Collection Management Systems


"I then bequeath the whole of my the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men."

- Last Will and Testament of James Smithson, 1826

Digital libraries, as exemplified by the Greenstone collections/archives, are closely related to "Collection Management Systems" (CMS) which museums and archives have been using to some degree since the 1960s (IBM mainframes!).  However, since the advent of the Internet, the role of a CMS has evolved.  Not only is it an very important tool for the museum staff to efficiently perform "collection management tasks", but a CMS is also now expected to provide "access" to a museum's objects for researchers and the public.  Further, the "objects" in a museum now include both a digital facsimile of a physical object - a photo of the object or scan of a document - and objects which are "born digital", such as digital photographs which may be documentary in nature (locations, objects and events) or art objects in their own right.

Although this webpage will attempt to summarize uses and sources of a CMS, we strongly recommend investing time to read (and digest!) "Collection Management Systems" by Anna Marie Poma Swank.  Although it may be a daunting to read and absorb this 206 page document, it will be time well-spent if it helps you avoid false expectations or following convoluted paths to an effective CMS solution.  Note that about half of this report is CMS product summaries and extensive lists of CMS clients.

Other very good introductory and referential resources are:

  • SPECTRUM standards ("Standard ProcEdures for CollecTions Recording Used in Museums") , which are from the UK's Collections Trust:

"The professional body for the Collections Community - Welcome to Collections Trust, an independent Charity with an international profile whose mission is to be the leading organisation in the management and use of collections and technology in museums, libraries and archives. Our success is built on nearly 40 years of experience working with the professional community, a commitment to excellence, and an unparalleled track-record of innovation."

Collection Management System - Functions

What should a Collection Management System do?  The CHIN Checklist has identified these basic functions:

Core Collection Management Criteria

1. Management of Objects

1.1 Object Entry

1.2 Acquisition

1.3 Inventory Control

1.4 Location & Movement Control

1.5 Cataloguing

1.6 Conservation Management

1.7 Risk Management

1.8 Insurance Management & Valuation Control

1.9 Exhibition Management

1.10 Dispatch

1.11 Loaning and Borrowing

1.12 Deaccession & Disposal

Museums identified and performed these tasks long before any CMS existed.  Further, some of these functions are very similar to those necessary for medium-large businesses.  It is not surprising, therefore, that both CMS software and business systems are essentially highly customized database systems.  The CHIN Checklist lists other CMS functions also commonly found in business systems: an efficient user interface, reporting, data validation and data import/export.

However, some of the functions above and other "extended functionality" operations may have special meaning or processes unique to museums, collections and archives.  For example "Object Entry" and "Acquisition" normally require assigning an accession number (see an example from the National Gallery of Art).  The recommended documentation for any object entering a collection is much different than for a business accepting a shipment at the loading dock!  The CMS is expected to recognize these differences and assist the museum staff with step-by-step menus for these operations.

Similarly, the "Cataloguing" function in a CMS should point the staff towards a consistent and standard set of terms to identify the objects being accessed.  At this point, "metadata" is assigned to the object(s).  What is metadata?  It is the "data about data" or the descriptors needed to identify the object, almost always in standard categories.  Metadata is discussed in detail elsewhere on this website.  A complete and authoritative guide can be found at: Dublin Core User Guide.  From this guide:

"A metadata record consists of a set of attributes, or elements, necessary to describe the resource in question. For example, a metadata system common in libraries -- the library catalog -- contains a set of metadata records with elements that describe a book or other library item: author, title, date of creation or publication, subject coverage, and the call number specifying location of the item on the shelf."

A CMS will have pre-set classification (metadata) categories and also normally allow user-defined categories.  This is important for car museums and collections if "car year", "car make", "car model" and similar classification categories are useful and expected.  The number of used-defined categories allowed may therefore be a critically desired feature.  The "First Archive" webpage provides examples and other sections found in this website's Table of Contents provide recommendations.

Cataloging should also follow standards set by using a "nomenclature", "hierarchical listing of terms" and similar widely-adopted guidelines.  These features are highly desirable in a CMS.

One of the enhanced features noted on the full CHIN Checklist is "Public Access and Engagement"  This will be discussed below in the section titled "Collection or Content Management?"

Another technical feature is "Import/Export Functions".  Unless a collection has never placed any data on a computer, this should be considered to be very important.  The ability to import Excel-style files of object names, accession numbers and descriptors can be a valuable time-saver and ensure consistent data.  Further, this webpage also explains processes for reading and writing "embedded metadata" into digital objects - images and PDF files.  Trials have been successfully completed freely exchanging in both directions - metadata from and to Excel files, images and a CMS system.  Using and mastering this process is highly recommended!

The Greenstone digital library software (not a true CMS) can categorize (classify) digital objects directly using only their embedded metadata.  Although this would seem to be a very desirable function, no CMS yet reviewed has this ability. 

Collection or Content Management?

Anna Marie Poma Swank very ably explains the distinction between a ""Collection Management System" and a "Content Management System". This should be understood by a collection manager before drafting specifications (requirements) for a proposed CMS.

"...we believe that Collection Management software refers to records keeping, inventory control, create and store records for every objects in the museums. They have also an archival function in documenting all the most important activities of the museums (loans, preservation, exhibitions, and so forth."

but she further states:

"I will address also the issue of the value of those products not just for their support of key collections operations, but for making collections alive and accessible to specialists and non specialist-users and become more and more "context capable content management systems".  In other words, when we collect information about available tools on the market, we will look for a complete package offered to respond to the definition and requirement for both Museums collections management software and Museums content management software."

The ability of a CMS to provide both "collections" and "content" management is an important step to the goal of all collections: "... for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men."  However, there are several methods for a CMS to "diffuse knowledge" from its collection.

  • Internet Browser-based CMS.  An increasing number of CMSs use an Internet browser as the manager/user interface and the functions of the system can be accessed, if permissions are granted, from any location through the Internet.  Such permissions can also be limited, as no collection would completely open its archives and resources - and the ability to manipulate those resources - to the general public.  Different categories of access can be granted to staff, accredited researchers and the public.

  • Optional Internet Module - optional vendor-provided modules may link traditional client-server CMS software to the client's existing website.

  • Application Programming Interface (API) - the most basic interface method between a database (CMS) and a webpage is an API.  These are standard programming routines, if provided by a CMS vendor, which will make this connection.

However, if after a CMS provides "public access", what are the goals of this access and what will be the public's interface to the CMS?  Will the interface have "standard" and "advanced" query tools or will this interface provide a "curated" view of the museum' collection, current exhibits, etc.?  A few CMS packages have addressed this issue.

Analyzing Needs

No business would acquire any but the most simple software without first performing a "systems analysis".  This should also hold true for a museum or private collection considering a CMS.  A guide to this is "Choosing Museum Collection Management Software, The Systems Analysis: Its Methods, Functions and Benefits" by Robert A. Baron, Museum Computer Consultant.  Although this paper was written in 1991, it remains very useful!

"Nonetheless, when a museum first considers computerizing, it may, indeed, find it advantageous to forgo or forestall any formal analysis of its operations. To obtain experience with the issues involved and better to acclimate itself to the inevitable study, the museum may wish to try to automate selected filing systems on its own -- preferably without extensive professional help. It may buy one of the available database management packages and write its own set of simple systems, or it may purchase one of the less expensive collection management packages (Minaret, Accession, Snap! editor's note: these are now longer available. eHive and PastPerfect are current low-cost or free trial equivalents) and begin its cataloguing. The museum's experience with these approaches will either establish that a larger system is unnecessary, or will confirm the need for further professional guidance. Using this simple alternative might enable the museum to delay the acquisition process and allow it to buy some time to raise development and acquisition capital without standing still. At the very least, such a tactic serves an important role in providing important experience in the issues surrounding systems acquisition and implementation. Museums should bear in mind that the dividing line between adequacy and inadequacy of the current system is never crystal clear."

In other words: "The enemy of the good enough is the perfect."  Planning is important but excessive planning may delay your project excessively!


If a collection or museum has only paper records, creating an Excel file of sample assets is a good start.  Similarly, an Access database can be made from these Excel files and it will show how "tables" relate data.  This is the structure nearly always used by a CMS.

A very well developed Access-based "freeware" archives system is Tabularium, developed by David Roberts and the Government of New South Wales, Australia.  A version with sample data can be downloaded.

The Access database will require special techniques to store and display image or other digital assets in other formats (doc, xls and pdf).

Tables that are commonly used by a CMS put "like kind" objects/data elements together and may include:

  • Objects

  • Library

  • Archives

  • Photographs

  • People

  • Events

  • Locations

The open-source Greenstone digital library software can provide a very good introduction to using metadata for classification and searching of digital objects although it does not otherwise have "management" functions.  Sample data in an Excel/CSV file can be imported into Greenstone (using the "explode" process) or embedded metadata in sample objects can be used directly in Greenstone for a good learning experience.

The PastPerfect Museum Software User Guides provide clear and detailed explanations of nearly all the "collection management tasks" listed above.  The software can also be requested for downloading.  Both are highly recommended.

CMS Vendors and Software

A personal survey of several sources shows there are 38 CMS software packages available from almost that number of vendors!  A table that provides summary data on each package is linked here.  This table will be updated as further product information is known or trials are completed.  Note that the table includes the Greenstone Digital Library software, although this is not really a CMS.

A very good online source of SPECTRUM-compliant systems is at the "Choose a CMS Software Survey 2014-2015"  It is not know how often this site is updated.  A compiled table of these systems is also available online, but its date is unknown.  Price differences have been noted between these two sources.

Although more than 10 years old, these CHIN resources provide valuable background data on CMS vendors and systems:

Table of Comparative Functionality

Table of Evaluation Results by Vendor

Email me with any questions, comments or suggestions!

Bob Schmitt,

October 10, 2015