Potential Cataloging Software for RPG Museum

by Janine Winfree published 2020/10/11 09:18:06 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:26:23-07:00
Archivist Janine Winfree created a list of open-source, free, or low-cost cataloging programs for the RPG Museum. She provides a brief summary of each of these systems as well as her personal recommendations for RPG Museum.


In order to best support the RPG Museum project, RPG Research must select an open source cataloging system to describe, track, and identify materials in their collection. There are many considerations for choosing an open source software, including its ability to integrate into the current Plone-based system. It also needs to have the ability for a single sign on structure to keep things easiest for researchers, archivists, and other users of the collection. Above all, it needs to be open source and ideally free or very low cost. 

Before moving forward with any of these softwares, it is my opinion that we should first do a surface-level processing on a spreadsheet software of any kind. Spreadsheets mean we can track these items and batch-import them into some of these systems. It also means we can get a very bare amount of catalog information before fleshing out complete records. This would mean basically having a spreadsheet that lists items with basic cataloging information, such as title, author, date, and object type. 

This initial cataloging sweep could be done in one of these specific systems, but if we have a “master list” in a shareable spreadsheet it will make for easier integration, sharing, and remote work. Additionally, a spreadsheet allows for easy backup of catalog information in case anything happens to the information in these open source catalog systems. It will also be quicker to have a spreadsheet in which we can input information one after the other instead of having to navigate sometimes difficult catalog interfaces. 

Once we decide on a cataloging system and whether or not we will proceed with an initial processing on a spreadsheet software, I will create a loose cataloging guideline to guide volunteers on how to describe various types of objects for our purposes. There will also need to be some considerations about the objects themselves versus any digital replications, such as digitized videos, scans, or photographs. This is not the focus of this specific recommendation article, as we are currently trying to decide a cataloging system before we move forward with any sort of museum standards. 

Some specific archiving terms that I may reference include finding aid, metadata, FRBR, and authorities. A finding aid is very important for researchers and users of the collection items as it is essentially a guide to a specific collection, including its provenance and extant. Metadata, or “data about data”, is a way of tracking catalog information in an easy and shareable way, as well as tracking digital objects and keeping them in context. FRBR, or Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, is a conceptual entity-relationship model that focuses on hierarchical relationships of work, expression, manifestation, and item. This will help keep track of certain items in relation to a specific work and allows for keeping items in context. While not required of every cataloging system, it is considered a cataloging standard. Authorities are terms, names, subjects, or any other type of standardized name which we want to make sure to remain consistent over multiple records for efficient searching and cataloging. 

Two really popular museum software that will not be on the list include ContentDM and Past Perfect. Both of these are very expensive cataloging software, but are very popular among other museums and historical institutions. I wanted to mention these briefly just as an understanding of what the paid standards are. Both of these include website integration, gallery creations, customer service and support. However, despite their wide-spread use, neither of these have very good reputations among some of the museum staff I’ve worked with. Many people use this system mainly because they are already familiar with or the institution has had these systems for years. I believe that almost any open source software on this list can compete with these two major museum programs. 

There are several options in the world of open source cataloging systems from which to choose. Each of these systems will be described in short summary, hoping to highlight reasons for its use as well as any potential drawbacks. Once all of these potential systems have been evaluated, I shall give my personal recommendation on a system that we can move forward with, once approved by other archivists, museum volunteers, researchers, and stakeholders. A simple caveat to all of these recommendations is that I do not have a programming background and do not understand very specific back-end documentation. I am a trained media archivist and can give my recommendation solely on its surface level capabilities. 

Cataloging Software Options

CollectiveAccess (https://collectiveaccess.org/)

Specifically designed for museums and other heritage centers, CollectiveAccess is a free and open-source software. It consists of two main components: Providence and Pawtucket. Providence is at the center of CollectiveAccess, containing the cataloging and data management applications. Pawtucket is an optional feature that is a front-end publication and discovery platform. This appealing feature means that we may have some sort of built-in website for easy researcher access; however, this feature may not be necessary due to our current website design. 

The cataloging and data management component, Providence, allows for a FRBR-type hierarchical relationship catalog. One most appealing component of Providence is its batch-edit and import capabilities, which may expedite some of the creation of the original collection once it is processed, especially if we have a spreadsheet masterlist of items. Users of Collective Access praise it for its easy-to-use interface as well as its ability to catalog almost any type of object, which is important as our collection consists of anything from manuscripts, to tabletop games, to letters, to videos and beyond. 

Some of the features boasted on CollectiveAccess’s website include: configured with archival metadata standards including Dublin Core, fully configurable metadata fields and reports without custom programming, advanced search capabilities,  batch cataloging tools for objects and authority items, batch import tools for media, reporting tools to generate finding aids, library check-in/check-out system for objects, in-browser media playback, gallery creation for easier discovery and highlighting of interesting collections, and access control for different user groups.

With all of these amazing features, there is really only one drawback and that is that it requires a data server from which to run and cannot be used with a web-based server. This should not be an issue for RPG Research. I am still not 100% sure about the SSO capabilities but it does have a built-in authentication token that is documented in the wiki. According to some user feedback on the forums, there is integration available for this authentication that hopefully is in line with what Hawke is seeking. 

CollectiveAccess is easily customized, highly flexible, and has extensive documentation on their wiki. Many other heritage centers use their software, including the University of Colorado, EYEFilm, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and many more. Additionally, there are several YouTube tutorials that make for easy sharing among potential volunteers or museum staff. It is my personal favorite of the list. 

CollectionSpace (https://www.collectionspace.org)

Created by the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, CollectionSpace is a web-based software that is designed to be customized according to any museum’s needs. It is free and has an active developer community that ensures it is actively improving. It is not as user-friendly as some other options as it does require a developer background and understanding of programs. It allows for the creation of several different interpretive materials that would be useful for the museum space, including printed catalogs and mobile gallery guides. 

One appealing feature of CollectionSpace is the ability to try a web-based demo. You can log into the site, create some catalog records, and understand how the system works before committing to its usage. This may be great as a way to get feedback from potential volunteers and see which system they feel is the easiest to use for the RPG Museum collections. While it is a free system, it does require a server which is the cost mentioned in the “Try before you buy” section. 

Some other highlighted features of CollectionSpace include a collections management based software with standards and support for cataloging, including accession and deaccession workflows and tools for loans or exhibitions. It also has tools to describe a variety of digital assets, which would be useful for any digitized materials. It has a powerful full-text search engine based on Elasticsearch. Authority records can be customized or imported according to the institutional needs. It also has no limit on user accounts and also has customizable data entry screens. 

CollectionSpace is also backed by LYRASIS, a non-profit member organization that supports access to cultural heritage through the promotion of open source technology, content services, and digital solutions by collaborating with heritage organizations. They provide some basic support for the system, along with other users of CollectionSpace and program staff. 

One drawback to CollectionSpace is that it isn’t clear if it has an appealing gallery-type front end for easy discovery of collection items. However, this is not a deal-breaker as we can customize a gallery using our current website system and have the cataloging as linked data into the site galleries. CollectionSpace has an extensive documentation wiki and mentions support for SSO authentication. 

Open Exhibits (http://openexhibits.org/)

Open Exhibits is not specifically a cataloging program, but I include it on the list as it does have cataloging support. Rather, it is focused on interactive exhibits and galleries. While this may not seem so appealing at first, it is important to understand that one of the main ways that researchers might experience the RPG Museum is online. Therefore, an exhibit-based system may fit our needs in order to have the best online exhibition system possible. It is a multi-touch, multi-user toolkit that allows the ability to specify user behaviors and their outcomes, so it does require a bit of developer understanding. However, it does have several pre-existing templates and modules. It uses CSS as well as its own markup languages CML and GML. 

Open Exhibits has an extensive GML (Gesture Markup Language) wiki and support on its website. It has several tutorials on its website, trying to make it as user-friendly as possible. However, compared to others on this list, it does not seem as easy to use for remote volunteer input, which is going to be the bulk of the catalog creation for the RPG Museum. 

eHive (www.ehive.com)

Unlike others on this list, eHive does not require that we upkeep a server. eHive hosts the information itself, which does result in a lower cost for the RPG Museum. It is a web-based collection cataloging system, used worldwide by hundreds of heritage organizations. Not only does it allow object cataloging and image storage, it also has the capability to publish collections online. It also allows for deeper customization with a Wordpress based developer toolkit. 

eHive has several different pricing plans. The free plan allows for a max of 200 objects, making it ideal for small collections but RPG Museum has many more objects than this limit. Other tiers range from $99 a year for 500 mb storage/2000 images to $800 a year for $25 GB of storage/100,000 images. 

You can take a free trial of eHive and browse its collections for free. It has the ability to toggle public access for your collections, meaning that it can be used for both shareable and private media. eHive has communities for different types of museums, meaning that RPG Museum could possibly collaborate with other museums that hold similar object types. 

eHive does have its limitations. It only has seven object record types: archives, archeology, art, history, library, natural science, and photography and multimedia. We may find these categories to be too restrictive for our collection. This, combined with its price, means that it is not the best option on this list for our use, however the fact that it is hosted, updated, and maintained by eHive does mean less work on our end. 

Other, non-cataloging alternatives

Archivematica (www.archivematica.org)

Archivematica is a free, open-source digital preservation system. Note that this is not a specific cataloging system, and that it is more designed to maintain long-term access to digital items. This is best suited for a digital repository only, but I wanted to mention it in case we were looking for something specifically geared towards digitized materials. 

Omeka (www.omeka.net)

Omeka is specifically geared towards web-publishing of collections. DublinCore is easily integrated into the system and makes for very easy sharing of digital media. While it is not free, it is very low cost with plans starting at $35/year but is limited to only 2 GB of storage. There are tiered pricing plans that go up to $1000/year and 50 GB of storage. While this is not a cataloging system, it does allow for a nice creation of a digital library in case a system that is chosen does not have a user friendly web-based interface for gallery creation. 

AMS / Archival Management System (https://www.weareavp.com/products/ams/)

AMS is specifically a digitization workflow tracker. It is free and open source. This could be useful for a project specifically focused on batch digitization of VHS, beta, or other types of media. It has a tracking system and allows for prioritization of items for digitization, as well as giving alerts for packing any sort of material that needs to be digitized offsite. 

Final Recommendations

I believe that the two strongest candidates for RPG Museum are CollectiveAccess and CollectionSpace. Both of these two programs have demos that we can use in order to choose which one is best for our institution. CollectionSpace requires that we create an account to access the demo, whereas CollectiveAccess has one available on its website with the login/password of “demo”. We could use these demos and gather feedback from potential volunteers before deciding which program we like best for the archive. Both of these are very strong candidates for the RPG Museum. While CollectiveAccess is my personal recommendation for the project, I believe that CollectionSpace is also very competitive and has worthwhile support. 

If there are any questions about these summaries or why I made these recommendations, feel free to ask me by sending an email to janine@rpgresearch.com

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Hawke Robinson
Hawke Robinson says:
Oct 11, 2020 09:47 AM
Thank you so very much Janine for taking the time to research and write this up. This is extremely helpful to get us moving along.

As we discussed in today Research Archivists Team meeting, while CollectiveAccess has a lot of great features to offer, we will go ahead with first installing a working test of CollectionSpace.

As discussed, from my decades of tech experience supporting platforms over the long-run, I have seen that the script-kiddie-developed PHP-language, and all platforms dependent on it, while super easy for prototyping, internal uses, and inexperienced programmers, it over time becomes a nightmare to keep updated and prevent being hacked. Since we are 100% volunteer-run, we always have to keep in mind not overloading our volunteer systems administrator(s), which right now only consists of me, and Niklas.

The maturity, scalability, and baseline security of the Open Java based (openjdk, thankfully not Oracle's ruination of Java) CollectionSpace, as long as it has enough of an actively developing community, and the platform is robust and stable enough, will be far more manageable, scalable, and secure for the many years ahead.

We do want to take a careful look at the support for languages other than English (localization), and support for people with different disabilities to be as accessible as possible.

Thank you again ever so much for helping move this along.