IT Directions

DAM-ing the Digital Flood

Digital Asset Management systems are maximizing an increasingly vital commodity at colleges and universities: multimedia files.

DAM-ing the Digital Flood"LIKE PLUMBING FOR MEDIA." That's how Louis King describes the system to manage digital assets at the University of Michigan, where he is managing producer of digital asset management systems.

The 19 schools and colleges at the Ann Arbor campus are experimenting with different ways of using multimedia in the classroom, he reports. And like a plumber, he tells users, "You do what you want with the water; let us get that valuable commodity to you. We don't think of digital asset management, or DAM, as a system. We think of it as infrastructure."

With the widespread digitization of art, photography, and music, plus the introduction of streaming video, many colleges and universities are realizing that they must develop or purchase systems to preserve their school's digitized objects; that they must create searchable databases so that researchers can find and share copies of digital files; that they must track access control and permissions information; and that they need to integrate multimedia with learning management systems. Although today there is a wide range of commercial solutions available (each of which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), there is also a thriving open source community called Fedora Commons, targeting digital asset management in higher education. Yet a few years ago, neither proprietary nor open DAM solutions existed.

For instance, when the University of Michigan sent a request for proposals to vendors in 2002, the project team leaders realized they weren't going to be able to purchase off-the-shelf software. "There wasn't any one solution out there that we could buy," King says. "All the vendors brought more than one [partner] company to the table." Working over several years with a group of vendors including IBM and Stellent (now part of Oracle), Michigan created a system called BlueStream, to ingest, manage, store, and publish digital media. When video files are loaded into BlueStream, the system extracts metadata, indexes video for streaming, and automatically creates derivative copies in several file formats. And before it makes video collections available to students, the system creates a workflow to allow departmental users to process and check the quality of files and the accuracy of metadata.

To demonstrate what the combination of tech tools and clear access and permission policies can do for academic units, King's group created the Living Lab at the university, tasked with helping campus units develop processes, skills, and shared services to improve their use of rich media. One Living Lab pilot project involves the university's Department of Education: More than 50 teacher candidates document K-12 classroom activities with cameras, filming teachers at work to better understand effective teaching methods. The students then create blogs to put the videos in context.

When considering DAM software, pay attention to how digital objects are counted in licensing agreements-- for instance, whether each page of a book constitutes an object, or the whole book is an object. A misunderstanding can be costly.

King stresses that unlike the approach at many institutions, where a DAM effort often is led by librarians seeking to create an institutional repository, the approach at Michigan includes more ephemeral digital objects used in the classroom. "We're creating a working repository, not a fixed or preservationbased one," he says. "We want to increase access in the working environment." That imperative meant that Michigan's DAM system had to be flexible as well as powerful. Before BlueStream, some digital asset management processes were in place in various departments, but many of them were manual and were inconsistent from department to department. In setting up the new system, a major step was the move to a common metadata repository for rich media, so that objects could be found more easily. That step has been followed by the creation of a web services gateway to digital assets; now those assets can be accessed in any mode within the learning environment, such as via the course management system.

Cultural Changes Required

Making a wide variety of files available to all types of users on campus is a change management challenge, points out Roger Schonfeld, manager of research at Ithaka, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating the use of technology in higher education. "Digitizing makes images more readily available which, in turn, drives new use cases," he says. For example, if the Public Affairs office photos of a campus were made widely available, an art historian on that campus or elsewhere might have the option of using them in an architecture class. "You're breaking down artificial silos," Schonfeld explains, but that also means breaking through traditional political barriers and groups' territorial sense of document or image collection ownership.

Still, the way people working on a DAM project team view their roles may determine how successful the implementation is, Schonfeld maintains. He points out that different groups on campus derive satisfaction from different aspects of digital asset management: Instructional technologists tend to be interested in widening multimedia use on campus, while librarians may be more narrowly focused on preserving collections. But it's important that the DAM project leaders, including librarians and CIOs, see their roles as serving the entire campus community. The ideal is to create a usercentered culture, Schonfeld asserts, as opposed to one that is collection-, resource-, or technology-centered.

Focus on the Metadata

In one sense, a digital asset is just a file such as a photographic image. But complicating the picture is the fact that for each item there is a related set of information, including derivatives of the file saved in many other formats. Descriptive annotation, as well as access control and permission information, are all attached to each object.

Making sure the description of stored objects is consistent is as much a cultural issue as it is a technical one, says Mark Greenberg, director of the University of South Florida's Special Collections Department and Florida Studies Center. "Cataloging is something we have had to work on teaching," he adds, "to make sure the quality of the metadata is at the highest level, so that those objects are discoverable. If you can't describe it, you can't find it."

Like Michigan, USF recognized a need for digital asset management before commercial software solutions were widely available. Thirteen years ago, Richard R. Bernardy Jr., USF's digital collections systems administrator, used a combination of tools including Luna Imaging's Insight and the Online Computer Library Center's SiteSearch, to create an application to manage and search for digital objects in library collections.

Although that system worked well for a decade, the digital collections staff wanted more consistency in the metadata that describe the digital objects. After experimenting with OCLC's ContentDM, USF purchased Ex Libris Group's DigiTool in late 2006. From the university's experience, Greenberg offers this piece of advice: Understand how digital objects are counted in licensing agreements-- for instance, whether each page of a book constitutes an object, or the whole book is an object. "With ContentDM, there was a misunderstanding about that, and as we outgrew the initial license, we had to choose between expending more funds, or scaling back on our goals," he says. USF also outgrew its initial license for 40,000 objects in DigiTool, and increased to 80,000. But the cost increase was only $3,500 per year, Greenberg adds.

USF sees the DigiTool repository as the storage place for permanent collections: items deemed valuable to preserve long-term. "Whether it is a map, audio or video, or a lecture by a professor, our expectation is that these are essentially timeless objects," Greenberg says. (Other short-term-use digital objects are processed through separate web content management tools.) Thanks to the upgraded DigiTool system, USF professors are starting to incorporate more digital objects (such as videotaped oral histories, and digital copies of fragile manuscripts) into their classroom teaching.

"If you don't engage the user community up front, what's the point? You've got to get them motivated and provide the training because [a successful DAM implementation] requires changes in workflow." -Richard Goodrow, Gallaudet University

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Making sure academic departments take full advantage of a newly available digital storage system requires a fulltime champion, believes Glenn Small, who led the DAM project at The Johns Hopkins University (MD) and is now a business solution manager for the SAP support team at JHU.

The JHU digital asset management effort launched in 2002 with a search for an online photo database for the communications office, but soon grew to a campuswide initiative after a survey identified more than a dozen departments that used images in their work, many of which were willing to contribute funds to a pilot project. Initially, the university planned to build a solution in-house, but team members surveyed the landscape of vendors and found one product that met their requirements: ClearStory Systems' ActiveMedia (then known as WebWare). Solid security and permission controls were key criteria.

"Some organizations wanted to keep their arms around their content and not share everything," Small says. For instance, individual departments had agreements with photographers regarding how their work would be used, and wanted to maintain control over that material. With Active- Media, each group could fine-tune security, access, and permission levels for its collections.

The pilot went so well that JHU forged ahead in 2003, initially with a vendor-hosted solution for six months, followed by a full campuswide implementation. The software has more than lived up to expectations, Small discloses. About a dozen departments signed up, especially the communications department and staff photographers, and most are still using the solution. But Small adds that because he has moved on to another position at the university, the system recently has lacked a champion. In several cases, the departmental spearheaders also have moved on, hampering uptake. "There is support and training available," he notes, "but someone needs to promote the system and raise awareness of its capabilities to academic departments."

The academic technology staff at Gallaudet University (DC) agrees with Small about the need to work closely with faculty. "If you don't engage the user community up front, what's the point?" asks Richard Goodrow, a programmer in academic technology. "You've got to get them motivated and provide the training because [a successful DAM implementation] requires changes in workflow."

Gallaudet, a leading educator of the deaf and hard-of-hearing, has long held an interest in managing digital assets because its collection of film and video recordings is so important to the deaf community. In 2005, working with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and software vendor North Plains Systems, the university began creating a digital video library from its extensive videotape archives, using North Plains' Tele- Scope platform. Explains Earl Parks, Gallaudet's director of academic technology, "We are saving those videotapes in digital format to preserve them, to make them available to a wider audience, and for use by our faculty in their curricula."

Goodrow and Parks say that the most rewarding part of their work is seeing how the technology is increasing the use of the video collections on campus, in both traditional and web-based courses and by the larger worldwide community of researchers interested in deafness. Yet, getting the faculty perspective early on was key, Parks says: "If you don't have an idea of what [the digital assets are] going to be used for, you may end up having to back up and start over."

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