Back in the day when production assets actually took up physical space, keeping track of these materials was a bulky yet simple process. I began my career as an advertising agency studio artist. Each ad campaign had many important assets: photo negatives, retouched “heros,” film separations, typographic “mechanicals,” media requirements, and so forth. These important originals would be collected in the “job jacket,” a large manila envelope that moved around with the job, shepherded by the traffic manager. These assets needed to be guarded. An ad couldn’t be produced without them. And storing them was equally important since you never knew when a client might want to rerun an old ad.
That was back in 1992. Within a few short years however, production assets would shift from stats to scans, and from photographic type galleys to PageMaker files. Bulky folders full of photos and paste-ups were replaced with Syquest Disks, then Zip Disks, then Jazz Drives until today, when they’re all just backed up on the cloud.
The digitalization of production assets has removed the bulkiness of managing these resources, but it has also removed the simplicity of keeping track of them.
The Side Effects of Digital Freedom
This month’s newsletter examines the unintended side effects of the digital revolution, specifically focusing on how managing digital resources is not nearly as simple as stuffing them into a labeled folder and storing them in alphabetized filing cabinets. And this means that cultural organizations will need digital systems for managing and collecting their vast and ever-growing volumes of digital information.
My colleague Adam LaPorta, Business Development Director at Piction (a premiere and commonly utilized Digital Asset Management System among museums) has helped me out with this month’s topic, since implementing a DAMS systems is not part of Cuberis’s core expertise—though we often integrate with such systems in our work for museums.
Digital Has Changed Our World in Many Ways
Digital photography, digital documents, and digital video have radically changed the media landscape. But it’s not just the marketplace that’s been affected. It’s also deeply impacted our daily lives. When it comes to media, the main change is in how content is delivered. What used to require expensive equipment to broadcast images over the airwaves, or millions of miles of cable to pipe them into our homes, can now be downloaded via wifi to our phones.
More Than Delivery Has Changed
Digital delivery has been a game changer, but it’s not just delivery. Content creation has perhaps impacted us the most. Back when you had to pay three or four bucks for a roll of 24 exposure color film, and then about the same to develop it, nobody took pictures of their lunch. But with cell phone cameras, the cost of taking a photo is essentially zero, and so we take a lot of them. I can hold down the capture button on my S8 and take about ten shots per second in burst mode. So even those quick one-off family photos often contain dozens of photos—gotta find the one where my boys aren’t looking away, or making weird faces. And with 64 gigs of data, I can keep all of them, even the outtakes, since I’m not going to run out of storage anytime soon.
Since creating digital content is essentially free, we make a ton-load of stuff. Creating images is free and simple, and keeping them is also essentially free and easy. Digital content storage services a.k.a. Facebook and Instagram make stockpiling content just as easy as making it. If we had to keep all of our digital photos in bulky photo albums, we’d soon find ourselves featured on an episode of “Hoarders.”
But since we can shoot and post away, with no thought to cost or collection, we don’t have to give much thought to what we keep and what we throw out. We just keep it all. And since digital stuff doesn’t take up physical space, and since it’s pretty easy to search our personal archives, we just keep on producing. No problem.
No Problem for Individuals, Big Problem for Institutions
But what happens when we scale this production up to the organizational level? And when the content is not so ephemeral, but contains important resources that an institution may need to access and use down the road? How do we collect digital assets collectively, and manage them consistently?
When you multiply content creation across an entire organization, the need to keep track of all this stuff becomes seriously problematic. It’s not mere storage that’s the problem. It’s the organization and control of access to these massive sets of digital assets that’s problematic for larger institutions.
Let’s consider access. I’m writing this article as a personal Google Doc. But it will become an important digital asset to my company that someone may need to access later. Of course, I’ll share it with some of my co-workers (and with my wife who faithfully fixes my misplaced and missing commas each month), and then they’ll have access to it in their Google drives. But it’s still my document. I could revoke access later or delete it altogether. Cuberis has a G Suite account and a shared Google drive folder where we keep company documents. Nevertheless, each document has an original owner who might revoke or delete particular documents. But Google Docs is not the only source of our digital content. Suppose I take a work photo on my personal phone. How would another employee get to it unless I remember to upload it and put it in the shared folder?
When we move from individual to institution, collection of digital content is not the only problem. Access to, and the organization of, that content that becomes a real issue. Google provides some really great search algorithms. For us, when we’re looking for an old proposal, or blog post, we can usually find what we’re looking for with a just few search terms. But when you have much more digital content, used by many different departments, whose critical archival requirements are essential, managing digital content is not just about having enough storage. It’s about organizing and managing access (with differing levels of permissions) to all of the digital assets of your organization.
We’re a small company, and for the most part our Google Drive does the trick, but if we were larger, or if our digital assets were more mission-critical to core business, we’d have a problem, and one that would get exponentially worse until we employed a system to help.
Enter the DAMS
And that’s where specialized Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS) like Piction come in.
Museums already have pretty robust Collection Management Systems for their core collection data. And these systems are not meant to be replaced by a DAMS system since they have a much more specialized purpose, with unique data and processes, that cover everything from rights management, to shipping parameters for works in traveling exhibitions, to conservation procedures for ancient artifacts. Now, organizational DAMS systems and museum Collection Management Systems do significantly overlap, but not completely. For example, a Collection System might include data about security policies, shipping standards, and insurance requirements for original works of art. A DAMS like Piction might not include that level of information. But the high resolution tiff of the painting (as well as other versions), with its background information and metadata should be added to a DAMS so that, for example, the marketing department can access these files to produce publicity material for upcoming exhibitions.
Not all Collection data needs to be, or should be, added to a DAMS. And likewise not all DAMS data should not be included in a Collection System. (The marketing department’s exhibition brochure, while possibly great graphic design, probably doesn’t rise to the level of art or history that warrants inclusion in the museum’s collection!)
Exactly where these overlaps occur, and which data needs to be shared between both systems, is a part of the important configuration, design, and implementation process when setting up a DAMS for your organization.
Adam LaPorta shares some of his experience with this important part of the process.
“When a cultural institution decides to implement a digital asset management system they need to give careful thought and planning to its implementation. Institutional buy-in, across all departments, is critical for success. A strategic leadership group, consisting minimally of representatives from digital imaging, registrars, marketing, and possibly the archives are needed to lead an implementation process. There are many important questions that will need to be addressed by the team. What elements of the collection catalog will be included? What elements will be accessible by which sets of users? What are our user profiles, and what levels of access will each receive? How will the intellectual property rights be preserved? How will organizational brand content be organized? How will old formats and old taxonomies be transitioned to new ones? All these kinds of questions and more need to be addressed.”
“The implementation process is significant, and can take six months or more to fully establish. The breadth of issues and questions that need to be addressed can feel overwhelming, however, what most institutions learn through the effort is that by working through these issues as a team they actually clean up and clarify systemic organizational problems that have been barriers to efficiency all along. This process not only results in a great system that will improve the work product of all departments, it helps the institution come together in ways that they did not expect, with benefits beyond the system itself.”
Adapting to a DAMS
One other big difference between personal and organizational digital content creation has to do with organizational systems.
We all have our own internally intuitive organizational systems for our own stuff. These systems often reflect our personal habits. If you look at someone’s desk or desktop, you may be able to peg them as an orderly type or *ahem* a less orderly type. Some of us have no problem letting our email inboxes run into the thousands, and some of us get very uncomfortable when they scroll beyond one screen. We each maintain our own personal organization systems. We find our own systems maximally intuitive—because we invented them. But what’s intuitive in our own heads, for our own stuff, does not scale to large organizations. An institution needs to codify certain processes and practices when it comes to digital assets, and a DAMS systems and process is a critical part of institutional policy. The more important digital assets are to an organization, the more critical a DAMS system becomes. And digital assets are certainly critical for museums.
Again, Adam LaPorta on the process of institutional adaptation.
“Working through the planning stages of a DAMS implementation is only half the battle. Institutional adoption is the other half. On-boarding your staff, training them how to adopt new workflows for content ingestion and access is critical. Setting up department-specific, or role-specific, training classes is an effective way to prepare your institution to develop new habits and workflows for the DAMS. Writing up daily workflow scenarios based on department specific use cases can be used in this training, and also become a resource for future staff.”
“Again, this may seem like a herculean task, but once implemented, a DAMs system will open up access to all your organization’s content while protecting and preserving it’s usage. Staff members won’t be delayed by having to wait for media requests to be fulfilled. Nor will they waste time having produced work using out of date resources. Additionally, your staff will be able to discover the full breadth of your institution’s content, enriching their institutional knowledge, and improving their work.”
“Lastly, think of the alternative. Without a DAMS, digital content management is fraught with problems—problems that the implementation process will bring into clear focus. Those problems, while unseen, are real barriers and limitations that create unnecessary friction for your institution. And as time goes on, and more and more digital assets are produced, those problems will multiply and cleaning them up later will be harder. This is the digital age, and our institutions need a solution to manage their corporate institutional assets.”
Learning to Live in the Digital Age
Digital content has changed our lives. And while we all love our camera phones and Google Drives, we don’t love having to adapt to new systems and new processes of storing, cataloging, and accessing assets in corporately consistent ways. But if a resource is valuable enough to keep (and perhaps we need to exercise some discretion on those standards), then we need to employ a system that will keep these materials available to our institutions for years to come.
Thanks to systems like Piction, larger organizations can find ways to manage and utilize their valuable assets and avoid losing them in the ever-spralling jungle of digital data production.