Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Anyone Using Open Source Collections Management Software?

I recently tweeted the question "What free/open source solutions exist for small museums looking to to create collections inventories?" In my role coordinating the Public History program at Eastern Washington University I often work with very small rural museums and heritage groups. These organizations are run by volunteers (often elderly volunteers at that) have budgets that are more often in the hundreds of dollars a year than the thousands, and have no one in the organization with any museum, historical, or technology training. However they are passionate about their local history, and often have unique and substantial holdings of records, photographs, and objects. How can they organize their collections? The software has to be free and extremely easy to use. It should also have web capabilities and use universal standards so data could be exported to another software package in the future.

Some twitter friend suggestions and a bit of gooling revealed at least four choices. But I don't have time to test them all and can't find a good compare-and-contrast article. If anyone has experience with any of these systems, please let us know what you think:

  • Museolog "is a software system, developed by EUROCLID within UNESCO HeritageNet project, and localised by NGO Open Systems where initial functions of input and editing of museum catalogues are provided by a modern intuitive graphical interface using forms and menu." Wikipedia page here.
  • "CollectiveAccess (formerly known as OpenCollection) is a full-featured collections management and online access application for museums, archives and digital collections. It is designed to handle large, heterogeneous collections that have complex cataloguing requirements and require support for a variety of metadata standards and media formats." Also web based. Here is a Slideshare presentation about the software.
  • CollectionSpace "is focused on developing solutions for museums and related heritage organizations that want to address this information gap and re-define the ways in which collections information is collected, managed, preserved, leveraged, and published. CollectionSpace partners will develop software with an open and extensible architecture, that is community-based and technologically robust." It appears to be in the early stages of development.
  • Omeka (of course): "Create complex narratives and share rich collections adhering to Dublin core standards with Omeka, designed for scholars, museums, libraries, archives, and enthusiasts." My only hesitation with Omeka is that lead developer Dave Lester has described it (at THATCamp PNW) as more of a web publishing platform than a collections management tool.
  •  Open Office version of Access (or Access itself if they already have it?) 
If you have experience with any of these systems, or suggestions for other ways to get this done, please weigh in!

[Image from Flickr user Brunngrrl and used via a Creative Commons license.]


KLandon said...

I wrote a post examining some online exhibit methods a while back, which touches on several of these: http://www.purposefultechie.com/online-exhibits/
(You'll see that I agree about Omeka.) I've recently been playing around with Omeka some more, trying to get our Oral History collection online in a nice, user-friendly way. I'm not really thinking about it as an online exhibition though - I'm envisioning this more as a nice online way to access part of our collection, and was just today considering switching to tinkering more with Collective Access for that purpose.

There are also some other new contenders: eHive (a "free" SaaS) (http://www.ehive.com/), and a program called the Museum Archive Software Project (http://www.musarch.com/), which has a free version, and "free with purchase" (of their book) expanded version. I haven't looked at eHive too much, but to be quite frank, I think the guy behind musarch.com could have better used his efforts contributing to another project (perhaps Omeka or CollectiveAccess). For a small museum, with a very small collection, and not a lot of research needs, I suspect either of these would be fine.

Every day that goes by I hate PastPerfect more and more, and reconsider Collective Access. There are a couple of things that I've been wishing for in it, but I sure can't remember them at the moment.

Suzanne said...

Ah, I think that collections inventories and catalogues are different. Do these teeny tiny museums need/have the capacity to create robust object records, or do they only need to figure out what they have and where it is? Maybe Access is the most, ahem, accessible piece of software for them for now.

I agree there's a serious overreliance on PastPerfect in small museum circles. That $500 is a serious investment for a small museum, and it would be great to have more people using Open Collection (et al), but the support infrastructure needs to be there.

Larry Cebula said...

Friends: Well I guess I am looking for a couple of things here. The most basic need of these historic societies is simply to get a handle on what they have--to do an inventory. This is essential to protect the collections. A volunteer recently described to me a situation where every board member has a key to the collections and they often borrow items for personal research projects or to wear in the Fourth of July parade.

Right now many are slowly creating inventories so with paper inventory sheets and pencils. This drives me crazy--they should be producing some kind of digital file that could later be exported into something more ambitious--or at least shared electronically. So it sounds like Access may indeed be step one.

And yet it would be nice if my Public History program could take these small societies a step further. If there were a free program that would run on an older donated computer that would give them the ability to create more robust object records, I could send an intern to the museum to get it installed, to enter a bunch of objects, and train some of the volunteers how to do so. Even better, use these object records, with scans or photographs of the objects, to give the society a modest but useful web presence that includes a searchable catalog of all the holdings, digitized or not. As the student enters the job market she could could point to the web presence as an example of what she can do, and the society would have a useful resources. But they have to be able to maintain it!

Mike T said...

For registartion and maybe even cataloging purposes, why wouldn't Microsoct Access be a museum's first choice?

Online collaboration/backup, felxible interface, compatibiity with excel and spreadsheet, templates, frequent updates from Microsoft...

KLandon said...

Well Larry, given your parameters, for something digital, but not online:
Access or maybe the Museum Archive Software Project.
For something online, probably CollectiveAccess. I suspect your students could set that up, and the historical society/museum involved could probably find a local volunteer to help maintain it in the future (perhaps you could even task your students with helping find that volunteer).

Paul Rowe said...

We're the developers of eHive, which was mentioned in an earlier comment. eHive isn't open source (yet) but is built upon a number of common open source products such as the Joomla content management system and MySQL. There's a free account for up to 5,000 records. We provide a cataloguing screens for 7 broad types of objects: art, archives, archaeology, history, library, photography & media, natural sciences. Each of these has a core fields tab with the key info needed for an inventory, plus more detailed tabs for full cataloguing. Full public access functions are built in. e.g. Tagging, comments, different options for searching and exploring the collections. We're working on APIs at present to allow the content to be rebranded on other site. We've already done this for the NZMuseums portal - a portal for the 400 museums in New Zealand.

Larry Cebula said...

Thanks KLandon and Paul for the additional tips!

Project Management Software said...

Ah, I think that collections inventories and catalogues are different. Do these teeny tiny museums need/have the capacity to create robust object records, or do they only need to figure out what they have and where it is? Maybe Access is the most, ahem, accessible piece of software for them for now.

Jim Gr said...

I know this thread is old but from what I can see not a lot has changed.
I am the volunteer collection manager at a small museum. We have a collection of estimated 7-8000 items for buildings (7) to Books. About 4000 have been inventoried /cataloged and only 3-400 photgraphed. The previous Coll. Mgr started using Access but every data field was a poorly defined text field. I really wanted to add photos. I quickly discovered Access had problems with photos, but OpenOffice:Base did not, So I have converted.
Now how do I link it to our web page? This has started my online search for a free or low cost open source Management tool. Madronna looked good if it ever releases, ColectiveAcces looks good but seems to need a lot of under the hood modules. So I continue my search, Any advice?
www.heritageSquareMuseum.org or heritagesqmuseum@yahoo.com

Larry Cebula said...

Jim: I really don't have much to add to the info in this old post--except, have you looked at Omeka? It is free open source software with an inexpensive hosted solution if you prefer that. It can handle any sort of file (text, audio, video, etc.), support Dublin Core metadata, and has the ability to create online exhibits from your files with a few extra clicks. And there is a robust user community to help you out.

Here is a good intro: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/a-brief-introduction-to-omeka/26079

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