Guidelines for choosing a collections management system


To assist heritage institutions in selecting a new collections management system (CMS), the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) collaborated with the Balboa Park Online Collaborative to develop a range of easy-to-use resources, from simple to detailed, that simplify and formalize the CMS selection process.

This page contains the primary resource, which includes:

Another resource is the Collections management system criteria checklist (CMSCC). An abridged CMSCC is presented as part of the full list. It is designed for institutions with more simplified collections management needs. While both versions are available separately as downloads, the abridged and full version of the CMSCC are presented together on the web page for easy comparison. An asterisk (*) indicates criteria in the abridged version.

Recommended steps for selecting a collections management system

The following are a set of recommended steps that institutions should take when selecting a new CMS. For larger institutions that may require a more formalized request for proposals (RFP) process, view the Request for proposals for a collections management system page on the CHIN website.

Step 1: data audit

Conduct a complete audit of all databases, systems and file formats in use at your institution. Then identify which ones should be managed through the new CMS.

Step 2: collaborate

Conduct staff meetings to identify key functions desired in the new CMS. These meetings should ideally be facilitated by a designated project manager, who might be the executive director or CEO, a senior executive or a collections leader. Invite staff in the collections, exhibits, education and IT departments as well as those in key management roles to ensure that all voices are heard.

Step 3: research and identify

The collections project leader will use the information collected from the facilitated meetings as well as from a review of CHIN’s Collections management system criteria checklist to create a separate individualized checklist that will help to identify a CMS and a vendor that meet your requirements. Go through several reviews of your institution’s criteria checklist with collections staff and senior executives. During these meetings, ask staff to complete the institutional questionnaire (Appendix A) to obtain the full scope of the institution’s needs, available resources and current technological environment. Submit the completed questionnaire along with a separate vendor questionnaire (Appendix B) and the completed checklist to a selected group of vendors for each to complete.

The criteria found in the checklists are organized in a way that will allow users to properly identify Spectrum procedures. Spectrum is a set of standardized collections management procedures that institutions are recommended to follow for best practices in managing their collections.

Step 4: demonstration

After reviewing the questionnaire and checklist responses from vendors, the collections project leader will create a short list of five or six vendors and systems that best meet your criteria. Using this short list, schedule an online or in-person demonstration of each CMS with vendors and invite all collections staff to attend. Provide a draft of your prioritized criteria to vendors prior to each demonstration, so that they may tailor it to your institution’s needs.

Staff will use the checklist to record and organize their comments during each demonstration. It is recommended that this data be consolidated and better organized by using a digital questionnaire through an online survey tool. If possible, request test databases of each CMS so that staff can see your own collections data in each product. After the demonstrations have been completed, collections staff can send follow-up questions via email or phone until all questions for a selected CMS are answered to their satisfaction.

Step 5: quotes

From the short list, choose the top three vendors and contact them for a quote. If necessary, sign mutual confidentiality agreements when data samples are requested by vendors to create a quote.

Step 6: references

After reviewing all quotes, further narrow down the top vendors and ask the final selected vendors to provide references for similar-sized museums or collections. Ask collections staff to develop a set of questions to send to three references for each vendor.

Step 7: selection

Use the summarized information collected on the completed checklist and questionnaires, and list the advantages and disadvantages of your first and second choice systems (high price, lower price options), to create a final selection package. The package should also include compiled responses from references. Share the selection package with senior management, who will make the final selection.

Using the checklists and questionnaires

Full and abridged collections management system criteria checklists

The full CMSCC is a comprehensive checklist of the criteria required for institutions with complex collections management and technical needs. It lists over 800 separate criteria.

To support heritage institutions with smaller collections and simpler needs, we have identified a reduced set of criteria that represent higher-level needs. This is the abridged CMSCC, which lists just under 300 criteria.

To use the abridged version, institutions can ask vendors to identify how many criteria their CMS dedicates to a particular criteria group. For example, under “Acquisition and Accessioning,” the abridged version identifies 10 key criteria. The total number of criteria in the full checklist is 32. The number of criteria that a vendor’s CMS has devoted to acquisition and accessioning would be a measure of how well that CMS supports that functionality.

Institutions wishing to use the abridged list should still consult the full checklist to ensure that they haven’t missed any important requirements.

To complete the CMSCC, institutions should check which criteria are mandatory and which are optional. The CMSCC is then submitted to vendors with the institutional questionnaire. Vendors will need to fill in the number of requirements or criteria that they meet for each category. In addition, there is a column for vendors to provide a more in-depth explanation of the criteria that they do not meet or to note additional criteria not mentioned in the checklist that they do meet. Institutions should include this information in a set of instructions to vendors when submitting their documents.


Supporting documents should be submitted to selected vendors with the checklist. These supporting documents include the completed questionnaire from the institution and the blank vendor questionnaire for the vendor to complete, along with instructions.

The institution’s questionnaire provides both institutional information (for example, a description of the institution’s technical environment, custom technical needs, size of collections, ability to export data) and any additional questions the institution may have regarding hosting services, migration, configuration, training, support and so on.

The vendor’s questionnaire provides comprehensive information regarding both the vendor’s CMS capabilities and the vendor’s services.

The checklist and supporting documents should then be submitted to vendors with a complete explanation of the checklist and its purpose.

Appendix A: Collections management system questionnaire for heritage institutions

(Download Appendix A (PDF version, 342 KB) to print, distribute and fill in the questionnaire.)

Provide a brief description of the heritage institution:

Description of institution’s needs

Do you require the vendor to provide installation only or installation and migration?

What kind of training do you need?

Which CMS capabilities are of importance to your institution?

What vendor hosting and support services do you need?

Describe your institution’s technical environment.


Why is your institution moving to a new CMS?

What do you not like about your current CMS?

Collection size

What is the size of your collection?

How many records do you have?

How many do you expect to have?

What types of objects are catalogued?


What are the metadata standards your institution uses and plans to use in the future?

Importing and exporting data

Will you be importing existing data?

If so, are you able to export data from your current CMS?

Online availability

Is your collection available online?

Will you need your CMS to interact with your website?

If not, do you plan to make your collection available online?


What is your budget and the project’s timeline from contract to implementation?

Is this project funded by a grant?


How does your institution’s collections department operate?

What is your typical workflow?


How has your organization been documenting its collection?

Are there any documentation standards, controlled vocabularies and data standards that you are following?

If so, what are they?

Will you need to customize?


Where is all of your collections data located (in the cloud, on your institution’s server, on another vendor’s server)?


Does your organization’s data require significant cleanup?

How many records would you estimate require cleanup?


How many staff members will be using the system?

Do you have IT staff tasked with the administration of your CMS?

Do you have dedicated staff for this project?

If so, will they be part of the selection process?

Will they be part of the implementation?

Will they be part of the training process?

Open access

Does your institution have a plan for open access with rights fields, application protocol interface (API) connections and integration with digital asset management systems and cloud media asset hosting with your CMS?

Indigenous knowledge

Does your institution plan to integrate Indigenous or traditional knowledge into your CMS?


Does your institution have a plan to support accessibility with verbal description, alternative text tags and transcripts for objects in your collections?

Have you considered other accessibility requirements?

Data sharing

Is your institution ready to share or already sharing data and media assets with aggregators like Artefacts Canada, the Creative Commons Search, Wikidata, Digital Public Library of America or Europeana?

Appendix B: Collections management system questionnaire for vendors

(Download Appendix B (PDF version, 145 KB) to print, distribute and fill in the questionnaire.)

Provide a brief description of the vendor and product:

Vendor information

Is the product open source / open access / community supported?

What is the cost of your CMS?

What is the cost for installation alone and for installation with migration?

What are the vendor hosting and support services?

Are there add-on features?

What is the total cost from installation to providing ongoing services?


Do you offer additional plug-ins or modules beyond the basic collections management needs?

If so, what are they (digital asset management, online collections or exhibitions, conservation, digital preservation)?


Do you provide hosting services?

If so, what services are available?


What is your typical data migration process?

How long does it take on average?


What kind of training do you provide?


What ongoing support is available (hours, languages, support network)?


Are there any hardware or software requirements for running your CMS (operating system, server requirements, web browser)?

If so, what are they?

System integration

Can your CMS integrate with other systems (website, digital asset management, archive or library collections management)?

If so, how do they integrate?

Product demonstrations

Do you provide demos of your system?

If so, how do institutions access them?


Do you provide documentation?

What types of documentation?

When is the documentation made available (please indicate if it is accessible prior to signing the contract)?


What data standards, vocabulary standards and metadata schemas does your CMS support?

Electronic media

What formats does your CMS support?


Which organizations with similar needs could provide a reference?

© Government of Canada, Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2020

Published by:
Canadian Heritage Information Network
Department of Canadian Heritage
1030 Innes Road
Ottawa ON  K1B 4S7

Cat. No.: CH57-4/12-2020E-PDF
ISBN 978-0-660-35429-3

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