Elizabeth Keathley

This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Elizabeth Keathley. She’s the author of the recently published Digital Asset Management, Content Architectures, Project Management, and Creating Order Out of Media Chaos [2016 update: second edition available here]. She’s a board member of the DAM Foundation and is the founder of Atlanta Metadata Authority, which you can find at atlantametadata.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @einatlanta or on Google+ at +ekeathley.

We’re gonna do a little warning up front that we’re gonna say the word “DAM” a lot in this interview, but we will not be cursing (usually). So, let’s get started with, Elizabeth, tell the listeners what a DAM is.

A DAM is a digital asset management system. This is different from a CMS, which is a content management system, and a WCM, which is a web content management system, and that it’s more complex and offers more options. A CMS is something that just makes things appear on the web, usually through fixed templates. A good example of CMS people might already know is WordPress or Blogger. There’s also commercial CMSes out there, but a DAM doesn’t just make things appear on the web, although it can. Some DAMs have CMSes grafted into them. What a DAM does is you ingest all the media, and then much like a very upgraded version of OCLC, or the library cataloging systems people might be familiar with, it allows you to manipulate the media any way you want once it’s in there. It gets a unique ID code associated with the asset, and you have room for versioning when things are updated, you could put it in the workflows to manage people upgrading that asset or doing different things with it, you have distribution models where links are generated where you could plug those links into a CMS or just code it into, you know, whatever website you’re doing. There’s actually a great document called Ten Characteristics of a DAM that’s on the DAM Foundation website, and that’s at DAMfoundation.org, but that’s what a DAM is. It’s a digital asset management system, it is what it says on the tin. It lets you manage your digital assets.

Now, before we get into your book, I want to go over a couple things from your past.

Woo hoo.

Woo. Your original past, I think, was that you were created from clay by the Greek gods and raised on Paradise Island…

That’s Wonder Woman, Steve. [laughs]

Oh, oh, I’m sorry. That’s Wonder Woman. Well, I think you went to, you got your degree in – I didn’t write it down – archives, something like that. What’s your exact degree in?

My degree, I have an MLIS in archives management from Simmons College, although I think it might just be an MS, but it’s an American Library Association-accredited degree in archives management.

Okay. And you worked at Harvard, Harvard, while you were in school, and you also worked at SOLINET here in Atlanta –

Which is now Lyrasis.

Yes, so they’ve changed the name since then. You worked at Southern Poly another local school, and then you were at UPS for a long time. You were not delivering packages, but you were establishing their DAM program. Can you talk about a little about what you did at UPS?

Sure. Well, I had, well, I had been at SOLINET for three years, and while I was at SOLINET, I flew all around the southeast helping people get grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and teaching classes and stuff, and then I was at Southern Poly for a year, where I was an archivist, and then I went to UPS, initially to work in their archives on their hundredth anniversary. And after I was there for a year, during that time, they kept saying, we’re about to launch a DAM, we’re about to launch a DAM, and I thought, I looked at this thing and I said, I can do this, this is just a library system. And they were so relieved that somebody looked at it and didn’t run away in horror that they [laughs] hired me to be on their first brand-new DAM team. I was actually the first member of their DAM team, and then my boss came on like a week later [laughs]. But it was one of those things where, like, I looked at it and I immediately realized that it was just a federated search engine grafted into, like a library system and a couple of other things, and it was all stuff that I had learned at different points in my career at different jobs, managing archives, and archival materials, and getting things online, and so, it wasn’t this huge jump for me. And we immediately were able to establish a system on an existing platform which was a little bit older, it was an older IBM platform. I had to upgrade my XML skills a little bit, but I had great help from, from the guys who held my SAS, my service and support agreement. The vendors, we had a SAS with them, so that was super helpful, and I had an employee, Mary Catherine Barnes. We hired her right out of the library program at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she was writing her masters thesis on DAMs right as we were hiring, and we hit the ground running. Our boss was Jennifer Griffith, who had come from the video library world and the video and media generation world, so we had two librarians and a video person, and it just went great, and we won the DAMMY, which is a now-defunct award for the best digital archives, preservation and storage system in 2010.

That’s great. You did so good at the award they stopped giving it out. [laughs]

That’s right. We won the first one. I think there were five other people who won it after us. One of them was Yale. We beat out the Finland Archives that year, I was so proud of myself. [laughs] It was great.

When you left UPS, you started your own company.

I did.

That is called the Atlanta Metadata Authority. What kind of work does the AMA do?

We do library work by every other name. So, what Atlanta Metadata Authority does is that we clean up people’s metadata catalogs. There’s this trend in the business world where they buy a DAM and they think that the IT staff or the creative design staff is going to be able to not only manage this brand-new tool that they were never trained to use, but that they’re gonna be good at it, and quite frankly, a lot of DAM work is just library work by another name. It’s cataloging, it’s arrangement, description, it’s preservation and access, its reference services. I talked all about all of this at the GLA meeting that I was at a couple of months ago. We did one called A Librarian By Any Other Name, and total props to whoever  set that up because it was a great meeting. But, it’s library work, only we don’t call it library work. We call it digital asset management consulting. We call it metadata creation and staffing. And because we don’t call it library work, we get paid about double what librarians do to do it. But the real reason that I set up the business was that I had to leave UPS in order to write the book. When you, when you work for a corporation, you sign a piece of paper when you sign on for that job that says that anything that you do at that job belongs to that corporation, so I could not write the book for Intel. Intel hired me to write this book for Apress. I couldn’t write the book on digital asset management for Intel while working at UPS. So, I had to leave UPS to write the book. Within 48 hours of leaving UPS, I had people calling me from around town asking if I would come in and look at their systems, so I went ahead and started the business and it just went from there. And I have two full time employees now, one of them is a librarian, one of them is somebody who has a masters in film studies, so again, somebody from the video media world and another librarian.

Had you ever thought about starting a business like this in the past, or was it just where the opportunity came up and you jumped at it?

A little bit of both. I mean, we used cataloging outsourcing companies at UPS. We used Archive Media Partners, they’re up in Detroit, with the great Kim Schroeder as the head, and she actually just got promoted in the last year to be the head of the library program at Wayne State University, and man, she is awesome. If you ever get a chance to work with Kim, you totally should, but when I heard that she was getting promoted and she was like, I’m gonna dial back the business a little bit, I was like, well, there’s an opportunity because I love what Kim does. [laughs] I wanted to be Kim for an amazing amount of time. Kim has like this restored Victorian mansion near the Wayne State University campus and, you know, does a lot of work with a lot of different Fortune 100 companies, which was basically what I’d been doing at UPS, and there was just the perfect opportunity here in Atlanta, so we’ve been clicking right along and I love it.

You’re also, you’re a board member at the DAM Foundation. Can you talk kind of a little bit about what the DAM Foundation is, and what do you do as a board member?

The DAM Foundation one day hopes to be a lot bigger than it is today. We’re in the beginning years, it’s about four years old, and it’s the professional organization for digital asset managers, and we’re just getting started. You know, American Library Association, for all its faults, is a professional organization for librarians. We didn’t have anything like that for digital asset managers just because it’s so new, so we’ve just started the things that a professional organization would do. I headed up the first demographic study a few years ago. Someone else is continuing my work, so we’ll have linear data on digital asset managers, and where the profession is going, and if we’re still going to be calling ourselves that in ten years. The digital asset management maturity model, or the DAM M, as we call it, is online, and that helps people talk about digital asset management, and a very, it’s a very easy cheat sheet for people who don’t know about DAM to talk about DAM. I encourage everyone to go to DAMmaturitymodel.org and go pick it up, and that was made possible by people working together at the DAM Foundation. We do a lot of other stuff, too. We give people a place to publish things, free of any sponsorship, or free of being part of any particular vendor, which doesn’t really exist in the DAM space. The DAM space, because there’s so much money involved, can be very commercial and very biased towards specific vendors, and there’s a lot of shenanigans going on, so we’re trying to help people with that. I think it’s gonna be really fun. We’re hoping one day to have a conference, and I think that’ll probably happen in the next five years. We’ve been talking about it a lot. But it’s very slow-going. Something that’s very optimistic to me is that, when I started going to digital asset management conferences, I guess seven years ago, a big conference was like 150 people. I just got back from New York from the Henry Stewart New York city DAM conference and it was well over 500 people, and DAM meetup groups, which are free, you don’t have to pay to get into those, are in New York, and LA, and Chicago, and here in Atlanta, and London, and those are, those are full of great people. So, the community’s growing, the profession is growing. We’re gonna get there. As far as professional development goes, everything’s very much at its early stages because, again, this is a new kind of career that’s really just come about in the last ten or fifteen years, and there’s only been enough people in it for the last ten years for us to even talk about professional development. I know there’s a program at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, but I believe that it’s attached to its LIS program. There’s some programs in the UK and they are based around the traditional apprenticeship model that we don’t have here in the US. Henrik de Gyor, who does Another DAM Podcast, Another DAM Blog, has done tremendous work over the last five or six years. He does a podcast for every week, just like yours. He sits down and talks to DAM professionals, and they really just give him the goods. It’s amazing. I quoted a lot in my book because that was one of the biggest primary sources of education for myself in digital asset management, and fortunately, I had Henrik as my technical editor to check myself before I published anything stupid, quite frankly. But, [laughs] Henrik really kept me together and blessed me with the ability to extensively use quotes from his work and my own, so it was great.

All right, so let’s talk a little bit more about DAMs, which is the subject of your book. At the beginning of the book, you talk about how DAMs are sort of about the same state now as email was 20 years ago in the early ’90s, late ’80s, early ’90s.

At the introduction of my book, I go through an extensive metaphor about how email deployment in the late ’80s, how that went, and that there were a lot of people who protested it, and they didn’t like it, and they thought computers on every desktop were a fad that wasn’t gonna stay, and nobody understood why they needed to spend all this money on a system that went down, and email systems used to go down all the time. People don’t know that. People under 30 may not know this, but email systems used to crash once a week in the business place, and it was a real annoyance to those who thought that email was just this really dumb thing that we didn’t need. If you needed to talk to somebody, walk over to their desk or pick up the phone.

We had to go uphill both ways in the snow to get our email.

That’s right. Uphill, both ways in the snow to get our email, and it was in ASCII on Pine. But anyway, [laughs] I miss Pine. Anyway, I don’t really miss Pine, it was horrible. No, but I go through this extensive metaphor, and I really also compare how the beginning of email in the real public consciousness, that is, outside of libraries, outside of IT circles, was the Iran Contra scandal, and how really the beginning of DAMs in the public consciousness is Wikileaks, because Iran Contra really would not have happened if Oliver North hadn’t emailed Fawn Hall to shred the paper documents. That’s how we knew that he had destroyed documentation, was that he emailed the command to shred, and he thought that that wouldn’t come back on him, because he thought that when you hit delete on the keyboard, the emails went away, and he didn’t realize there was a guy in the basement backing up emails on magnetic tape from the system that was called IBM Notes every night, so that when the prosecutors did the first thing that was natural to them, which many people would not have thought of, which was to subpoena email records, which everybody thought of as this really dumb, like, electronic messaging system, his goose was cooked. That’s why Oliver North was a convicted criminal, was because he emailed that specific command. The same thing kinda happened with Wikileaks. Wikileaks, the problem was, this is gonna get a little bit technical into DAMs, so forgive me if I go too far, but there’s a thing in DAMs called ACLs, which is an access control list, and that’s, you know, you dump everything into this DAM, but then you have these ACLs that control what people can see and how they see it, and what the military did was they built these massively powerful DAMs where they were putting all their video, and in one particular case, or actually, several particular cases, unfortunately, videos of civilians being shot, along with documentation and everything else, but they failed to have anybody in control of the access control list. And so, that’s how you have a private being able to get a hold of this information, because they didn’t understand the control. Now, all the moral arguments aside, and there are many, this is the beginning of DAMs in the public consciousness, the same way that Iran Contra was the beginning of email in the public consciousness. We all know that something happened. You don’t really understand yet the system or why it happened or how it happened, and you might not ever because the news didn’t do a really good job of explaining it, but that’s what happened, it was the failure of a DAM.

Yes, sometimes it takes a big event like that to shock people into understanding what a new technology is. The general, it’s hard for the general public, I think it needs an example like that, I think, sometimes to really get it in their head.

Yeah, well, if you ask people what they remember about Iran-Contra, if they remember at all, they’re only gonna remember the affair he had with his secretary. They don’t know that it was about email unless they’re big nerds like me that are all about records, and documentation, and the preservation of digital assets, they don’t care. And if you ask what they’re gonna remember about Wikileaks, they’re gonna say Private Manning being beaten up in jail and then having a gender transformation. That’s all they’re gonna remember. They’re not gonna remember it’s about DAMs. But for those of us who are true nerds, we will know that Iran Contra was actually about email and that Wikileaks was actually about DAMS, so.

Well, so, do you think every organization is going to need a DAM and, if so, or even if not, how do you know when your organization is ready for that?

Well, much like email, it’s gonna come in waves, and DAMs have already started at the highest level. So, at every Fortune 50 company right now, probably every Fortune 100 company, you’re gonna find a DAM. It’s gonna roll slowly from there. The access and the way it rolls into the workplace will be very similar to email, which is that, when it comes into an office place,  you’re gonna have a lot of people resist it. Steve, you’re probably old enough and I’m old enough to remember that older person in the office, even in the late ’90s, who just wouldn’t use email. There’s gonna be that person in every office who isn’t gonna use the DAM. And we, and we may not call them DAMs. I’m not sure. Remember that in 1986, we were still calling email electronic mail, people weren’t calling it email yet. We may call DAMs something else. The name may change, but it’s coming, and it’s gonna come for everybody because this is the future of work. This is what allows people to work remotely. They may end up calling it like the online office environment, or they may end up not having a name for it at all. You may just log in to work. But when you login to work, what you’ll be logging into is a DAM. Digital asset managers, I hope we retain the name, though, because if they start calling us librarians, our pay is gonna be chopped in half, and I really don’t want that to happen, which is deeply unfortunate, because it’s really the same kind of work.

Yeah, it’s unfortunate, but I think everybody who listens to this show understands [laughs] the low pay of librarians. So, a DAM is not just an archive, and you go into that in the book, to tell the difference, it’s not just the place where you just dump a bunch of stuff and then you can go back and get it later. A lot of that is that you’re also kind of adding new material all the time. Can you talk about the difference between why this is not an archive, and what’s the difference between that and asset management as well?

Okay, first off, I am an archivist, so I get to say what is an archive and what isn’t, and if other archivists want to argue with me, they’re totally welcome to online. I think everybody in the archives world knows that I’m up for that. But, an archive, first off, was never a place where you just dumped stuff so you can go back and get it later. There was a lot of process in that, so I want to do that first. This is a shout out to my archivist buddies. But more than that, a DAM is an active workplace, which means that, when assets go there, you’re always gonna be able to search through them, reuse them, repurpose them. A lot of DAMs have template abilities, where you put in templates, where you will put in templates, and then, like with a newsletter template would be the best example. If you put in your company’s newsletter template in the DAM, you could search the rest of the DAM for photographs and content that already exists to fill out that newsletter. That’s a really common thing that happens. Same thing with print ads, you’ll have a template from a company with a print ad, and they can pull from a set amount of photography and what have you to make that happen. But the great thing about a DAM that makes it so dynamic and usable is that, because all that content is in the DAM, and when it goes into the DAM it generates a URL automatically, there’s no intermediate step between having something in the DAM, seeing it, and really wanting, and putting it on your website, other than getting it into a CMS, if that’s a separate system, or cutting and pasting the link. So, it’s already all online, and it’s already all in there, fully documented with the rights, which is a big deal to companies, so it’s usable and reusable.

A DAM is something that you can’t just, a company might be tempted just to purchase it, throw it up, and want it to run by itself, but as you point out, it really needs somebody working on it full time, and I guess there are also companies that want to spread it out amongst a bunch of other people, and so, it’s better to have one person sort of as a manager who might have a team under them, but you really need somebody that’s focused on that. You don’t want just the whole organization having access to this and doing it. What kind of skills do you think a digital asset manager needs to properly run a DAM?

Well, to address the first part of your question, I think that we all learned from the last 15 years in libraries that, if you make the website part of someone’s job, it’s basically no one’s job, and a DAM is the same way. It can’t, you can’t just buy this piece of technology and tell everyone to manage it. There has to be that one dedicated person who does it, and in fact, I built an entire business around cleaning up the mess that happens when people don’t do that, and I’m very grateful to that work, so thank you, all shortsighted HR managers. As far as what skills you need to be a good digital asset manager, I talked a lot about this at the Georgia Library Association. So, the main activities a digital asset manager does every day, we surveyed those from the DAM Foundation. This is chapter five of my book, which an abridgment of it in audio form is online if you want to go listen to that. It’s arrangement and description, which is cataloging and pulling things together and things like that, only we don’t call it that, we call it creating metadata and grouping kits and collections. And then, the second most-cited activity of a digital asset manager is just reference services. So, being that person that can be called when people are like, oh, I can’t use this system, I don’t know what’s happening, it’s not loading on my computer, all these things, because as much as we are moving forward in technology as far as being able to host these big systems that allow people to work from anywhere, what we have not done is, at the same time, upgraded the computer literacy skills of the general public. So, as a digital asset manager, I guarantee you, and people laugh at me when I say this, but this is absolutely the truth, as a digital asset manager, when you are called over to someone’s desk to help them with the DAM, I guarantee you 25% of your calls will be clearing the cache and turning the computer off and on again. And it’s unfortunate that that’s the truth, but it is, and it’s not anybody’s fault. A lot of people who work with these systems, especially DAMs at present are very marketing-focused, you’ll see them in a lot of marketing units or a lot of creative design units. Those marketing people went to school and they learned marketing, and no one told them that they would have to also learn website design and creation and all these other skills, so you’re gonna be sitting there helping them with that. So, a lot of it is being a librarian who understands how to help people with computer literacy, and then the other part of your job are those fundamental core librarian skills of cataloging and arrangement and user interface work, and just making sure that the system is up and accessible. So, you’re making knowledge materials accessible through cataloging and helping people with reference work, so if you have a library degree, you’re pretty set there.

You should know how to do all that stuff [laughs] if you have a library degree.

If you got a library school degree and you can’t do those things, I would sue your library school, honestly, I really would. [laughs]

Look at those accreditation standards again. [laughs]


All right, well, let’s wrap up by talking about the future of DAMs, which you talk about at the end of the book. You break it up into sort of a micro future and a macro future. What do you see? Right now, the macro seems like, from reading your book, the micro is sort of where we are now, and it’s companies trying to cobble things together using things, continuing to use the tools they have now and grafting things on top of it, so it’s sort of a Frankenstein monster DAM [laughs] kind of thing. You use the example of people wanting to keep, continue using Sharepoint, but then just clamping stuff on top of that to make it, to try to make it work, and also Google is making some headway into that, but not really committed to it yet. So, can you talk about that more broadly, just the micro and the macro futures?

Sure. So, in the book, I talk about the micro future of DAMs. So, the way that DAMs exist today is that you buy a central unit, central unit of software, that is, that’s called a DAM, and that DAM can store all the assets, and create unique ID codes, and create versions, and probably has some workflow capability, but then, on top of buying a DAM, you have to have an email server that connects to that DAM to send people alerts for the workflows, to email links to do different things, you have to have a video transcode engine that takes videos on ingest and flips them from MOV files to FLV, or WMV, or whatever. You have all these little parts that make up a DAM. You don’t just buy a DAM system, you’re actually buying a DAM strategy, and Mark Davey at the DAM Foundation talks about this a lot. The DAM is not just a system, it’s also a strategy, and right now we have some very dysfunctional strategies. You’ll see a lot of times, one part of a company will buy Sharepoint, and the Sharepoint salesperson will say, this is a DAM. It’s not really. Sharepoint is missing several key components, including unique ID codes, and a couple of other things, to be a DAM. So, you’ve got Sharepoint, and because of the fallacy of sunk cost, because people don’t like to admit when they’re wrong, they will then buy three or four other systems and graft it onto Sharepoint and say, well, this is a DAM. And it is, kind of, and you’ll see a lot of that in the next decade. That’ll happen many times. It’ll probably happen at a workplace that you know and love, but it won’t be the ultimate solution. So, the micro future of DAM is that we kind of continue on this way where people buy pieces of a DAM system. Maybe they come up with a DAM strategy, maybe they don’t, but that’s the micro future, and because people like things to be easy, that’s what’s most probable right now. But, there’s another future for DAMs, which is the macro future, and in the macro future of DAM, somebody, and it might be HP, and it might be Google, those would be my two leaders right now for guessing who will be able to do this, they will come up with the all-in-one out-of-the-box DAM that, when you buy it, you will also buy a SAS, a service and support agreement, and they will sit there and customize it to your business. No two DAMs will ever be alike. There is no one SAS fits all DAM solution, but in the macro future, you do have someone you can go to and get that, and nobody’s really offering that now. Adobe and Microsoft would like for you to think that Sharepoint and Adobe, and Adobe AEM, which used to be called Adobe CQ5, are those macro futures, but they don’t actually work very well, and I would challenge anyone who has one of those systems to email me at efkeathley@atlantametadata.com if they think that I’m wrong and they have one that works really awesome and everybody loves it, because I’ve never heard of one. But basically, I think that the macro future is possible, but it’s only possible if Google really has some changes of heart in the upper management, which may be happening already and we just don’t know about it, ’cause Google’s got a lot of the pieces, and they just need a few more things to kind of knit that together. HP tried and kinda got sold a bill of goods with autonomy, and now they’ve picked up a different product, and I think they’re gonna try again for that macro solution, and HP might be able to do it because they have a good grasp of what DAM is and should do, and they’re also very good at doing market research, and they know there’s a lot of dissatisfied Sharepoint customers out there, but I’m not really sure what’ll happen. But anyway, that’s the micro and the macro future. Either we continue along this path where you just kind of buy pieces of a DAM and knit it together, or the macro future where you get it all out of the box from something like HP or Google, but, you know, in reality, we’ll probably get both. There will probably be people still knitting pieces together and people offering out-of-the-box somehow in the next ten years, but which one will win out? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows right now.

And there’s always new disruptors coming in. There could be some company we’ve never heard of right now that comes up and does that, or Microsoft has a new CEO, maybe they’ll switch strategy somehow and figure it out.

For all we know, there’s some kid sitting in the mailroom at Microsoft that’s gonna get promoted in a few years, and he’s like, no, I’ve had it in my back pocket this whole time, here it comes. People ask me all the time, my clients, what do you think is the best DAM, who do you think’s gonna win out in the marketplace, because there is no big winner right now. There’s a lot of different companies selling DAMs, and some of them are great, and some of them are good, and some of them are god-awful, and you really just have to look for the best fit for yourself, but it could be that a bunch of kids from Georgia Tech down the road from me tomorrow pop out with something awesome and before this podcast even gets published, all the of the questions have been answered. We just don’t know.

All right, Elizabeth, thank you so much for talking to me today. Where can people go to find out more about you and your book online?

So glad you asked, Steve. They can go to Atlantametadata.com, and if you click on the link in the upper right hand corner, you can get the free audio abridgment of my book right where it says DAM audiobook. I serialized everything in about 30 minute abridgments of each chapter. It’s available as a podcast both on iTunes and from the site. You can also keep up with me on my Twitter feed at @einatlanta or on my G+ page at ekeathley.

All right, thank you very much, Elizabeth. Bye.


By the way, the late ’80s were 25 years ago, Steve. We’re just that old. [laughs]

That can’t be.

That can totally be.