Systems for Managing Digital Media Collections
Everyone's collection and context is unique, so your choice of a system (or systems) for managing your digital media will require a careful assessment of your needs and resources and an evaluation of the available options. This paper provides an overview of a number of different approaches to media management: from some very cheap and 'low-tech' approaches to much more complex and specialised solutions.
In many ways, creating digital media is the easy part of building a collection. What is often harder, but is certainly just as important, is to establish an effective way of storing and providing access to your collection.
Everyone's collection and context is unique, so your choice of a system (or systems) for managing your media will require a careful assessment of your needs and resources and an evaluation of the available options. This paper provides an overview of a number of different approaches to digital media management: from some very cheap and 'low-tech' approaches to much more complex and specialised solutions. Another paper in this series discusses some of the commonly available functionality in more detail and raises some key questions to consider when choosing a system (see Choosing a System for Managing your Image Collection.)
We have given more than thirty examples of systems below, with links to further descriptions on JISC Digital Media's website or to external sites. These examples are not meant to be exhaustive or to imply any sort of endorsement or criticism: they are offered for information purposes only. This is a competitive and fast-changing environment, in which new versions are pushed out, new systems emerge, and last year's cutting-edge features become standard issue.
JISC Digital Media has surveyed a range of software developers to gather specific information about their systems. Those who have responded so far are listed on our Image Management Software page.
Careful file and folder naming will go a long way towards helping you manage your collection (see JISC Digital Media's advice on File Naming). This approach may actually be all you need, or it might serve as a useful interim solution. Most computer operating systems now enable 'thumbnail views' of image and video contents, which can provide a convenient means of browsing visually. Many people have a good visual memory and can easily and quickly scan hundreds or thousands of thumbnails by eye.
However, as a means of managing large collections, this approach has several draw-backs:
- Your digital media can only be given one file name and put into one folder - while you could conceivably repeat the same file with different filenames or copy it into different folders, such duplication would take up valuable storage space and be likely to lead to future confusion.
- You will be limited in how you can name files and folders - while it is now possible to write long file or folder names, these are not unlimited and would not allow certain characters to be used
- You will need to decide at the outset what characteristics are the most important and useful for categorising your files - does it make more sense to organise by date, format, file size, duration, subject, source or something else?
- Your idiosyncratic way of organising the collection may not make sense to other users - when you share your collection with others you may discover that your approach to organising the content is not quite as intuitive as you thought!
As we said above, you might find it useful to adopt a system of careful file- and folder-naming as an interim measure, enabling you to begin creating or digitising materials while you're going through the process of procuring or building a system. This approach is especially useful when combined with a spreadsheet or simple database to log any additional metadata (i.e. information), which could be imported later into your final system. Or alternatively you might write or 'embed' further metadata into the digital file itself, although this can be hard to extract. However, you need to be aware that these sort of approaches are not very scaleable or shareable, and so are unlikely to be satisfactory as a long-term solution for digital media management - for either individuals or, especially, groups.
For little or no money you can provide a better means of managing a digital collection. There are many systems that can be downloaded freely or cheaply which will enable you to apply some basic metadata (i.e. keywords and other information) to your media and enable you to browse or search in a variety of different ways. Management software of this sort may also come bundled with digital cameras or camcorder or as part of editing programs like Photoshop, Premier, Wavelab or GIMP.
Typically, this sort of software is intended as a personal system for managing images rather than something a number of people can use at once. However, these systems will often enable you to easily generate browsable Web galleries of your images, which may provide you with a simple means of sharing your collection with others. Several now offer support for other types of media such as video or audio. These sort of systems usually rely on simple databases or on embedding metadata into the files themselves. Many of these systems also offer editing functionality, ranging from basic corrections to very sophisticated processing.
Where your collection is primarily for your own personal use, is modest in size, or is used by a small team, this sort of approach to media management might be sufficient. However, you will need to think carefully about your future needs and aspirations and make sure you don't lock yourself into a system that proves difficult to scale up or move on from.
You should pay particular attention to the ease with which you can export the digital content and metadata you're creating to another system. It would be a shame to invest a lot of time in categorising and keywording a large collection only to discover that you have to re-enter all the data again when you move to another system. Systems that write metadata into the digital media files may seem to provide a good means of moving the data on - but only if the system you're using is writing the data into standard fields within the media file and only if the system you choose next is capable of reading or extracting this data.
As with careful file and folder naming, these simpler systems can sometimes serve well as a temporary or interim solution - especially if you are using simplified or 'lite' versions of larger enterprise systems. However, as we've said above, if you're contemplating using such a system as a temporary solution you will need to make very sure that you're not locking your data into something that proves difficult or expensive to move on from.
Some examples of simple or personal systems:
Another approach that people sometimes use to manage their content is to rely on external Web-based services. Note that while there are some very sophisticated externally hosted systems available which have a Web-based user interface, geared towards professional production houses or corporate picture libraries, what we have in mind in this section, however, are popular social networking sites such as Flickr, Youtube, SoundCloud or blogs (see examples below).
This approach to collection management can have some clear advantages:
- Someone else takes care of storing and backing-up your data
- There are some very good tools available for organising, editing and cataloguing your media
- Your collection can be easily shared with others, sometimes with very good search and browse tools
- There might be useful Web 2.0 (i.e. 'social' or interactive) features available, enabling your users to 'tag' or comment on your collection, or to subscribe to RSS feeds, notifying them whenever content is added to your collection
- There might be some opportunities to generate income if the service you choose provides some e-commerce functionality
However, before adopting this approach to managing your collection, you need to be aware that there may be some disadvantages and potentially quite serious risks:
- There are usually limits to the size of your files or collection - while you may be able to pay a subscription for additional or 'unlimited' storage, in the long term this money might have been better spent buying a system that will give you control over your own collection
- Access to your collection will depend on the reliability and longevity of the service - it may be frustrating if the external Web site is down when you need to obtain a file in a hurry; but it will be disastrous if the service you're relying on is suddenly terminated and you lose all your data (these services don't usually offer guarantees)
- You are likely to have less control over who accesses your collection - the Web-based system may allow anyone to view and download your media. While some services will enable you to set up private areas, with password access, few will offer you much sophistication in terms of controlling access to your collection
- There might be some copyright or data protection implications - if your collection is hosted in another country you may need to think about whether this country has similar copyright and data protection coverage - especially if the content you're making available is owned by others
- It may prove difficult to move your data into another system or on to another service
While there are clearly some important risks to weigh up in using a Web-based approach to managing your collection, it may not be an either/or situation. You might, for example, rely on a local system to manage your large archival files and data, and then make use of a Web-based service to provide wider access or a 'shop-window' to parts of your collection.
Some examples of Web-based approaches to media management:
There is an extremely wide range of commercial systems available for managing digital assets (sound, moving images, still images or documents). These systems are often available in different versions (e.g. single-user, workgroup, enterprise) with prices and features to match.
While it's not really possible to describe a 'typical' commercial DAM as no two systems are the same, here are some features they commonly provide:
- Easy or automatic acquisition or 'ingest' - such as the ability to pull files directly from cameras or to automatically 'acquire' assets dropped into designated folders.
- File management tools - ability to copy, move or delete original files irrespective of their location, version control.
- 'Virtual' file management tools- ability to create virtual groups or categories irrespective of the file's real location
- Viewing tools - automatic generation of thumbnails, previews and delivery versions.
- Editing tools - some systems provide their own set of optimisation tools; others make it easy to open up digital files within separate programs
- Metadata viewing and editing tools - reading and writing of metadata from the digital files, cataloguing templates, batch addition and editing of metadata
- Access management tools - the ability to control access to the collection or parts of the collection, based on role (e.g. user, editor, administrator) or individual usernames and passwords
- Archiving tools - automatic creation of back-up copies
- Publishing tools- ability to publish the collection (or parts of it) via a variety of different means, including optical discs and Web delivery
- Exporting tools- a means of moving your digital content and metadata out for use within other systems
- Search and browse tools - user-focused and convenient ways of retrieving and navigating files within the collection
- Auditing and reporting tools-a record of who did what to the collection and a range of useful reports on the collection and its use.
More is said about these features another JISC Digital Media paper (see Choosing a System for Managing your Image Collection). It's important to note that the list above is not exhaustive and is not limited to commercial DAM systems. Many of these same features can also be found in the simpler systems discussed above, and in the other options described below.
There can be several advantages in choosing a commercial DAM system for managing your collection:
- Value - this is a growing and competitive market, so vendors are driven to lower their prices or expand the features they offer. As a consequence of this and the economies of scale it is possible to buy very sophisticated systems for relatively little outlay (compared with paying to develop such a system from scratch)
- Support - because commercial vendors have an interest in keeping their customers, there can often be very good support and frequent software upgrades
- Scaleability - because commercial systems are often available in a range of sizes or versions it may be possible to extend your system as your collection and needs grow. You might, for example, buy an individual license to get your collection started and then move on to workgroup or enterprise versions when you're ready to share it with colleagues - or invest in a Web publishing module when you're ready to share it with the world!
However you should also be aware that there can be risks and costs involved in choosing a commercial system for managing your digital collection:
- Future of company or product - there is a risk that the company may be taken over or go out of business. Or its interests and priorities might shift resulting in the system being discontinued or developed in ways that no longer meet your needs.
- Proprietary nature of system - good commercial systems will offer a lot of potential for customisation, often with the ability to bolt your own interface on the front and databases on the back. However, there are usually proprietary parts of the system you can't touch.
- Fit with education or heritage institution - often the main market for these systems is outside education or heritage, e.g. photographic, marketing or media professionals, or corporate clients. As a consequence they do not always offer the functionality, support for standards, or interoperability with other systems, that you might wish for.
Following on from this last point, there's an important way in which many of the commercial DAM systems differ from some of the other systems commonly used within a digitisation context. A DAM is concerned with describing and managing a digital asset rather than something else that exists in the real world. While a digitised file's metadata record might well include a description of the source or content (a person, place or thing), this information is tied to a particular digital file. In this context, where the focus is on a digital asset, it makes little sense to have a metadata record without a corresponding digital file - or to have a single metadata record associated with more than one digital file.
In contrast, collection management systems, such as those used in museums or archives, typically create a metadata record for a physical object and then enable the cataloguer to link in one or more digital representations of that object. Although these representations will probably have their own small metadata records, the system focuses on the real-world object and its description, with the digital versions providing a kind of visual description. In this context it makes perfect sense to have a metadata record without a corresponding digital media file, or to have several media files tied in to a single object record.
What this means is that commercial DAM systems may not necessarily be the most ideal tools for managing digitised collections. They will usually work well for collections of born-digital collections, but will not cope as well where physical objects are being digitised.
However, it is sometimes possible to customise commercial DAM systems so they better accommodate digitised content, and there are some commercial systems developed specifically for digitised content, such as CONTENTdm (see links below).
As indicated earlier, it's not necessarily an either/or situation. Digital media file- and data- asset management systems can offer some functionality that is very useful within a digitisation workflow (e.g. extracting technical metadata from within the file, or enabling you to edit media and generate derivatives). So even if you decide that they're not the best tool for delivering your collection to end users, these systems might be worth considering as workflow tools, or as a temporary solution until you've developed your specialist delivery system. Of course if you are using a DAM in this way, you'll need to pay careful attention to how easy it is to export the metadata and media files when the time comes to move them into another system.
Some commercial asset management examples:
Many people and institutions prefer open source software to commercial and proprietary options. There are a few open source options available for managing digital media.
It's important to make a distinction between 'open source' software and 'freeware' because they are not necessarily the same thing. A freeware system can be used without cost, but is often based on proprietary coding, so there are limits to what you can do with it. Many of the simple and personal systems for managing digital assets (see section 3 above) fall into the freeware category - a good example is Google's Picasa system. Open source systems are not only free, but they also provide full access to their underlying source code, enabling those with programming skills to customise the software to their needs. Open source software is often developed by a community of users, with programmers adding new features and then sharing these with other developers.
Open source software can be a very attractive option, since it is free and often developed within an educational context. It can be very compliant with standards (e.g. Web and accessibility) and may be a good fit with some of the other systems being used within your institution. Because it provides access to its code, it offers a great deal of flexibility and potential for development. It is certainly worth seeing if there is an open source option that might meet your needs. For more information about open source software, we would recommend you visit the OSS Watch Web site.
However, while open source software is a good choice for some, it will not be the best solution for everyone. Although it's free to download, you are likely to need the help of IT staff and programmers to install and configure the system to suit your collection and users. There may be a cost associated with this - especially if additional hardware and software is required or you need to pay for programming expertise. Also, since the system is being developed from scratch (or from other open source software), it may lack some of the sophistication and functionality offered by commercial proprietary systems.
Some open source systems for managing digital media
It can be very tempting to develop a system in-house if you have the skills available. Many have used standard office database packages like MS Access or Filemaker Pro to put together simple, functional image databases and it's possible to get templates to help with this task. Because there can be problems scaling these sort of systems and publishing them to the Web, another common approach is to use larger database systems and develop scripted interfaces to enable Web-based data entry and delivery.
Developing a system in house can enable you to have more control over the design of the system. Assuming you have sufficient resources, you may be able to achieve a much better fit for your requirements. However, if you do decide to take this route, then there are several things you must bear in mind:
- You are likely to require a significant budget if you're paying for your programmer's time
- You will need to allow a lot of time for the development, which is likely to be measured in months and sometimes years.
- You will need to have a good understanding of the functionality you require and a reasonable technical knowledge so you can direct the development
- For certain features you are unlikely to achieve the same level of functionality as an off-the-shelf system at an equivalent cost, since the commercial system will have benefited from years of development and can take advantage of economies of scale.
- You must ensure that the system is well documented so that others can continue the development in the future as needed
For those who want a bespoke solution but do not have the skills in-house, there are companies that specialise in developing custom image management systems. Even if you have programming expertise in house, you may prefer to out-source this work in order to gain more control over the costs or timeframes. While this might seem a more expensive approach, these companies seldom need to write the system from scratch. Because they are able to draw on previous coding or modules, they are able to achieve some savings whilst producing something that is still highly customised. Be aware that commissioning a system might give you more control of the up-front development costs, but can mean you have less control over the future costs, since it may prove difficult or expensive if you need to make some changes to your system in a few years time.
Some examples of bespoke software and developers:
- Filemaker Pro (common database software)
- MS Access (common database software)
- System Simulation (software developer)
- Further examples can be found on our Image Management Software page.
This advice paper has concentrated on systems designed for managing and delivering digital media. However, for some collections there may be some other options worth exploring.
Collection management systems, such as integrated library systems, or archive and museum management systems are increasingly providing media management functionality. As we said in section 5 above, these systems may be more suitable for certain kinds of digitised content than a media or digital asset management system. This is particularly the case where the digital media you're creating are digital representations of physical items catalogued in a collection management system.
Those whose collections are primarily intended for learning and teaching applications may be able to make use of Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) software, which sometimes comes with digital content management modules. Other alternatives include learning object repositories, general institutional repositories, or content management systems. Some examples of each are given below.
Although these systems may not (yet) provide all of the sophistication offered by specialised DAM systems, there can sometimes be a compelling case for using them:
- Someone else might take on the burden of supporting and paying for the system
- Digital media might be able to be more easily linked to related object records
- There might be improved interoperability (i.e. ability to share data across different systems and collections)
- There might be better opportunities for your users to discover and use your resources
As we've stressed throughout this paper, it's not necessarily an either/or situation. Your collection might usefully be kept in more than one system, or there may be advantages to using specialist management software for some aspect of your workflow. For example, for gathering up all those media files lying around on your colleagues' machines, or for managing a digitisation project.
Some examples of other kinds of systems that will handle digital media files:
- Adlib (library, archives and museum systems)
- Blackboard (VLE system)
- Bodington (VLE system)
- CALM (library, archives and museum systems)
- DSpace (open source repository system)
- Eprints (open source repository system)
- Ex Libris (library system)
- Fedora (open source repository system)
- Gallery Systems (museum systems)
- Greenstone (open source digital library system)
- Intrallect (learning object repository system)
- MODES (museum system)
- Moodle (open source VLE system)
- Typo3 (open source content management system)
- Zetcom MuseumPlus (museum system)
- Further examples can be found on our Image Management Software page.
There is a very wide range of possibilities for managing digital collections: from the very low-tech to the highly sophisticated; from simple freeware that can be downloaded in a minute or two to bespoke systems that will take years to develop and cost tens of thousands of pounds.
The system (or systems) you adopt will depend on your particular circumstances and constraints. You are unlikely to be able to find or make the perfect system, so you must be prepared to make some compromises. The important thing is to make these compromises from a position of knowledge, having carefully determined your requirements and evaluated all the possible options.
JISC Digital Media has gathered specific information about a number of systems and they are listed on our Image Management Software page.