DAM Champ: Heidi Quicksilver

Meet Heidi Quicksilver, the Digital Archive Systems Manager at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. She’s a digital asset management (DAM) system administrator with lots of experience setting up systems for non-profits. Check out her advice on organizing your DAM, metadata and taxonomy development, and rights management.

DAM champ: Someone who supports finding, setting up, or maintaining a digital asset management system (DAM). There is a wide variety in DAM champions, who come from positions in production, creative, management, IT, and marketing.

Digital asset management champion Heidi QuicksilverWhat kind of background do you have?

My background is actually in photography. I started working at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2001 in the photography department. We began a transition from film to digital and as soon as we switched, the question was ‘How do we organize this, because it’s obviously not going to be in a filing cabinet.”

I started organizing all the digital assets on our servers, coming up with file naming conventions, and putting things on CDs. Around 2007 or 2008 was when we first started working on an implementation of an asset management system. It gave us the opportunity to really flush out the processes and the workflows needed for digital asset management as a whole. I went to a number of other Cultural Institutions including LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) where we were the first museum to release free, unrestricted, high-res images of the collection online for download using the inaugural DAM. Now I’m at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to help them re-think their access to and use of digital assets.

You’ve worked with several organizations to get them a DAM. Do you have strategies to put a DAM in place?

It depends on the institution and it depends on the institution’s needs. The first step is usually a needs assessment – figuring out where the pain points are. If you don’t understand what’s happening now, you can’t get a big picture of how it can be improved or what the next steps are in order to make assets more accessible.

Any pain points you hear coming up again and again?

The number one thing is that people don’t have access to the material or tools that they need in order to do their jobs more effectively. Whether it’s being able to just find something, not knowing whether they are allowed to use assets they do find, or just not knowing who has what.

During the assessment period, who do you talk to when you want to get an idea of current and future workflows?

Coming from a museum perspective, something like digital asset management touches pretty much every department. You have to work with curatorial, marketing, education, graphic designers, and IT. The workflows around digital access affect pretty much every part of an institution.

Before and after a DAM system – what’s different?

Before it’s organized chaos. Usually, the biggest difference is the creation of a centralized repository – which centralizes access. The metadata around digital assets get built if it doesn’t exist previously, so it’s a lot of data entry up front but makes a big difference in helping people find things. Still, getting all of their disparate digital assets into one centralized place is a huge step and affects institutions the most.

How do you start creating order from chaos?

That all comes from the needs assessment when you end up spending a few days to a week talking to the key players in any institution. You definitely get a sense of priorities from those kinds of interviews. It’s going to be different for every institution depending on what their pain points are. This tells you where to begin, and who needs help the most.

How do you keep a group of people organized? 

Workflows, well-documented business rules, and more workflows. You have to very specifically define what goes where and identify required sets of metadata. Nothing gets ingested without basic information that adds value to that digital asset in order to make it searchable in the future.

“If you load something with no information you’re not doing anything better than you did before by sticking it in a folder on a server.”

The beauty of digital asset management software is the ability to add metadata that adds value to that digital asset and increases its retrievability.

Metadata and taxonomy can be daunting. How do you come up with it?

Working in cultural institutions, there are many previously existing and well-documented taxonomies. The taxonomy that will work best depends on what their focus is or what their main types of digital assets are because a science museum isn’t necessarily going to use the same thing as an art museum. You figure out controlled vocabulary and taxonomy. However, any currently existing taxonomy will not be 100% effective. There’s always going to be institutional metadata fields that you will need to build in addition to what exists.

If you working in an art museum, you will have collection data that is going to be information related to objects, but then you’re also going to have assets that have nothing to do with the collection. It might be marketing or design related or might be event-related. You cannot ever have one taxonomy that’s going to work for every different type of digital asset within the system.

Who uses digital asset management systems?

There are going to be power users. These users need to be trained and educated to manage the assets and the data from each department. There also needs to be an overall coordinator and that’s usually a digital asset manager, possibly an archivist or a librarian that oversees the data that other power users might be adding to the digital assets in the system.

How do you go about rights management?

You hire a very smart person to handle your rights management. It’s such a complicated thing you need to find someone who is interested and obsessed with copyright law. They can be a lawyer, but they don’t necessarily have to be. It’s such a complicated and convoluted thing for anybody who doesn’t necessarily understand copyright law.

If you’re working with a photographer who photographed a painting and you need to have permission from the photographer and from the artist, the estate, etc. Now I’m seeing just to use a video there are so many levels of complication with rights management because you can’t just get an OK for the artist. There are the musicians, the person who wrote the song, the person who shot the video, there’s the venue and if it was on televisions there might be the broadcast rights. There are so many levels of rights management that you really need to invest in somebody who knows.

What are the lessons you’ve learned over the years?

It’s not about the software — it’s workflows, processes, metadata, business rules, and educating your users. Asking the right questions and then answering them so you get the most efficient and easy to use solution for all your employees to do their jobs better.

All software for digital asset management basically does the same thing, just in different ways. Use the one that makes the most sense to you and your team. But make sure you know that it is not about the software. The software will do nothing for you without everything I just mentioned. 

What are the repeatable best practices you learned over the years?

Train your users as much as you possibly can. The more they understand why metadata matters, the easier and better it’s going to be. Whether a DAM is for archiving purposes, being able to find things or rights management (to know who can use what) you need to develop effective workflows. You need to work with and train your users on an ongoing basis. Documenting things and sharing with them is one thing but actually engaging and talking to people who use the system is crucial.


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