I know that I haven't blogged for a while, but I have been spending all my time tweeting for the past few months. I find that tweeting allows me to say what I want, in the very short time I have, without having to compose too much. However, I have been pushed into writing by a deep sense of frustration and even anger. I have been frustrated and angered by how we have all allowed ourselves to be bamboozled by a bunch of sharks peddling out-of-date wares for astronomical prices. More than that, how these bamboozlers have almost brought the whole system to its knees.
No, I am not talking about the bankers, though I certainly could be, nor am I talking about international corporations (don't even get me started!). I am talking about a small group of specialist software companies who wrote some intractable software for museums back in the 1990s and have been fleecing the museum community ever since.
I am not going to name any names here, that would be unfair and even foolish. Nor am I going to point the finger at my friends and colleagues who have bought, and continue to pay through the nose, for these "systems" (you know who you are). However, I want to say a few things about the roughly 8 to 10 major Collection Management Systems (CMS) which have come to dominate most mid-sized to very large museums for their documentation over the past 15 or so years.
First of all, a bit of background. Since the 1960s museums, or organizations supporting museums, have been trying to write the all-singing all-dancing CMS. Different groups started at slightly different times and in different places, but you can look up the work of the Museum Documentation Association (now the Collections Trust) in the UK, CHIN in Canada, or CIDOC at ICOM internationally. However, the Museum Documentation Association and CHIN were the earliest, as I recall. After numerous local, national and international attempts, all of which failed, there was created enough of a consensus, or at least enough of a consensus that could be imposed, to build some more or less stable CMSs. With these "standards", a number of software companies build some rather clunky CMSs using out-of-date or aging database methods and interfaces and began to sell. Oh, how they sold!
You see, museums then, and to a large extent now, are not very technologically sophisticated. I know that there are a number of exceptions, but the exceptions prove the rule. Museums, like so many large public institutions (health services, governmental agencies, security services, etc.) like big, expensive and largely unworkable systems to run their organizations. Museums are no different, so they bought these CMSs like they were hot cakes. Now, everywhere you go, at least practically every museum you go to, has one of these absurdly complex, expensive and clunky systems "managing" their data. The problem is that these systems manage very little. In fact, they provide very little service at all, often for thousands of dollars every year.
Here are a few deficiencies that I have found with these products.
1) When you buy one of these systems, you buy the structure of the data, "as is." This is regardless of the kind of museum you are, the size, the mandate, the audience and the collections. Of course these companies provide you with a service where you can customize your structure, to a degree, but only if you are willing, and able, to spend a vast amount of money. How much money? Often tens of thousands of dollars just to get a few fields to be added or changed.
2) The whole point of a CMS is to help the institution organize its information. That means that you will need not only some sophisticated means finding and organizing the vast records that these systems create, but also reporting the results in an impressive array of reports. Most of these systems, however, provide you with anywhere from two to a dozen fixed reports, mostly just lists, that you can't change either. Again, if you need another one, you pay, and you pay a lot.
3) We live in an age of the Web and sharing of our information. We all use, daily, systems that help us organize and share our information on-line with a whole host of different communities. One would think that our CMSs should do the same, but no. These leading CMSs provide only the most basic web modules and output systems. None can effectively link to on-line services, few have APIs and all cost thousands of dollars to add.
4) Finally, though I could go on and on, is the user interface. We have had over 40 years of HCI expertise built up in the software industry. We are all use to using quite sophisticated user interfaces on line and in our applications. So why are we, as museums, asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars, or its currency equivalents, and almost that much again each year, for a user interface that, frankly, I could have pulled out of my arm-pit in the 1980s?
Tens of thousands of dollars for what? An embarrassing user interface to an out-of-date application that hasn't even realized that the rest of the world is well into Web 2.0 and moving towards the Cloud? No thank you. I have been building CMSs for small to medium museums for over 30 years. They are easy, they are simple, and they can do a huge amount more than you imagined. More than that, they are very cheap and easy to implement and manage. You can go out tomorrow, buy yourself a copy of FileMaker Pro 10 Advanced, give it to your 11 year old son or daughter and let them build you a powerful, sophisticated, user friendly and web-savey CMS over the weekend. If that is too easy for you, join one of the two open-source CMS projects that are now approaching completion (CollectionSpace or CollectiveAccess).
I am calling on the museum workers of the world, "Cast off the shackles of exploitation." "Unite around the simple, the usable, the effective, and the cost-effective." "Free our documentation so that it can serve our audiences." It is not a dream, it can be done.