Fàilte! Welcome back to #TechTuesday, and to our Kitchen Table series. We’ve been rocketing around various corners of the web with the last few posts, exploring WordPress and wikis.

Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

In case you missed those, they are worth checking out here and here. This week’s post will make more sense once you have that background.

Today, we’re tackling Content Management Systems.

(They’re not as intimidating as they sound, promise).

You may not have realized it, but actually, over the entire #TechTuesday series we were laying the groundwork for what we’re talking about today.

This is the week where everything is coming together. Ready? Let’s go.

Let’s look back for a moment

Think back to the two #TechTuesday posts where we were looking at all the various Gaelic resources that are available to us on the web. In the posts about Online Gaelic Resources, we examined a lot of online archives, both in Scotland and North America. Back then, we alluded to the fact that most of those sites are powered by systems other than WordPress or wikis.

They’re powered by Content Management Systems (CMS).

But wait, what is a CMS?

It’s time for us to define Content Management System. CMS is the shorthand for Content Management System. A CMS is a type of software that can be harnessed to create and organize any kind of digital material, whether that is used for an external website or used internally by an organization.

Without a Content Management System, a website would have to be coded from scratch. For example, the static HTML webpages we looked at during our survey of online Gaelic resources.

Content Management Systems are made up of two distinct parts: they have both a front-end (user interface) and a back-end (where all the information is stored).

An estate sale find from Flickr to help with our CMS metaphor!

Cast your mind waaaay back to the first three posts of the #TechTuesday series for a moment. Back in Post 1, Post 2, and Post 3, we were talking about online heritage projects and digital humanities. (I told you this is the week where everything’s coming together!). We talked about how many digital humanities projects fall into the category of archival or digitization projects – basically, organizing and making objects available online. We revisited this idea during our survey of Gaelic Resources, as we discussed above. In order to make digital objects available online, organize them, and make them easily searchable, you really need a Content Management System. For example, when you search for a record on, say, Tobar an Dualchais, your search terms send a query to the back-end database, which returns any hits to the front-end user interface that you see on the web.

This is kind of dry stuff, so let’s try a metaphor. Every time I say Content Management System, imagine a refrigerator.

A place to put all your stuff, something that preserves it, and somewhere that has a built-in organizational structure with its shelves. The first shelf is for yogurt and eggs, the second for the fresh meat, the crisper for fruit and vegetables, and the pockets in the door for your milk, orange juice, and leftover white wine. When someone calls from the living room that they’d like a tipple, you know exactly what to do and where to look to find what you need.

Ok, I’m being purposely silly, but this is essentially how content management systems work.

The fridge is the database…

which contains an organizational structure (the shelves)….

which in turn hold the information and data (the food labels)…

and the objects themselves (the food)…

to preserve them (by keeping it cold)…

and it can be queried (the person hollering from the living room)…

to retrieve (that’d be you)….

the data and their associated objects.


In a nutshell, that is how Content Management Systems work. Now we’re ready for some real-world examples.

Some examples of CMS

Here’s a selection of the Content Management Systems that we investigated for the Language in Lyrics project, and what we learned!


WordPress is one of the most popular Content Management Systems out there, and it powers about 30% of the web. We talked about its pros and cons a couple posts ago, so click here in case you missed it!


AtoM is short for Access to Memory. It was developed by Artefactual Systems. It’s Canadian, and it’s also free and open source. To “organize its fridge,” as it were, it uses standards-based archival description for its data fields. It’s very respected in Canadian digital humanities circles. Around this neck of the woods, it has some very high-profile users, including the Dalhousie Archives and MemoryNS.


Islandora is an open source CMS created by the University of Prince Edward Island. Being open source, in the right hands you could tailor it to fit the specific needs of your project. Also, it offers a supportive community, which includes an Islandora camp, Islandoracon and Use-a-thon (a Hack-a-thon).


CraftCMS is a newer kid on the block. We got the tip from the Irish Traditional Music Archive, and we were suitably impressed. Unlike AtoM and Islandora, CraftCMS is not designed with data fields specifically for archival collections. Their fields are completely customizable – a rarity for Content Management Systems in the heritage field. Many different users take advantage of Craft because of its flexibility. The user interface, the dashboard, is also very simple. It’s won “Best WordPress Alternative,” among other awards. There is a free version, and a paid plan. But it could be worth it for your project. Really, this is one to watch.

Collective Access

A few years ago, the Association of Nova Scotia Museums decided to change up their software. After much deliberation, they chose Collective Access. And it’s easy to see why. It was developed by New York company Whirl-i-Gig, and they were looking to create something specifically for libraries, museums, archives, and special historical and artistic collections. CollectiveAccess is a paid service. When setting it up, it allows you to choose from preset library/archive description standards, or your own custom fields. Sounds kind of like a cross between archives-specific Islandora and AtoM and the flexibility of Craft! More than 50 individual museums use Collective Access, as well as the online database NovaMuse.

But why are we talking about this?

With the fridges and the shelving and all the rest, this has probably been our most technical and most metaphorical #TechTuesday yet. But we thought a whole post of Content Management Systems was worth going into because CMSs and how exactly they work are something that can be hard to keep straight in one’s mind. Our emails sent back and forth between Language in Lyrics team members can attest to that!

But also, as we’ve been researching the best options for our Gaelic song database, a lot of our best leads about which Content Management System might be right for us came directly from word-of-mouth.

We wanted to collect some of the tips we’ve gained from the process, and gather the information in one place, so you could have the information for your future projects, and we could all share around the Kitchen Table.

(And now, we’ve added a fridge to our kitchen, too!)

Til next time,

Le beannachd,


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