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The Anatomy of a Digital Asset Management System

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In an earlier article—What is Digital Asset Management and Why Do You Need It?—I looked at the role photographs play in our lives, why we need to save them, and how digital asset management helps us to do that. In this article, we'll take a look at how digital asset management systems are structured, explore the differences between libraries and archives in digital asset management, and profile existing archives in use today.

The Essence of Digital Asset Management

Digital asset management starts when you press the shutter and ends only when the asset is discarded, if it is ever discarded. Digital asset management systems, including libraries and archives, can be set up in different ways to serve different priorities, but in all cases, the same key tasks and features work together to create an effective system that manages assets from beginning to end. All digital asset management systems also serve the same three main functions: selection, preservation, and access.

“We are what we collect; we collect what we are.” —Elisabeth Kaplan, Archivist at George Washington University


We select what we want to save. We can’t save our whole lives, so we select the moments, photographs, and videos we can and will save. In the process of selection, we set some images apart from others and give them special significance. We compile our versions of stories as we choose to remember them and as we want others to see them.

In a digital asset management system, we use three processes to help us sort and rank our digital images:

  • We name our images using a consistent system—a nomenclature or naming convention—so we can identify each image and ensure no two images are named alike. A solid nomenclature also ensures that our images are sorted in an order that allows us to locate images using a basic computer operating system.
  • We sort our images into one or more of a few structures. At minimum, grouping images into a structure of file folders keeps our files in manageable groups that can be accessed using a basic computer operating system. In addition, cataloguing software—and there are many programs and apps—allows us to sort images into working libraries, collections, and albums.
  • We use some system of ranking to help us identify which of all of our images are the most important. A ranking process often relies on cataloguing software, but for a small collection, even a tagging system resident in the computer’s operating system can be used.
Basic computer file structure used to organize image filesBasic computer file structure used to organize image filesBasic computer file structure used to organize image files
A digital asset management can be built using the file structure in a computer's operating system.


We need to preserve what we elect to keep, holding it safe against fire, water, theft, and the ravages of time. In the digital world, we also need to hold our images safe against accidental deletion, file corruption, and obsolescence. In digital asset management, preservation involves considerations of hardware, media, and format:

  • What hardware do we need to efficiently transfer and keep files?
  • What media do we use to store the files and where do we keep it?
  • Which file formats will best withstand changes in technology and how do we manage our files through software versions?


A collection of images is only relevant if we can access the images. Naming and sorting images are the first considerations to identify images, track their locations, and assist us in finding the image or images we’re seeking. However, most digital asset collections are too large to rely solely on naming and sorting to assist us in accessing what we need, so we also use a controlled keyword vocabulary to tag images with classifying information and descriptions.  

Consistency and succession are also critical considerations in maintaining an accessible archive. For any cataloguing system to be successful, the structure, names, and tags must be standardized and used. An additional advantage to using standards is that others can contribute to or access the archive as needed. Teaching others to access the system protects the legacy of the archive; if only one person understands how the images are managed, the knowledge about the assets goes with the person.

Archives: The Core of Digital Asset Management

Every digital asset management system depends upon an archive of some sort. An archive is both the collection of materials we’re saving and the place where the materials are kept. In the world of digital photography and video, an archive is the collection of digital images and videos we’ve selected, stored on a medium other than that used as part of the main digital process.

A well-structured and maintained archive will have the following characteristics:

1. The collected images:

  • are the primary or original files
  • are not duplicated within the archive
  • are irreplaceable
  • may no longer have an everyday use but are being kept for preservation and later access
  • hold enduring value

To save anything else in the archive is a waste of resources and makes the archive difficult to navigate and use.

2. The archive is organized.

  • The images are packaged together in an organized manner.
  • The guidelines for building and maintaining the archive are clear, understandable, and easily reusable.
  • The established guidelines are applied consistently in order to be able to locate and access the archived assets.

Structuring and organizing an archive involves only a few components—naming conventions, file structure, keywording, and version control—but those components must be used and used consistently for an archive to work.

3. The storage structure is dependable, efficient, and cost-effective.

  • Newer information or information accessed more frequently is stored in a physical location or system that is easier and faster to reach. This is usually the more expensive portion of the archive, using storage devices that are faster and more flexible than others.
  • Older or less critical information is stored in a way that reduces costs. This data can be stored on cheaper but slower media.
  • The archive is maintained in a system with features and protocols that help to prevent destruction of the information. This includes a system of maintaining a second copy.
  • The archive is stored apart from the working system and is separate from the working copies of images.

Thankfully, the costs associated with storing digital assets are decreasing and storage media take up less space than they used to. Still, it’s tempting and easy to conflate working and archival copies of images and maintain them as one and the same. But they are not. It’s also easy to confuse archives and backups. An archive is not a backup, but you backup an archive.

4. The archive is an integrated, active component of everyday digital asset management.

An archive may be maintained apart from the working system, but to be effective, an archive must be a part of whatever digital asset management system you build.

Working Libraries: The Circulatory System

If an archive is the core of digital asset management, a working library is the circulatory system. Working libraries and archives are connected and work together, but they are different things. Archives are for preservation; libraries are for use.

A working library is where we collect and manage digital images. We often circulate images in and out of a library—to other programs for editing, to clients for review, to a third-party for printing, and so on. It’s also common to have multiple copies of images in the library. For example, one copy may be watermarked for web use, and another copy may be sharpened for printing. A working library likely also has images we don’t consider valuable over the long term.

Despite these differences, we may—and should—manage working libraries with some of the same care we bring to archives.

The following table details the different features of archives and libraries:

Archives Libraries
Archives contain primary or original files—unique files that cannot be replaced.
There may be other copies of the files in a library, each with different characteristics (finished size, for example), but all copies are derivatives of an original. Lost or damaged files can be replaced.
Archived images hold enduring value.
Images in a library may hold enduring value or have value only for a specific purpose or period of time.
Image files do not circulate in and out of an archive. If archived files are needed, copies are made for use.
Files circulate in and out and around a library; for example, to other programs for editing, to clients for review, or to a contracted agency for printing or use in other material.
An archive is structured and the files are organized with a clear, understandable, consistent system.
A library structure is organized but the files are in the process of being organized; for example, named, sorted, rated, and keyworded.
The storage structure used for an archive is highly dependable but is likely not portable or fast.
Library storage is structured for speed and easy, frequent access.
Archives are backed up with a cost-effective option and refreshed only as often as the archive is changed.
Backups need to be an ongoing, reliable system of duplicating the library. Library backups are refreshed on an ongoing basis.

Libraries and Archives in Use

All digital asset management systems will have some version of a library and archive, functioning with the common set of principles we’ve discussed. However, those principles can be applied in different ways in order to structure a digital asset management system that suits the needs of the user. One system may be as simple and small as the image management system on a smartphone combined with an online archiving service. Another system could be as large and complex as any of the national archives.

To get a feeling for some of the variations possible in digital asset management, I’ve surveyed types of archives in use today. We’ll be taking a closer look at individual archives in future articles, but for now, a quick introduction will give you some sense of the variety in the world of digital asset management.

Public Archives

Governments and public institutions maintain public archives. National archives—sometimes referred to as libraries—act as public record keepers. They capture, preserve, and make available documents and materials created by the business of government. This includes materials about individuals, such as birth certificates or military records, and materials about a government, such as a constitution or charter.

A national archive also includes materials from the activities of a government. This can include correspondence, charters, manuscripts, parliamentary proceedings, white papers, and more. The materials would also include documents from courts of law and a range of national bodies. The National Archive, UK, for example, claims to have records on genealogy, medieval tax, criminal trials, the history of foreign countries, and even UFO sightings.

A farmer in a chair reading a newspaperA farmer in a chair reading a newspaperA farmer in a chair reading a newspaper
From 1999 to 2001, the American National Archives celebrated the millennium with Picturing the Century, an exhibit of photographs celebrating 100 years of American life. The photographs were drawn from over 8 million images held by the Archives. Photography by George W. Ackerman, “Farmer reading his farm paper,” 1931. (Image made available to the public by the National Archives, Item 33-SC-15754c.)

A national archive may hold materials produced by individuals of national importance and materials about a nation produced by individuals. For example, the National Archives of Australia installed an exhibit of objects and documents belonging to Stanley Melbourne Price, considered to be a visionary for Australian international statehood. Library and Archives Canada holds a vast collection of portraits taken by Yousuf Karsh. These photographs began in Karsh’s private archive but were acquired by Library and Archives Canada because the subjects photographed—heads of state, scientists, and performers, for example—were public figures who influenced Canadian society. The collection also has public value because of the influence Karsh’s career had on photography nationally and internationally.

An interesting project undertaken by the The National Archives of the United Kingdom involves cataloguing and making available war diaries from the First World War. The project makes the information available to the public so they have a better sense of the realities faced by troops, and at the same time, the project seeks public assistance in identifying some of the people and events mentioned in the diaries and show in photographs.

The content of all of these archives, including images, are relevant to who we are as a society. Further, there’s an assumption that the average person has a right to know what is in the archive and be able to access it. The archives are thus regulated and maintained by public institutions with the priority of guaranteeing transparency and access.

Non-Profit and Social Organizations

Museums are public or private entities that maintain archives to capture, preserve, and make available information about the institution and its holdings. Archivists select materials that document the goals and activities of the institution. Because the purpose of a museum is to collect and interpret items of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance, a museum’s archives contain materials with long term value for social and historical research or institutional accountability. A museum maintains archives with the priority of long-term preservation and education.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives is an interesting example of a museum archive because the archive holds materials that document the work of the institution, which includes developing expertise about archiving and conservation. The Smithsonian establishes archival and conservation practices that become standards for record keeping. As a result, the Smithsonian’s archivists and archives have become information resources for other archives. One of the institution’s projects involves digitizing and archiving some 3 million images, which means the Smithsonian is also setting archival standards in digital asset management.

Office used in the 1970s at Smithsonian ArchivesOffice used in the 1970s at Smithsonian ArchivesOffice used in the 1970s at Smithsonian Archives
The Smithsonian is a model of archival progression. Old Archives Area, Fourth Floor, Smithsonian Institution Building, Photo 1 of 11 (February 1970) from the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA2011-1082 and SA-800).
New archives storage area at Smithsonian ArchivesNew archives storage area at Smithsonian ArchivesNew archives storage area at Smithsonian Archives
New Archives. Collection Storage for Smithsonian Archives in Capital Gallery (2008) from the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA-1024x76)

Other non-governmental and non-profit social organizations also hold materials that are of social and historical value to the public. Amnesty International, for example, archives letters, photographs, and organizational records produced and collected by teams working on different human rights issues. These materials demonstrate the organization’s accountability and provide social and political information critical to understanding national and international issues.

The human rights organization Witness is another example of a social organization that archives social and political information but, like the Smithsonian, also sets standards for collecting and archiving the information. Where the Smithsonian works with still images, Witness works with video. One of the organization’s goals is to advocate for sound media, policy, and technology standards to ensure video is viable evidentiary material.

Private Archives

Private archives are those maintained by corporations, organizations, and individuals. The archives may be small or large, but in all cases, access to the archives is limited to those authorized by the archive owner or manager. Private archives often, but not always, have a specialized purpose. They are maintained in a system with a structure that addresses the owner’s individual needs of the archive.

The Mary Evans Picture Library is an interesting example of a private archive. Started by Mary Evans and her husband, Hilary, in 1964, the library collects historical images—illustrations and photographs—created by “ordinary” artists not represented in art galleries and museums. The library makes these images available by licence for commercial use. The library boasts a massive digitized collection: about half a million images online, with about 500 new images added each week. The library also represents a number of smaller, private, for-profit libraries.

It can also happen that private materials or materials held in a private archive hold public interest. One such archive—another interesting example of a private archive—is that established in Italy by Saverio Tutino. Tutino collected memoirs, letters, diaries, and notes written by the labourers, farmers, and common people of Italy, and made the collection available to the general public. The archive has become so well known that its home, Pieve Santo Stefano, is now known as the City of Diaries. Italians continue to donate their materials to the archive, and the archive has become a rich resource of information for artists, novelists, and playwrights.

There are also, of course, more ordinary archives in the private sector. You can find some commercial archives where you would expect to find them; for example, in a press archive. The Canadian Press Images Archive offers work created by photojournalists with the Canadian Press and other photo agencies. In addition to providing news photos for commercial use, the Canadian Press Images Archive is a resource for celebrity portraits and photographs.

A Catalogue of Archives

The last archive I want to introduce in this article is Flickr’s project, The Commons. The mission of The Commons is to catalogue photographs found in public photography archives in order to increase public access to these collections. The project was started with The Library of Congress in 2008 and has since grown to include over 100 participating institutions.

The general public is invited to contribute to the project by providing information and knowledge about the images. Because the goal is to collect as much information as possible, any Flickr member can add tags or comments to an image. There is no controlled keyword vocabulary; rather, Flickr leaves it to common sense, admonishing members, “If you're a dork about it, shame on you. This is for the good of humanity, dude!”


Digital asset management systems can be big or small, simple or complex. They can be built on tried and true systems or developed as state of the art models. But all digital asset management systems are built to provide three functions: selection, preservation, and access. And all digital asset management systems will have an archiving process to preserve original, valuable images and some kind of library to manage images being used and circulated.

The best digital asset management system you can build will be the one built on resources that serve your needs, goals, and interests.

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