Digital repositories on a shoestring

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At the 2015 Special Librarian's Association (SLA) conference, Widen was part of an expert panel discussion about the implementation of digital repositories on a “shoestring.” In this article, we’re sharing all of the key points discussed — to get you thinking about the questions you might want to ask in order to find the right kind of repository for your organization.

These key points include:

  • Shoestring factors: what to consider
  • Cloud-based repository and marketing workflows
  • Cloud-based and on-premise repositories together

To address these points, we’ll examine two higher-ed organizations that have experienced the process of choosing digital repositories on a shoestring: Sheridan University and Brown University.

These case studies will help you identify platforms for managing digital assets that are appropriate to your needs. They’ll also give you a glimpse of the overall process of planning, implementing and maintaining a digital repository.

But first, for those of you who are new to digital repositories and digital asset management, a few brief definitions …

What is digital asset management (DAM)?

Digital asset management systems can easily store, organize, manage, share, and track high volumes of digital assets — all from one central repository. With a DAM system like the Widen Media Collective, there’s also opportunity for in-depth analytics like asset and collection tracking, Google Analytics tracking and more. Since our DAM software is cloud-based, assets and analytics are available to authorized users anywhere, anytime.

In addition to robust DAM software like the Media Collective, there are other lightweight solutions, like SmartImage, which offer organizations who need more basic functionality an entry point into digital asset management at a lower cost.

What are digital assets?

Often referred to as visual content, digital assets are the pieces of content we create — including photos, videos, logos, graphic art, audio files, PDFs, and more. These assets are organized and stored in a digital repository — aka, a DAM system — which is a great mechanism to help you manage, share and analyze your content.

The struggle

Before implementing a digital repository, many companies struggle with their visual content. Over time, assets wind up dispersed in several different locations like external hard drives, CDs, team-member computers, company servers, Dropbox, Google Drive, HighTail, WeTransfer, and other file sharing/syncing tools.

While convenient, the above-mentioned tools typically lack core competencies of digital asset management like advanced search, metadata, and user governance. These elements make your content searchable, shareable, and scalable. Plus, when your assets are all over the place, they’re super time consuming to manage! DAM software resolves this problem by becoming a repository for all of your assets.

Shoestring factors: what to consider

Making digital assets available to key stakeholders on a reasonable budget is a critical component to the long-term success of any organization that needs to use a digital repository. In order to understand how to implement digital repositories on a shoestring, we first need to define what a shoestring budget really means to your organization.

Does your solution need to be inexpensive? Small and easy to handle? Require little to no maintenance? All of these are all relevant questions to ponder, plus they lead us toward an understanding of a bigger picture — one that goes beyond the monetary cost of the solution.

Big-picture shoestring factors include:

  • Dollars + resources (people/labor/time)
  • Investment: beyond the financial cost of a solution
  • Consider what you need (storage, metadata, governance, sharing, file support, analytics, etc.) and the potential ROI
  • Shared costs across departments/business groups

Evaluating these factors with your team will give you clarity as to which type of asset repository is right for you (today and for the long-term).

That being said, there are three main types of repositories you’ll want to consider:

  • Hosted (web or cloud-based DAM)
  • Installed (on-premise, on site DAM)
  • Open Source (hosted/installed DAM where source code is publicly available)

Sheridan University

Our first case study is Sheridan University.

As Sheridan reviewed their shoestring factors, they asked themselves:

How can our organization ensure a consistent presentation of our brand?

When selecting a DAM solution, they needed to be sure they could brand it and tweak it as desired to ensure a consistent brand presentation.

Can our internal groups pool costs to share the benefits of a digital asset repository?

In other words, can more than one department or budget share the expense, as well as the reward, of a digital asset management solution? If yes, this can help us attain a more relevant solution for the entire organization.

What is the cost to our organization for NOT having an asset repository?

What are the hours spent and resources devoted to FINDING assets, day-after-day? What would be the cost of losing irreplaceable assets? What would it cost to REBUILD some of our files from scratch?

Cloud-based repository and marketing workflows

When Stewart Dick, longtime senior graphic designer at Sheridan, began working with the school, “everything existed on CDs. The only metadata collected was the name of each main folder, and only I knew where all of those folders were. For 15 years I was been bombarded with image and asset requests — almost daily — which was a time-consuming headache.”

Obviously, this was a marketing workflow nightmare. And it’s very common in organizations before they make the leap to a digital repository.

Now, with their cloud-based repository, Sheridan currently handles 33,675 assets. This contains assets like photos, videos, Word docs, logos, PDFs, PPTs, and more. They also have 47 in-house repository users.

Why they Widened

Sheridan is coming up on it’s 50th anniversary and has been expanding rapidly over the last decade. In 2011 the Sheridan community was presented with a plan to become Sheridan University by 2017 and with that, their marketing and brand strategy department started working on a massive rebranding for Sheridan. It quickly became obvious that Sheridan would need a cloud-based DAM system to succeed with the transition, and to sustain their visual content long term.

They began researching a few different DAM solutions and found Widen to be the best fit for their needs and price range. Sheridan liked the customer service component Widen offered, as well as Widen’s extensive experience with educational institutions. Sheridan also liked the fact that they could try a demo version of the Media Collective before they invested any dollars. This gave them an opportunity to test things out and learn about metadata, permissions, sharing, versioning, and other key benefits of the Media Collective.

Once they officially chose the Media Collective, they began the process of uploading assets by category (folder names) and then into collections. They quickly realized the awesome potential of having all of their assets available to everyone on their team to share — including clients or external users (with limited permissions).

The next big step was adding metadata — which are phrases and keywords that are pivotal when searching for relevant assets. Sheridan created a hierarchy and structure to their metadata fields before implementing into their assets.

Sheridan’s digital repository in their marketing department

Now, using their cloud-based DAM system, Sheridan can easily search for visual content and find what they’re looking for. Search results appear in a grid of relevant images (thanks to metadata) that they scroll through and select. They can share assets and collections with clients and school departments, as well as through social media, external media outlets, their website and the public — easily and efficiently. And since permissions are in place, internal and external users see only what they’re supposed to see, while all other assets are protected from sight.

Administering and maintaining this kind of Media Collective ten years ago would most likely have involved an entire department. But at Sheridan, all of this is done between Stewart and one other person during their normal work hours. And although maintaining the collective is a daily task, it’s a simple one that’s easy to manage between only two people.

The shoestring factor

For Sheridan, the Media Collective was the solution that met their shoestring budget contingencies, which revolved heavily around price and resources (people). The result has been a big win for the entire organization.

According to Stewart, “I think if anyone is considering a DAM solution, or if they don’t realize they actually NEED a solution, they would be thrilled with a digital asset repository and could be saving HOURS every week, while at the same time making their lives a little easier. It can be a bit daunting thinking of HOW to even begin when assets are strewn across multiple drives, or in my case, hundreds of CDs. But with a light audit of existing assets, and a structured metadata approach, the reward of organizing one’s assets and empowering your users can be quite incredible with the help of a DAM solution.”

Brown University 

Our second case study is Brown University. As they reviewed their shoestring factors, they asked themselves questions like:

  • Do we need a different type of repository for internal teams and external stakeholders?
  • We’re looking at DAM vendor solutions vs. DAM open source solutions. What are the pros and cons of each type?
  • Do we have people on staff that can manage a digital asset repository?
  • Do we want a solution that requires less management (self-serve vs. IT)?

Setting the stage for two different user groups

Kevin Powell is the digital preservation librarian at Brown University. As part of our SLA expert panel, he talked about his experience working with two separate user groups, and the need for an open source repository, as well as a vendor-based DAM.

Kevin defined clear goals for Brown University’s digital assets:

  • Internally
    • DAM would need to serve the University’s administrative needs
    • The Brown Digital Repository would also need to serve their academic needs
  • Externally
    • Their DAM system would need to manage the “public face” of the University through imagery
    • The repository also needed to handle academic material, help with grant compliance and share institutional memory

Brown University has 88,218 assets in their cloud-based digital asset repository. Most of these assets are photos, PDFs, and PPTs. Brown also serves 774 repository users.

Why they Widened

Kevin knew that Brown University actually needed two different repositories to handle their specific needs.

The Administrative DAM solution

For their administrative needs, they chose the Widen Media Collective as their vendor-based solution.

This handles all of their administrative needs including:

  • Communications, advancement and SPS
  • Self-service
  • Easy collaboration/sharing between multiple departments (owners)
  • Giving administrative departments the ability to manage their own content
  • The ability for uploads to be determined and managed by departments, with overall standards determined by a global admin
  • Metadata input by staff
  • User Group and Wiki aid in self-service
  • With the Media Collective, all of the heavy lifting (development, programming, software updates, etc.) is handled by Widen

Some of the most important benefits the Media Collective provides to Brown University include:

  • The fact that it’s cloud based DAM
  • Regular backups and disaster preparedness are included in their DAM subscription
  • Ease of Implementation
  • The Widen support team that helped with implementation, and provides ongoing support
  • Self-service needs are aided by an intuitive interface, which makes it easier to train staff on DAM software processes.
  • Relevant feature updates occur twice a year
  • Once the DAM software was implemented, the system became easy to manage part-time

The shoestring factor for vendor-based DAM

For Brown, the shoestring factor was their staff. They had a lot of team members who would be working in their digital asset management system, and time spent on DAM duties needed to be at a minimum. This contingency made a vendor-based DAM solution a clear choice. And thanks to the Media Collective, DAM duties take up only a small percentage of each team member’s time.

The Academic DAM solution

For their academic needs, Brown chose a Fedora-based open source (free) solution.

This handles all of their academic needs including:

  • Professor and student data, theses, dissertations, institutional and research collections
  • Uploading that’s overseen and approved by library staff
  • Removing administrative control of visual content from some depositors; instead, these depositors can request removal of items
  • Management of ALL metadata by library staff
  • Depositor provides information, but ultimately metadata is added to the repository by staff
  • With their open source solution, most of the heavy lifting (developing, programming, software updates, new feature development, etc.) is performed by Brown University staff

Important benefits the open source solution provides include:

  • More control over the system
  • A nesting metadata schema
  • Freedom to redesign front-end and features
  • Serves a wide array of needs
  • Includes data sets (grant compliance), historical collections and digitized versions library collections

The shoestring factor for open-source digital asset management

The shoestring factor here was price. The open source software was free, with no subscription.


As you can see, different higher education organizations have different needs when it comes to their digital repository solutions.

That being said, there are a handful of things every organization should do before making any long-term decisions:

  1. Think about your goals for a digital repository. Why do you need a repository — to store and share digital assets? For research preservation? To house data points? To control access to content?
  2. Consider all the costs. There is the cost of a system, but there’s also the cost of staff to manage a system. Also consider dollars spent rebuilding/rescuing lost files and time wasted searching for documents (there’s a cost associated with wasted time, too).
  3. Test your DAM solution before you buy. Most digital repositories will encourage a trial environment for testing before you purchase. Take advantage of this opportunity if it’s available.
  4. Get the right people on board. Successful adoption of any system starts with buy in. Who will champion the system? Which employees are needed to maintain a system (IT, marketing, administrative, etc.) Do you need to work with an outside vendor?
  5. Know that you can start small. If you have a small budget, start with a less robust solution. The organizational work you apply to that digital repository can be transferred to a more capable solution if you need one in the future.

Have questions?
Feel free to get in touch with one of our Widen advisors.

Ready to give the Media Collective a test drive?
You can request a demo or try a guest pass.

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