Heritage organizations are continuously working to establish a digital presence and integrate digital tools into their collection management practices. However, budgetary limitations are increasingly frequent in the heritage field and heritage organizations are forced to balance the benefits of using technology and the cost associated with digital tools. High software costs can make it impossible for institutions to afford proprietary software and often result in limited technology choices.
The most commonly used and most expensive software in heritage organizations related to photo manipulation, exhibit design, and collection management. There are many open source alternatives for photo software and exhibit design. However, complex collection management software which doesn’t require a programming background is currently somewhat rare in the open source world. Despite this, open source software can be a huge benefit for an organization with a limited technology budget.
Photoshop and the Adobe Creative Suite are frequently used by heritage organizations for photo processing and exhibit design. The complete Creative Suite from Adobe costs upwards of $1000, which is a huge expense to any institution on a finite budget. An open source alternative for photo manipulation is the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), a free customizable photo editing program. It has the functionality of a simple ‘paint’ program and all of the advanced photo processing tools which exist in Photoshop. The interface is simple to use, there is a comprehensive user manual, and an active online support community.
Additionally, Inkscape is a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator. Inkscape is a vector graphic editor and is useful for creating graphics which are going to be used repeatedly. For example, if your organization has a logo which you put on everything from business cards to oversize posters, Inkscape would allow you to create one image and easily re-size it without skewing the proportions of the logo. Inkscape has an active development and support community online. There are also a number of tutorials available to help users execute some of the more common tasks.
There are also various open source tools which can be useful for exhibit design and planning. Google Sketchup is a 3D modeling tool which can be useful for planning out exhibit space. The learning curve for Sketchup is on the steeper side. However, once mastered Sketchup allows for the creation of very detailed, to scale models with relative ease. Tim O’Grady’s post from last year highlights some of the more elaborate uses of Sketchup.
Many open source programs have the exact same features as expensive proprietary software and have the additional benefit of having active online support communities. The extra effort require to learn how to use a new piece of software more than pays for itself in the money saved by using open source.