Over the last few years, we’ve been creating and acquiring digital assets (more on what I mean by that term in a second) at a pretty astonishing rate, and we’ve thus far lacked a way of managing them. They’re stored in a variety of places (some more discoverable than others) and it’s difficult to know exactly what we have. In fact, when I tried to figure out the extent of these assets when writing this post, I couldn’t do it. I just ended up feeling like Clark Gable:

Clark Gable

So, as the title of this post says, the time has come for us to implement a digital asset management system to get better control of these assets in which we’ve invested a lot of time and money, but also to make them much more widely discoverable and reusable.

What is a digital asset management system?

“Digital asset management” is one of those business-speaky terms that many of us in the world of archives (justifiably) find to be eyeroll inducing. So what are we actually talking about here? Well, let’s start by breaking this down a bit:

A digital asset is really anything that is digital (as opposed to analog) that has value.  It may have value to us as archivists, to our researchers, to our donor institutions, or to some combination of those. It could be digitized archival material, born-digital archival material, a report that we’ve generated, a citation of an important secondary resource, a video someone made using archival material; what matters is whether the informational content has value.

Digital things often have more than one instantiation. For example, an archival manuscript may be digitized and several different file versions (master, service) created. Those files often have some metadata associated with them as well that tells us about the content but may also give some technical details about the files as well. Together, these are the assets we want to manage.

Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler

What do we mean by managing digital assets? One way to think about this is to think about the kinds of things we might want to do with these assets. Things like adding metadata to describe them, searching and browsing them, sharing them with researchers and other archivists, and of course preserving them…all of which should sound like familiar functions to us archivists!

An example

Many of us are familiar with Flickr, which is a very simple digital asset management system. It allows you to upload photos from your computer or your phone, add metadata (like titles and tags) and assign a Creative Commons rights statements to them. It also imports metadata embedded in images (for example geolocation information). You can also identify and tag people in photographs, group these images into albums and groups of albums. Then you can set permissions which specify at a very granular level which photos can be seen, and by whom, and you can specify which photos can be downloaded by others (and which sizes can be downloaded).  You can also share photos via social media, and export metadata about your photos separately from the photos themselves.

All of these are functions that we might want to include in our digital asset management system. We’ll also likely want to include other features that are specific to our work as archivists.

Here’s where you come in!

Since this system will affect a lot of people and processes here at the RAC, I’m going to spend a significant amount of time gathering information about what we want it to do. That will include one-on-one conversations with many of you, a survey of our existing systems as well as other institutions’ solutions, and gathering “user stories” - a brief description of system functionality from the perspective of an end user - which will help shape the functional requirements.

I’ll be contacting almost everyone on staff to set up conversations, and I hope you’ll take a look at the user stories and submit some of your own.

As always, your contributions are invaluable, so give this some thought, and get ready to participate! If we work together we can end up feeling like this:

Gone with the Wind