Why Metadata Magic Matters

Data about data — it’s so meta. Metadata are terms used to describe an archival asset — names, dates, location, condition or any relevant information about the item. Traditionally, historians use metadata to index and organize their collections. But in digital preservation, with a proper strategy in place, metadata becomes a magical tool that connects every element of your digital collections and creates an interactive experience.

Making New Connections

Imagine stumbling across an image of your favorite local park from the 1950s. You start to wonder more about the history of your neighborhood greenspace that has become so central to your community. You might take a few minutes to Google here and there, but you have to physically visit your local historical society’s archives to dig deeper. Even our passionate history savers can admit that’s not going to happen.

If the image had been digitally preserved and tagged with relevant metadata, that experience would shift dramatically. Within a digital archive you could click on the park’s name and access images, objects and documents about its history. You could then click on a “greenspace” tag to explore information sharing the complete history of parks in your area to better understand the impact they have on their surrounding communities. If you wanted to get really crazy with your deep dive, you could then filter for the 1950s to compare your local greenspace to other parks in the city during that period. And these are only a few examples of journeys you could choose to take from the comfort of your couch.

Endless Opportunities to Discover

Now consider what it would be like if every metadata detail assigned to every item in a collection led to a similar experience — the opportunities for self-discovery are endless. Using metadata to make digital collections accessible is an invaluable process. It creates limitless connections between various item types in collections and allows visitors to explore what they want, when they want and to draw their own conclusions. This turns collections into not just a tool for professional researchers, but also the average curious individual.

When you start to think about all the details you can tag for a single image then multiply that by every item in your collection, that workload can be a tad overwhelming. That’s why HistoryIT starts every client relationship with strategy development. Our team of experts conduct thorough research for each project, which includes interviewing a suite of stakeholders ranging from board members to archivists to volunteers. One of our primary goals here is to identify metadata terms that the target audience commonly uses.

Creating Access to History

Making history accessible means meeting the visitors where they are — physically and mentally. Building a digital museum allows users to explore from any location in the world. Using metadata terms that fit their natural language, as opposed to terms developed for and by professional researchers, allows for the average individual to quickly find the information they’re looking for — no specialized training required. When researching online the average individual expects to have a similar experience as they do with Google, so we develop metadata that fits their vernacular. This not only improves a user’s onsite experience, but it also ensures that your materials populate Google searches, which helps attract new visitors.

In addition to making your history accessible to the general public, a well thought out metadata strategy has internal organizational benefits as well. Including terms frequently used by your colleagues, such as “group photo,” “fundraiser,” or “training,” you can create customized searches for your development, marketing and education teams. This streamlines your internal workflow, giving teams what they need, when they need it.

Next Steps

Your brain may be going a little crazy with all the potential opportunities that metadata provides, but that’s why we’re here to help. Our team of has thousands of hours of experience developing and implementing metadata strategies. We focus on consistency and sticking to the plan to ensure our clients receive a powerful tool that opens up their archives and shares their story. Our metadata specialists have this down to a science, which enables our team to scale quickly for large projects and takes a weight off our partners’ shoulders.

In addition to our talented team, our powerful digital collections software combined with quality metadata strategy makes for a seamless digital interactive experience that not only makes your collections accessible, it gets users excited to dig in. Odyssey is the tool that connects all the metadata and allows visitors to click tags to explore more. It also makes our lives easier with features like bulk updates, which allows for updating or adding terms as we learn how the public interacts with a digital museum once it’s live.

We know we’re history nerds, so there’s a bit of bias here, but we truly believe that metadata is magical. It’s what makes a digital archive truly accessible and allows for the average individual to explore history in order to draw their own conclusions. And that is how you save history.

If you have any questions about how to make the most of your metadata, feel free to reach out!

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The Real Cost of Open-Source Collections Management

If you were to take some time to walk around and ask people if they believed anything is free, the overwhelming majority would answer no. Most of us understand that there really is nothing free in life. Everything comes at a cost, yet there is one idea that persists — open-source software is free

I’ve worked on both sides of the table. I’ve been the client who has implemented a customized open-source solution and I’ve been the vendor who has implemented our own proprietary software solution for clients. I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way.

Many organizations get off track early in the process of identifying a new software solution because they begin by looking for “free” or “low-cost” software that can be adapted to their current workflows rather than looking for software with a good business process that can transform their legacy workflows. I understand why many organizations start here. Budgets are tight and change is hard, especially for long-term employees. The reality is that a software solution with a good business process will streamline your team’s daily workflow and free up time to finally squash that pesky backlog. While this transition is an uphill journey, once you’ve crested that peak, the benefits will be seen across the organization. 

If you have worked in digital for any organization (especially within the museums and archives industry), you can probably relate to how I describe my job on a daily basis — 10% technology and 90% unlicensed psychotherapy.

Open-Source vs. Proprietary Software

Cost of Ownership

It is easy to get distracted by the upfront cost of many proprietary solutions, but in the long run, it will generally save you money. The low initial cost of implementing an open-source solution could present some savings, but the long-term costs will generally outweigh that perceived advantage. 

One of the biggest benefits of proprietary softwares is that they come packaged with setup and migration services, training and ongoing tech support. Your time is valuable and that support can save you hours of struggling to piece things together, not to mention a few headaches along the way. 

If you are seriously considering an open-source solution, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do the decision makers understand that “no upfront costs” for a software license doesn’t mean you won’t need funding for other costs associated with open-source?
  • Have you considered the cost of any new hardware that may be needed to run the software?
  • Do you have the internal expertise to set up and configure the software?
  • Do you have the internal expertise to extract your data from your current system, transform it to meet the requirements of your new system and then migrate it to the new system?
  • Do you have internal expertise to train users on the new software and to handle their support requests?
  • If any immediate problem occurs, do you have the internal expertise to solve these? If not, you will need to pay a premium for expedited support.
  • Do you have the internal expertise to maintain your software — updates, patches, testing and deployment?
  • Do you have the internal expertise to make sure that all systems are secure?
  • Thinking about security, are you “Eating from a Dirty Fork”? Even though this article was written in 2017, it sheds light onto the security gaps in open-source software.
  • Most importantly, even if you do have the internal expertise, do you have time to manage all of the above in addition to your daily tasks and that hefty backlog? 


Open-source solutions can offer deep functionality, but will sacrifice usability. You need to consider the usability for your internal and external users. Is the interface user-friendly enough that you won’t end up frustrating your colleagues? If you are trying to share your digital collections with a wider audience, do you really want the interface to be akin to Windows XP? 

I’ve seen many organizations adopt an open-source solution, invest significantly in feature customization and end up with an outdated interface that frustrates team members and the public. If you want to continue to only serve researchers who reluctantly accept whatever is provided, that legacy library interface will do just fine.


I’m not here to say that open-source software doesn’t have benefits, but I think it’s important for everyone to understand the inner workings of an open-source community. One of the biggest benefits of open-source is the development community, a resource for software engineers. 

If you aren’t happy with the current functionality and have some decent development chops, you can take the old source code, create a new project and build a solution that works for you. But what happens when that single product has been forked into multiple projects? This is when you start to see community infighting that will spiral into a single product becoming multiple products. When this happens, the developer community also splinters, and resources become spread too thin. The worst-case scenario is that the original open-source solution you adopted is abandoned. 

Customization vs Configuration

Let’s quickly define customization and configuration in the context of software development.

  • Customization: To write new code in the software that meets specific requirements that core functionality doesn’t address.
  • Configuration: Use the built-in functionality of the application to meet specific requirements without additional custom code.

When we implement Odyssey preservation software, we rely on configuration as much as possible. We can customize when a requirement can’t be met, but we will never customize the core application. Customizations made to the core application will cause the custom code to break during software upgrades. But as I said before, my job is 10% technology and 90% unlicensed psychotherapy, so let me share a bit of insight.

Don’t be fooled, if your supervisors, colleagues or the general public believe that your chosen solution can be infinitely customized to meet their perceived needs — you will never find peace. If allowed, the end users will want to continually customize the software as a bandaid to avoid the intimidating, but invaluable task of transforming legacy analog workflows to more efficient digital ones. 

Our mission at HistoryIT is to #savehistory. One of the core components of that mission is to be sure our clients start with strategy. That strategy needs to inform every single part of your project — from planning, imaging, metadata creation and software. Ultimately, the decision is yours to make, but we want to be sure our clients have enough details to make an informed decision. 

Like I said, I’ve been on both sides of the table and so have many of my teammates here at HistoryIT. We’ve integrated decades of experience and built a true digital preservation platform that’s an affordable, flexible and extensible solution that can transform your organization and support the care of your digital collections for the long term.

Next Steps

If you’re looking to explore alternatives to open-source, feel free to reach out with any questions you have. We’re here to be a resource in your preservation journey.

About the Author

Donny Lowe joined the HistoryIT team as our Chief Technology Officer after serving 5-plus years as the Director of Digital Strategy at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In addition to overseeing the museum’s digital preservation efforts, Lowe managed all Hall of Fame branded online portals. Before that, he spent 10 years in television production for Nexstar Media Group and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

During his time at HistoryIT, Lowe has overseen the development and management of Odyssey Preservation Software.

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Ali Center Launches New Digital Museum and Archives as Part of Ali Festival

First Online Exhibit Entitled “Ali and Neiman: A Friendship in Art” Launched Today in Recognition of What Would Have Been LeRoy Neiman’s 100th Birthday
Digital Archives Will Expand Global Reach of Ali Center’s Collection
In Partnership with HistoryIT and Made Possible Through IMLS Grant

LOUISVILLE, KY (June 8, 2021) — For the first time ever, the Muhammad Ali Center is able to open up its archival collection and offer online exhibits for the world to experience as a way to extend Muhammad Ali’s global reach. The launch of the Center’s new digital museum and archives was specifically planned to be introduced during the annual Ali Festival, and on what would have been the birthday of LeRoy Neiman, a longtime friend of Muhammad Ali’s. “Ali and Neiman: A Friendship in Art” is the Ali Center’s first ever digital museum exhibit which opened today. “Ali and Neiman” will highlight artwork created by both men and will also feature candid photographs and notes written by Mr. Neiman. It is linked to the Muhammad Ali archival collection, made available to the public, and is accessible through the Ali Center’s website, at muhammadali.historyit.com. While the digitization of the Ali Center’s archival items is an ongoing process, this new offering will roll out initially with items from its: Permanent Collection, Greatest of All Time Collection, and Oral History Archive. Eventually, the digital archives will include items from other collections.

The digital museum and archives was launched in partnership with HistoryIT, which was responsible for creating the website and for the migration of some of the items, and was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences through a $50,000 grant.

“Because Muhammad meant so much to so many people around the world, it has been our dream to make available items in our collection to online audiences everywhere,” said Laura Douglas, President and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center. “Having HistoryIT as a partner in helping us achieve this goal will create an accessible, searchable, and meaningful experience for anyone interested in knowing more intimate details about Muhammad’s life and legacy. Because LeRoy Neiman was part of Muhammad’s legacy for decades, we are delighted to honor both of these greats through our first ever online exhibit. Our thanks go out to HistoryIT and the IMLS for their support, and the LeRoy Neiman and Janet Byrne Neiman Foundation for donating the majority of the artwork to the Center.”

Artist LeRoy Neiman is known for his brilliantly colored, expressionist paintings and screen prints of athletes, musicians, and sporting events, including official posters for the Kentucky Derby, Ryder Cup, and the Ali Center’s grand opening. LeRoy and Muhammad met in 1962 while Ali was preparing for a match against Billy Daniels in Harlem, New York. The fight took place in Neiman’s neighborhood, so he quickly found his way into the press section, and eventually into Ali’s dressing room. This chance meeting in Harlem sparked a friendship that continued through the entirety of the two men’ lives. Ali and Neiman remained friends until LeRoy’s passing in 2012.

Kristen Gwinn-Becker, Founder and CEO of HistoryIT, said, “We are thrilled to partner with the Muhammad Ali Center and support their new digital museum on our Odyssey platform. Our mission is to save history. Digitally preserving and sharing Ali’s legacy ensures that his life, achievements and core principles reach an even broader audience. Perhaps most importantly, the Ali Center’s effort to digitally preserve their collections secures these lessons for future generations.”

Credit for Photo: Photo on Loan to the Muhammad Ali Center Courtesy of the LeRoy Neiman and Janet Byrne Neiman Foundation.

About the Muhammad Ali Center

The Muhammad Ali Center, a 501(c)3 corporation, was cofounded by Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The international cultural center promotes the Six Core Principles of Muhammad Ali (Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, and Spirituality) in ways that inspire personal and global greatness and provides programming and events around the focus areas of education, racial and gender equity, and global citizenship. The Ali Center is formally associated with the United Nations Department of Global Communications, and in 2020, became one of the newest stops on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. The Center’s headquarters also contains an award-winning museum experience. For more information, please visit www.alicenter.org.

About HistoryIT

HistoryIT gives history a future. We offer a comprehensive set of services and software that transform archival materials, from whatever state they are in, into a 21st Century digital collection. Odyssey, our proprietary digital preservation software, enables any organization to not only manage their archival and collections assets, but also make their history easily accessible via a best-in-class digital museum. For more information, please visit historyit.com.

About IMLS

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Ali Festival

The Ali Festival, a community-wide celebration that marks the anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s passing and celebrates his legacy and love for Louisville, occurs annually in Ali’s hometown of Louisville. Presented by the Muhammad Ali Center, and in collaboration with community partners, the Ali Festival features events and activities that highlight different facets of Muhammad’s life in ways that unite and inspire the Louisville community and beyond. Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. The 2021 Ali Festival runs from June 3-13.


Jeanie Kahnke
Muhammad Ali Center
(502) 992.5301 or (502) 640.6077

Tori Collins
Muhammad Ali Center
(502) 992.5338 or (502) 645.5929

HistoryIT Media

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