Free Online Collections Management Systems…and Other Myths

Some days I wish Walter was me and techie people were the car.

Our new website, as noted below, kicks ass. The only part I collaborated on, besides some copy editing, was the collections management page. The page looks dismal. You go onto the collections pages of other museums like the Smithsonian or even less prestigious institutions, and you’re left wondering : How the heck do they make their collections information so streamlined and sexy?

In a nutshell: Money, either courtesy of the American taxpayer, private foundations, or their own profits. Well, we don’t have access to any of those. So like any good citizen of the 21st-century, I Googled “free online collections management systems.”

At first, the results were promising. Specify initially looked like a good fit, but those guys are designing for natural history museums, not cultural and archaeological institutions. It doesn’t translate well. Then there was Collective Access, a program that seemed almost too good to be true mainly because it is. It’s amazing to me that computer geeks think the ability to set up a server is common knowledge in America. Or anywhere.

There are a few others, and if you’ve done this shameless Googling, you’ve come across all of them. I hope you knew enough about computers to actually use any of them. Sometimes I wish I could come up with my own collections management system that addresses all the complicated barriers of the current ones…but, of course, if I knew enough to do that I would probably be using Collective Access right now.

For any computer programmers out there totally wild about helping out small museums, the following is what I want in a free open-source web-based collections management system. No exceptions:

1.) I want to having nothing to do with the technicalities of setting up a server.

2.) No tech-speak language, numbers, or abbreviations, at any point, anywhere in the process of explaining, installing, using, or uninstalling the system. I want to download the thing EASILY and PAINLESSLY and then have a nice little user interface to guide me through all the HTML crap that I hated in the 90s and hate even more now. This is your job, not mine. Apple and Microsoft have sort of figured this out. I mean, how hard is this? USER INTERFACE.

3.) MAKE IT EASY TO PERSONALIZE. Every museum is different. Archaeological collections are different from biological ones. And by easy to personalize–I still can’t believe I have to spell this out–I DON’T mean easy to personalize if you know HTML. I want to personalize it. I have a 2007 Vista computer, cry when I see a Blue Screen of Death, don’t have a smartphone, and have never been on Facebook. Design the program for me.

I dare to dream.


2 responses to “Free Online Collections Management Systems…and Other Myths

  1. Perhaps there are some things – like, say, collection management systems – that just don’t pop out of the tin ready to go because the problem they solve is complex. More complex than you seem to realize. Sometimes there’s no alternative but to actually invest time and effort.

    • I don’t need a collections management system to “pop out of the tin ready to go.” In fact, that’s exactly what I don’t want. I’m willing to put in considerable time–on my own time, since I’m a volunteer–to customize and personalize it. What I want is a system based on technology I can understand enough to spend that time and effort on. Many of these open-source systems define themselves as “easy” when, in reality, what I would define as significant technological knowledge is required to actually use them. I’m not an expert in these things and don’t want to be–making these sorts of things accessible to the average end user is supposed to be the responsibility of technology programmers and specialists. I’m convinced that this failure is why free, open-source software isn’t nearly as widely used as it could be.

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