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Content Management Systems (CMS)


This information paper explains what a content management system is and why you need one. It also explains how to set about finding the best one for your project, including some tips.


What is a content management system?

A content management system (CMS) is a database which organizes and provides access to all types of digital content - files containing images, graphics, animation, sound, video or text. It contains information about these files (known as 'digital assets'), and may also contain links to the files themselves in order to allow them to be located or accessed individually. A content management system is usually used to manage digital assets during the development of a digital resource, such as a web site or multimedia production. It might be used by staff digitizing images, authors and editors, or those responsible for the management of the content development process (content managers). Content management systems range from very basic databases, to sophisticated tailor-made applications. These more complex systems can be integrated with the eventual digital resource in order to enable access to digital assets and to allow regular updating.


Why does your project need a content management system?

Content management systems are essential for large or even small-scale projects which involve the capture or creation of digital assets. They also are increasingly necessary for the creation of any but the most basic web sites.

Similarly, managing a web site with even a few pages is a time-consuming task when updates are required from different divisions and different departments perhaps when a page is added which requires the navigation menu to be updated on other pages, or when a logo changes which then needs to be reflected on all pages. For this reason, the use of templates which draw on content held in a database, is a vital management tool. Without this type of application, the web site would either fall out of date very quickly, or would require ever greater staff resources to retain its currency.


What do content management systems do - and how do they work?

Holding information about digital content

Content management systems hold information describing digital assets. This information is known as 'metadata' (information about other information). The metadata held in a content management system can be used to manage and provide access to, digital resources. Metadata held in a content management system might include:

  • capture and creation information (e.g. author, editor, date captured, image resolution, type of scanner used, etc.).
  • descriptive information (e.g. subject, caption, reference to the original document or object, associated people, places or events, etc.);
  • rights ownership (e.g. copyright owner, licensing information, etc.);

Holding digital content

Content management systems may store narrative text for publication on the web. Text can be recorded together with author, version and currency information, which enables the publication of information online to be managed more effectively. Systems may also provide direct links to digital assets, enabling users to browse through images, sound or video clips as part of the authoring process.

Process management

The system should enable content managers and editors to keep a close eye on the digitization process, including monitoring the capture of images, or tracking the authoring and editing of narrative text. This can be done using simple checkboxes or by completing data fields which document progress. Some systems allow the pre-publication process to be tracked more visually, using workflow management tools which represent the progress of a piece of text through the authoring process - for example, using colored 'traffic lights' to indicate when a piece is ready to be published online, or alternatively by displaying a 'route-map' with milestones indicating how far an article has progressed down the editorial route.

Publishing online

Any content management system should have a mechanism allowing it to make this content available to a web site. Depending on the complexity of the system, this might be done in different ways.

At a basic level, the system might export the content in a predefined format, to a separate database used to run a web site. This would require regular exports to be made as content was updated, and is an effective, if labor-intensive means of enabling the online publishing of digital content.

An alternative would be to use a content management system able to be integrated with a web site. In this type of arrangement, a web manager would create templates for different types of web page. Layouts for different types of page could be set up, predefining the type of content which would be displayed in each template. For example, an organization's logo might always be displayed, as well as a navigation bar, and a special template might be designed to hold information about an items held in a collection.

This template might then be selected to create a page containing, for instance, an image of an illuminated manuscript, together with a caption and a transcription. This could be done by hand - for instance an image or text could be copied from the content management system and inserted into the correct place in the template. However this would mean that whenever the text was updated, the web page would need to be recreated by hand. For this reason, it is better to create a web page by linking the database directly to a template.

This could be done by selecting the template to be used for a specific page, then instead of adding in the image or text by hand, inserting a database query for each component of the page which includes a digital asset to be drawn from the database. Immediately before the web page is 'published' (i.e. copied to the live web site), a program is run which ensures that the web pages are updated by running their database queries on the content management system. The image of the manuscript, the transcription and the caption are retrieved directly from the database, copied to the web page and displayed whenever the page is called up. When content is changed (for example, the caption might be updated, or a better quality image created), the web page is republished using a single command - i.e. one or more database queries are rerun - and updated images or text are automatically uploaded, replacing the previous versions. In this type of system, the database is held within the organization's security firewall and the newly-published web pages are mounted externally.

Publishing 'on-the-fly'

More sophisticated content management systems can deliver digital content direct to web pages which are constructed 'on-the-fly' as users browse through a web site. For example, a user might wish to select items from a collection by searching on a keyword. The relevant items would be retrieved directly from the content management system, based on the metadata describing the subject of each digital record. A web page is then created to display details of each item online, using a template designed for that specific purpose. As before, the template places the relevant content for each item within a predefined layout as it is displayed on the screen. The web 'page' however, only exists at the time of display, and is effectively a temporary composite of design, layout, text and images. The benefit of this type of system is that it allows updated content to be constantly updated, rather than published in batches which may take time to upload. It also makes the management of the web site much easier.

Clearly security and access for this type of system need to be more sophisticated. In some applications a 'source' database is held within the organization's firewall and extracts automatically copied to the external version whenever content is updated. Alternatively, additional security measures may be built into the content management system to prevent unauthorized access.


The steps to procurement and defining will be as follows:

Developing the a business case

Based on the size and complexity of the planned project, decide from the outset the scale and scope of the system which is required to support the development and delivery of the project. Take into account existing systems and skills.

Draft Operational requirement

Based on the business case, we will draw up a list of the functions and the recording capabilities which the system will require. Operational Requirement should include the following components:

  • Introduction and background to the project
  • Procurement and project implementation timetable
  • Functional requirements
  • Technical requirements and operating environment
  • Contractual requirements
  • Form of response to the requirement

The functional and technical sections will contain some requirements which are 'mandatory' (i.e. any system must deliver these in order to be considered). Other requirements may be assigned different levels of importance. Try and restrict the mandatory requirements to those areas which you really could not do without —

Refine and issue Operational Requirement

A minimum of 28 days is normally required by suppliers to respond to the Operational Requirement.


What a content management system can do for your site

  • Scope of system (e.g. metadata recording, process management, online publishing, integration with other systems)
  • Data structure (including the ability to record your required metadata, to hold links to digital assets and to hold text which can be edited and published)
  • Templates (including design, layout and accessibility for different types of page; also your ability to update templates)
  • Security and access (including access rights for different types of user, e.g. retrieval only, editors, publishers, web manager, administrator etc.)
  • Workflow management and process control
  • Ability to integrate databased information - either for publishing on-the-fly or in batches
  • Ability to generate navigation and links between pages automatically and consistently
  • Ability to interoperate with existing systems and to comply with data standards
  • Ability to run on your existing technical infrastructure
  • Ability of database to search across metadata and narrative text content
  • Ability to manage metadata across the database, e.g. update or assign values globally or across a selection
  • Ability to archive data, and to output reports in digital and printed form


Future-proofing your content management system

To ensure that your content management system will be useful in three or five years time, and that your content will be secure and accessible in perpetuity, there are a number of issues which you will need to consider including the following:

  • Will it deal with existing standards for data - and do the suppliers take a proactive approach to keeping their products up-to-date?
  • Does the system use a standard, open operating environment and hardware?
  • Is the system able to import and export data in formats understood by other systems?
  • Does it allow data to be archived in standard formats using secure, stable storage media?
  • Is the database extensible - for example, can new fields be added if you decide to extend the range of metadata you record?
  • Are the specialist skills necessary to maintain the application and the underlying technology, both readily available and affordable?
  • Is the system in widespread use in similar projects?
  • Does the underlying technology fit with your organization's IT strategy?


Case study

Divisions review their existing systems and review their metadata and publishing requirements and find that although the existing database is able to publish pages on-the-fly, it isn't able to provide them with the digital asset management and process management functions they require. Together, the partners draw up a requirement for these functions, stipulating that the system should be able to export content to the web site system, and should be licensed to each of the partners individually, but at a reduced rate, with shared support services. The system is procured jointly by the partners, under the oversight of a project committee comprising a senior staff member from each partner, An individual from each partner organization is designated the project leader within that organization, responsible for ensuring that local metadata and functional requirements are met, and for planning the local implementation.


A CMS driven web site offers many advantages over traditional static web sites.  These advantages include:

  • Simplicity of adding new content, pages and sections
  • Ease of managing unlimited amounts of content and data (superior content management environment)
  • Allowing team-wide collaboration on all or specific sections of web site (multiple people can manage site with each having different authority)
  • Ease of adding a content "search" feature to search all or specific types of content
  • Ease of making instant changes to text, images, files, pages, or font color or size
  • Ease of managing an archive of older data
  • Graphical Presentation of Data
  • Ease of Communication
  • Task assigning and follow back
  • Performance output Ratio Analysis
  • Eliminating the technical knowledge to operate and manage a system,
  • Easily scaling using a "snap-in" design so the web environment can easily grow and change with the organization's needs,
  • Being software and database neutral - the system is not dependent on any one software system so it can work with the majority of operating systems and relational database systems, and
  • Following an abstract design principle that allows developers to easily integrate best-of-breed third party software applications when desired
  • Removing the middleman from the content management process - directly empowering the content creator to manage the content (thus, lowers costs, increases content management speed and reduces resources need to operate system)
  • Eliminating the need to have technical staff managing the web site, thus freeing any existing technical staff to focus on other value added tasks.
  • Reducing the hardware resources and software resources needed to operate web environments.
  • Reducing or eliminating the amount of training your staff will need to manage and operate its web environment.


Ed Davis
Virv WebWorks

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