Collection Management Systems

Collection Management Systems:
Tools for Managing Oral History Collections

by Sara Price

There are numerous systems available for archiving materials, but there are few that have been successfully designed for managing oral history collections. As we move further into the digital age it is becoming more apparent that systems are not able to accommodate the growing technical metadata that is critical to preservation. Institutions that house oral histories are currently using a variety of collection systems yet, as a group, oral historians have not come to a consensus on which collection system best suits the unique needs of oral history in the digital age.

A brief survey of several institutions highlights some of the more popular collection systems that are being used to manage oral history collections: Archivists’ Toolkit, PastPerfect, homegrown collection management systems, Microsoft Office Access, and Filemaker Pro. The collection management systems were compared to each other based on several different factors: cost, functionality, user-experience, oral history application, and technology. The different needs of varying institutions were also taken into consideration. Below is a review of each system. (Note: As Microsoft Office Access and Filemaker Pro can be customized and used in so many different ways, the review of those systems is based on the basic system itself.)

Collection Management System Software

Archivists Toolkit (

The Archivists’ Toolkit (AT) is an open-source collection management system that was created “for archivists by archivists.” Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as a collaboration between UCSD Libraries, the NYU Libraries, and the Five College Libraries, the Archivists’ Toolkit is gaining popularity and quickly becoming a collection management system standard among professional archivists.

Advantages: While the greatest advantage of AT is that it is open source, it also brings together materials of varying formats into one searchable collection management system. In addition, institution-wide standardization is promoted by requiring that data be in a specified format (i.e., EAD, MARC, tab delimited files) for import. AT also generates EAD and MARC finding aids and exports MARCXML, METS, MODS, and Dublin Core records, promoting even more standardization. Furthermore, AT maintains a name and subject thesaurus. This is incredibly useful when trying to gain and maintain intellectual control over a collection.

Disadvantages: AT was designed for more traditional archival materials, such as manuscripts and photographs. Fields that are necessary to describe oral histories are not available. For example, there is no defined field for “Interviewer.” Instead, it must be included in the “Note” field. Also, there are few fields available for technical metadata, especially digital technical metadata. The oral history workflow process is also difficult to track in AT, as there are no fields available for workflow that is unique to oral histories. Among other processes, this includes transcription progress and audio-to-digital conversion. It should be noted that while customizable fields are available, the ability to customize is very limited.

Another significant disadvantage of AT is that it does not adapt to the typical oral history hierarchy. AT is designed for resource- or accession-level materials, and the item level is fairly hidden. In oral history, it is the interview that is the most important level, not the collection. In addition, AT currently has no public interface nor does it have the ability to publish finding aids online.

Although AT is open source, financial resources will go towards staff who need to standardize legacy data for migration into AT. Depending on the level of standardization of data that exists, this could take a significant amount of time.Strong IT support is necessary for the installation of the program, the migration of data, and the export of reports, finding aids, etc.

Bottom Line: For larger institutions, such as university archives with various materials formats, AT is recommended with reservations. While oral history materials will need to adapt to the structure of the database, the benefits of all materials being linked together is a significant advantage to the user and researcher.

For smaller institutions, such as independent oral history programs, there are other collection management systems that are better suited to deal with archiving oral histories than AT.  If there is no need to contribute to an institutional database, AT is not recommended.

PastPerfect (

PastPerfect is the number one selling commercial collection management software. It provides the ability to manage, store, and share collections. Designed for museums, but applicable to various institutions including archives, libraries, and natural history collections, PastPerfect is approved by the American Association for State and Local History.

Advantages: PastPerfect is one of the least expensive proprietary collection management systems available. A system designed to manage various collections and material formats together, it has a separate oral history module that treats interviews as items. Customizable fields unique to oral history are available, including transcription, interview length, and interview indexing. In addition, PastPerfect manages contact information for donors and, in the case of oral histories, interviewees and interviewers. Paperwork can be stored and dynamic mail merge letters can be created. PastPerfect also has customizable built-in exhaustive searches and reports. 

PastPerfect promotes standardization of data and is straightforward for data entry. Data may be imported using MARC, Excel, ASCII, tab delimited files/CSV dBase and FoxPro. It can also export MARC and Dublin Core XML.   PastPerfect has the ability to include digital audio of the interview within the application. Additionally, PastPerfect has a multimedia and Web page creation option for an online presence such as a virtual exhibit.

Disadvantages: PastPerfect was designed for museum collections, such as manuscripts and photographs. Although PastPerfect’s oral history module treats interviews as items within a larger collection, interviews can only be viewed individually. It is not possible to see a full inventory of a project and there is no visible hierarchy. Also, while customizable fields are available, they are very limited and not available directly from the vendor. Technical metadata fields are also not available.

Importing data into PastPerfect may result in fields not migrating. If a significant number of fields do not migrate, data may have to be entered manually. PastPerfect does not batch import, so imports will need to be done individually. PastPerfect also cannot currently export MODS, METS, MADS, or EADs. Furthermore, option services (i.e., Web pages, multimedia, IT support) must be purchased separately.

Bottom Line: PastPerfect is recommended for a medium-sized institution with various material formats. With its oral history module, PastPerfect gets very close to addressing oral history’s unique archiving needs. It provides fields for interviewers/interviewees, includes interview indexing, and even has a field to track transcription workflow. But, as a primary oral history collection management system, PastPerfect still falls short. It fails to provide a visual hierarchy of the oral history organizational system and, even with customizable fields, cannot store the technical metadata critical to preserving digital oral history.

Homegrown Collection Management systems      

Homegrown collection management systems are systems created by the institution to address its own unique collection management needs.

Advantages: Homegrown oral history collection management systems can be customized to accommodate any oral history organization system and its needs. With other systems, the migration of legacy data usually requires substantial data standardization. A customized system can keep this standardization and the associated costs to a minimum. 

The customized system may be installed on any machine with any in-house supported operating system that can be supported in house. Fields, reports, searches, and exports may all be customized. As technological mediums and standards continue to change, the technical metadata that is critical to preservation can be accommodated by customizing fields.

Disadvantages: Homegrown oral history collection management systems may not be able to integrate with current systems. In addition, by creating a homegrown system, knowledge of the programming structure of the system may only be known to a few, limiting IT’s ability to support the system. Security issues are also a cause for concern with homegrown systems. Furthermore, unless a qualified programmer is on staff, it will be necessary to contract with a vendor.  

Financial resources are also necessary. In many cases, a grant may be necessary to fund development. While customization is a draw for creating a homegrown system, a grant may require that the system be open-source and available to the public. In this case, it would be necessary to develop a more basic system that accommodates a more general oral history organization system.

If a homegrown system is used in an institution that holds other material formats, materials may not be globally searchable, thus creating more work for the user. Also, data standardization may not occur, allowing for minimal intellectual control.

Bottom Line: A homegrown collection management system is useful for an institution that doesn’t find it necessary to integrate its oral histories with other materials. A homegrown system may be developed by any size institution, as long as that institution has the available resources. A homegrown system may require significant financial resources to develop, but the potential of a homegrown system may be priceless. Potentially, anything within a homegrown system is customizable. Perhaps, though, that is what is most important to remember: A homegrown system is only as strong as its developers design it to be.

Other Collection Management Systems

Filemaker Pro

Filemaker Pro is a basic commercial relational database system. It is widely used to manage oral history collections. It requires the user to create all tables, fields, search functions, and reports.

Advantages: Filemaker Pro is low cost, readily available, and is not operating system specific. Created as a general-use database, tables, fields, search functions, and reports are all customizable. If designed correctly, the database can accommodate mixed materials and meet the institution’s unique needs. Fields that are not available in ready-made collection management systems, such as technical metadata fields, can easily be included in a customized Filmaker Pro database. In addition, data entry is very straightforward.

Disadvantages: Since a Filemaker Pro database must be built by the user, setting up an extensively customized Filemaker Pro database takes a large amount of time and requires an individual familiar with the relational database structures. Not only will fields need to be created, but reports must be created as well. If a Filemaker Pro database is not set up correctly, the resulting errors may take more time to correct than was originally taken to set up the database. Furthermore, if the individual who originally set the database up cannot be located, the time spent learning the system may cost more time than this low-cost system is worth. Filemaker Pro does not require that data be in a specific format. This will result in data not being standardized.

Bottom Line: Filemaker Pro is an inexpensive collection management system that can be greatly customized to fulfill the unique needs of managing oral history collections. It is recommended for any size institution with any budget.

Microsoft Office Access

Microsoft Office Access is a basic relational database management system that is often sold with the Microsoft Office Suite and can be purchased separately. Microsoft Access requires that the user define fields and create searches.

Advantages: Microsoft Office Access is low cost and readily available. Microsoft Office is widely used in institutions and many licenses already include Access. Because Access is so widely used, there is strong user support available. Training is necessary to use Access, but this training is minimal. Since Access is customizable, all the fields necessary to describe digital oral histories can be accommodated. All fields can be searched and reports can be customized.

Disadvantages: A Microsoft Office Access database must be customized by the user. Creating fields, queries, and reports takes time. Some training will be necessary to become familiar with Access. If a user does not understand how a relational database works, queries and reports will not function correctly. Also, Access is not available for the Mac operating system. 

Bottom Line: Microsoft Access is an inexpensive collection management system that can be greatly customized to fulfill the unique needs of managing oral history collections. It is recommended for any size institution with any budget. 


Is oral history a main component of your collection, or one type of resource in a larger collection? Do you have the technical support necessary for the more complex collection management systems? Are you tracking digital preservation? What are your immediate collection management needs? What are your future collection management needs? These are just a few of the questions that must be asked when making an investment in a collection management system.

Institutions have differing collection management needs when it comes to managing their unique oral history collections. Factors to be considered when choosing collection management systems include collection size, collection content, collection arrangement or organization, budget, staff, technical expertise, and intended audience/use. When choosing a system, it is important that each factor be considered when deciding which management system is best for one’s collection. In addition, it is necessary to take into consideration the possibilities and limits of each collection management system.

What has been brought to the forefront during this review is that two of the most popular “out of the box” collection management systems cannot effectively accommodate the technical metadata that is critical to digital preservation. With this in mind, it is becoming clearer that a collection management system that addresses both oral history’s unique needs and digital preservation is yet to be found.

Citation for Article


Price, S. (2012). Collection management systems: tools for managing oral history collections. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


Price, Sara. “Collection Management Systems: Tools for Managing Oral History Collections,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,

This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation.

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