5 min read
Many museums start their cataloging in Excel. Unfortunately, as this spreadsheet becomes more complicated, Excel is increasingly difficult to use.
When spreadsheets become large it’s harder to find what you are looking for. Unlike a supported system, you alone have to solve all the problems of a growing collection, make sure that your team can get access, and keep up regular maintenance.
Museums are in the forever business. We go out of our way to protect objects and archives so that they will be in the best condition for as long as possible. How then can we keep vital collection data in an Excel spreadsheet where it is not stored safely? This is not a professional long-term solution.
Errors creep into Excel spreadsheets. Don’t just take my word for it. The European Spreadsheet Risk Interest Group (Yes, there is such a group) has a list of Excel horror stories to highlight some common and costly mistakes. These stories come from businesses large and small.
I can hear you saying, "But I know where everything is". If it is only in your head, then you are doing it wrong. Good digital practice needs documentation and continuity. If for some reason you were not available, the digital records must be accessible. Otherwise, they will be as good as Lost.
Your collection data is a major asset. It is a significant investment of time. If you are going to invest your time and effort you want the result to be safe and ready for use.
Museums are migrating to Collection Management Software, and here is why.
Four issues with Excel for collection management
Why reinvent the wheel.
It takes time to plan an Excel spreadsheet to meet all your collection management needs. It takes time to plan what reports and what management tasks you need the database to perform. This, in turn, informs what information needs to be included. Following this, every spreadsheet will need maintenance as time goes by. You can do all this by yourself or trust that CMS software is developed over years by teams of people with the same goal as you.
If your team cannot access the spreadsheet then it is not working.
In order to manage your collection, your archive must be accessible. If not, your team will not consider it the primary source of information. This has two implications. Firstly they will not trust the database. Secondly, they will not update the database.
No control over the terms used.
Excel does not limit the terms that can be used. As a result, anyone can enter a new storage location, material or name at will. They can also spell a name wrong or simply make a typo. Imagine trying to find John W. Smith when it could be entered as J. Smith, John W. Smith, J. W. Smith or Mr. Smith. If the goal of data entry is to be able to retrieve and use the collection data then you need know that a search query actually finds everything that you are looking for.
Excel leads to many little spreadsheets.
There is one risk that is bigger than any others. If your collection database is not consistent, accessible and well thought out, people will simply start their own spreadsheet. Each of these will have part of the story but you no longer have one true source.
Seven reasons collection management software is better than Excel
Anyone can quickly learn to use it.
eHive has been designed with an intuitive layout, so there are no messy formulas or prior knowledge needed. Data entry is straight forward, with the choice of seven object types to choose. You can get up and running quickly and dip into the help or user forum whenever you have a question. No need to worry about upgrades and technical support as the software is maintained in the cloud.
Consistency is built in.
You can define a list of approved pick lists for selected fields, such as medium or location. This makes it quicker to enter the right information and, crucially, it makes data far more consistent. You can be sure that your search brings you the correct information every time.
Access to data anywhere, anytime.
eHive can be accessed through any browser, so you are not tied to a specific computer. You can share access with your team so you can all reference up-to-date information from the office, the storeroom, or even from home.
Protect collection data from disasters.
The data is kept safe and offsite. If you have a disaster you will not have to worry about your collection database. Cloud software means that you don’t have to worry about keeping the software updated, as it is managed for you.
Join together in communities.
Get together with other collections to make it easier for an audience to find your collection. eHive allows you to group together online collections into communities. You can choose how these communities come together. For example, they may be related by location or by the type of collection.
The simplest way to share your collection online.
You can choose to share your collection objects or keep them private. You can dramatically increase your audience by including objects in cultural aggregation collections, such as Trove or DigitalNZ. You can even create a customized website with WordPress Plugins to make the job easy.
Streamlined searching and reporting.
eHive has sophisticated built-in seach functions so that you can find the objects you are looking for. You can quickly make a report, or export the information you find. With Excel, it can be complicated and time-consuming to pull the correct information out of a spreadsheet. With eHive it is not.
It’s about letting your museum grow
A lot of digitization projects are focused on publishing the collection online. This is commonly expected to allow access to the collection. The move from Excel to Collection Management Software allows you to share your collection easier, but it is not the whole picture.
Better management now and into the future should be the primary motivation for moving beyond Excel. Your collection database needs to be consistent, accessible and well thought out. It needs to be safe and it needs to be in a usable state. If not you are investing time and energy into an important activity, but not getting the results.