing number of cloud-hosted services. These systems are generally less able to be customised, but they’re easier to set up and use. All the administration and data entry takes place on an external web server. Most of these services operate on a ‘freemium’ model offering a basic free account with the option to pay for greater capacity or more features. Some examples include:

The library sector tends to be dominated by large companies such as ProQuest and the ExLibris suite, but there are open source alternatives like Koha.

So how do you choose?

Deciding which system is appropriate for a particular collection or institution is dependent on a number of factors – such as the size or nature of the collection, the technical support available, or who will be doing the data entry.

Here you’ll find a blank feature matrix listing a number of the collection management systems listed above. To fill it in you’ll need to explore the websites and documentation for each system. In some cases there are also ‘demo’ or ‘sandbox’ versions of the software available that you can try out. In some cases you might not be able to find an answer, but do your best!

Once you’ve filled in the matrix, think about what would be the most approporiate system for:

  • a community museum with limited technical capacity, where most of the data entry will be done by volunteers;
  • a regional gallery with access to outsourced technical support and a small number of professional staff.

Resources, processes, and contexts

Collection space screenshot

If you open up the CollectionSpace sandbox and try to create a new record it all looks pretty complicated. There’s certainly a lot more fields than on the Small Museums worksheet. But let’s have a think about what’s actually being ‘managed’ in a collections management system.

If you click on the ‘Create New’ tab in CollectionSpace you’re given the option to create records in three main categories – ‘Cataloguing Records’, ‘Vocabularly Terms’, and ‘Procedural Records’. The other systems have different names for these sorts of things, but what we’re basically dealing with are:

  • Resources – the stuff of the collections (objects, documents, photographs)
  • Contexts – the frameworks within which the collections are created, used, discovered, or understood (people, places, concepts)
  • Events – the things that happen to collection items (loans, conservation, exhibitions)

Collection management systems are not just places for storing descriptions, they also embed those descriptions within a contextual framework that aids discovery and meaning. But the lives of resources continue within their new institutional homes, so collection management systems also capture what happens to them after they’ve been ‘collected’.

Look at types of ‘Procedural Records’ defined by CollectionSpace

Of course the use of these different types of records will depend very much on accepted practices within an organisation.

Communities and collections

You may have noticed that Mukurtu and Omeka are a little different to the other systems. Rather than being commercial products, or open source systems aimed at particular types of institutions, Omeka and Mukurtu were developed to meet the needs of different community groups.

Mukurtu was developed for use by Indigenous communities and provides more fine-grained control over who has access to particular resources. Omeka was developed specifically to support the creation and display of online collections by a wide variety of projects or organisations. We’ll talk more about what you can do in Omeka next week.

Creating a record

Let’s go to the CollectionSpace sandbox and have a go at creating a record. We’ll start by adding the details of my awesome Woomera postcard.

Postcard front

Here’s the back of the postcard. This was sent to me by my sister, Sally Sherratt. It measures 87mm x 137mm.

  • Login using the adminstrator credentials provided on the page.

  • Click on the ‘Create New’ tab.

  • Under ‘Cataloguing’ check ‘Start from scratch’. Note that you can also start with a template that defines a subset of the available fields relevant to a particular type of item.

  • Add an ‘Identification number’ – it can be anything, but within an organisation you’d have some standard way of assigning unique identifiers to new items.

  • Add a brief description, then click ‘Save’.

  • Now we’re going to associate a ‘Process Record’ with this catalogue entry. Let’s record some accession information. Click on the ‘Acquisition’ tab and then click ‘Add record’. In the pop-up box click the ‘Create’ button.

  • In the acquisition form add an identifier, and for the source, type in my name ‘Tim Sherratt’. The system will look to see if it already knows about a person by that name, if it doesn’t it will ask you if you want to add it to the list of ‘Local Persons’ – click to add me!

‘Tim Sherratt’ or ‘Sherratt, Tim’? – once again questions of standardisation arise. What do you think it should be? How can you make sure items in your collection are described in a consistent way?

  • Click ‘Save’ to add the acquisition record.

  • Click on the ‘Current record’ tab to go back to the main description form. You should see there’s now an associated procedure in the column to the right.

  • Try adding in some other details such as the dimensions.

  • Find the ‘Associations’ part of the form, and start typing my name in the ‘Associated Person’ box. It should find me in the Local Persons list. Select me!

  • Click ‘Save’. In the column on the right, you should now see my name under ‘Terms used’.

  • Click on my name to open up a form where you can add more details about me.

Feel free to play around some more with CollectionSpace or any of the other demo systems. Try adding some of the collection items you described on paper last week.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of fields and options. In a practical setting, you’d probably set up templates with a limited number of fields, and you’d work within an agreed descriptive framework.

What I wanted you to see was how a CMS captures not just descriptive information, but also processes and context. In this case, an acquisition record and a ‘person’.

Omeka, you’ll be pleased to know, is much simpler to use, as it doesn’t offer the more sophisticated management options.

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