Open Source Tools For Heritage Organizations

by Krista McCracken on March 10, 2011

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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Dearlove March 10, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Krista,
This is an excellent post. As the Executive Director of a struggling heritage organization (which is very common in the field), I am always looking for innovative ways to save the organization money, while maintaining archival collections. I will be looking into the tools you’ve mentioned and will be sharing this with other organizations.

Thanks!

Emma Dipietro March 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Great post! Open source is such a hot topic, especially with so many budget cuts. I have been doing a lot of research on this and I came across a pretty decent CHIN resource on museum open source software. It just gives a nice overview on how to apply this in a heritage setting.

Thanks again for the post!

Krista McCracken March 10, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Thank you Karen, Andrew, and Emma for the comments.

The CHIN link is a great resource, Emma, it points out a lot of the concerns museums might have when approaching open source for the first time.

Anyone interested in further exploring the potential benefits and drawbacks of open source should also see a recent summary on the subject by the Harvard Business Review.

CW Lawrence March 17, 2011 at 10:56 am

Google Maps and Google Earth should not be overlooked. The standard bearer of map-making is ArcMap by ESRI and is another proprietary software that can cost upwards of $1000. With Google maps and Google Earth users can locate, identify, draw, and print maps that highlight heritage resources in an increasingly sophisticated manner. New options for these programs include historic aerials, convertable coordinate systems, exportable and importable open-source files, collaborative mapping, and much more.

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