Why Do We Call DAM A “Library” For Digital Assets?

This special feature article was contributed by Denzil Ford, Content Strategist at MediaValet.

Sometimes digital asset management gets dismissed as just another MarTech tool, but if we think about what the users experience day to day, DAM is becoming a crucial cultural center in the enterprise marketing world.

In the time that I have been writing professionally about digital asset management (DAM), I have heard (and written) over and over again that as a content marketing tool, DAM acts as a “central library.” It makes fair sense. In a DAM, companies hold their most valued digital assets. In a DAM, digital assets are collected. Thus, a DAM functions as a repository for that group of digital files.

As a trained historian who has worked in libraries in many countries, I see libraries through a complicated lens. So every time I hear or write “DAM is a central library,” there is something that itches the back of my neck. “Is that all?” I ask myself. “A DAM is a library because it is a collection?”

I’ve pondered on this a while, and here’s what I think: a DAM absolutely is a central collection, but when we talk about it being a “library,” this messaging actually calls to the ways in which a DAM is similar to a physical library, as in a building that holds books. In these highly-valued public locations, societies gather. They learn. They create, raise the next generation, and make change. Just like a library isn’t just about storage, a DAM isn’t just about collecting digital files – at least not exclusively. It’s about organizing, governing, connecting, sharing and building. Like a library, a DAM holds a lot of stuff from yesterday, but in practice it is really all about tomorrow.

What is a library?

On the whole and generally speaking, we think about libraries in two ways:

  1. A collection of things. A record collection, for instance, might be referred to as a music library. Your iTunes library is a collection of audio files.
  1. A physical place where books and other written materials are kept. The Library of Congress is the most famous and largest library in the world.

When we think about its value, a DAM actually functions more like definition 2 – a building full of books.  

  1. A Book Library Organizes. A DAM is a single place to store digital assets, just as a library holds books and other printed materials, but without a clear and systematic organization structure, the value of the items in that place is quickly lost. If you can’t find what you are looking for, what value does it have? A DAM uses metadata to structure and organize assets, and users reference critical components of that metadata, such as keywords and dates, to search and access assets held in the DAM. Like a book library, a DAM organizes.
  1. A Book Library Functions Based on Rules of Use. Companies who use DAM solutions often need different users to have different levels of access for searching, uploading, downloading, sharing and checking out digital assets. Structured permissions and controls built directly in to the system allow for these differences and provide piece of mind that assets will be used properly and returned to the DAM in the correct form. Like a library, a DAM functions based on a set of rules.
  1. A Book Library Connects Related Information. The metadata structure in a DAM links similar or related assets to one another, and those links provide users with a set of assets that belong together for a variety of reasons, be it due to theme, author/photographer, or even the people shown in a photograph or video. Like a book library, a DAM connects related information.
  1. A Book Library Connects People. When a DAM solution is in place, employees become better connected through positive exchanges that aim to build valuable enterprise products across all lines of business. Instead of working together in frustration to find assets or deal with lost items, teams benefit from instant access to the correct assets, and collaborations move forward to creative ends. This is not just about marketing, which I will discuss further. Like a book library, a DAM connects people. (Although, for both the library and the DAM, independent work is also possible).
  1. A Book Library Connects People to Information. DAM holds assets for the people who need them, and because of built-in structuring, DAM empowers teams to bring assets together with other assets, allows teams to attach valuable metadata to assets, connects digital assets to other business applications (including but not limited to Martech), and allows for the compilation all of the materials needed to plan, create and build out enterprise projects in one central location. Like a library, a DAM connects people to information.

DAM As A “Library” Across The Enterprise

Physical libraries hold and care for books and various pieces of writing. These days, libraries also have technological components, such as electronic work stations and web-based catalogues. But if you think about all of the people and things and ideas that come in and out of a library, it becomes clear that these places also do so much more than provide access to texts. In fact, through time and across the world, libraries have often been the most important place in a village, city or town.

Indeed, DAM systems are becoming points of gathering where employees work towards the production of a wide variety of enterprise collateral. I am seeing organizations provide access to a DAM in a classroom setting. Here, the desired product is not marketing collateral, but art. Access to the DAM allows teachers to inform, instruct and guide students. The DAM becomes a teaching tool for exploring artistic history during the process of creating today’s piece.

I am seeing entertainment companies use a DAM to showcase past work to future clients. In this function, the DAM arguably blurs the lines as a marketing tool, but the end goal is not so much to market and sell, but to illustrate what is possible in regards to design and open conversations that allow clients to be exposed to new ideas while they determine the exact design of the product have already agreed to purchase. In this case, the DAM provides a space for incredible customization of the product that will be built for each individual client.

Additionally, book libraries have historically been central locations for civil and cultural revolutions, and today you can find DAM at the center of efforts for social change. There are organizations whose mission it is to create significant and lasting alterations to how people behave towards one another in medical, political and environmental contexts. These organizations don’t want to sell anything through marketing. They want to educate people and motivate them with that education about how we can make society better by helping one another or making socially more responsible decisions. Again, the goal is not to sell: the goal is to create social change by leveraging the power of rich media, that is held, organized and accessed through DAM technology.

In this light, DAM is not about marketing, at least not overwhelmingly. As Ralph Windsor urges us, “DAM needs to be addressed at an enterprise level, not for a single use-case.”

From the ways I see organizations actually using their DAM, the idea of a single use-case is somewhat of an urban legend, and when we refer to DAM as a central library, we are actually conjuring much deeper cultural associations than we tend to realize.

Author: Denzil Ford, Content Strategist at MediaValet.

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  • alissa gonzalez

    As a current MLIS student, when I began to learn DAM I looked at it through this same lens. DAM is a complicated and complex subject to understand since it is not something that exists in the physical realm, so for me, the only way I could understand this conceptual subject was to look at it as a storage facility, just like a library. I think this concept can definitely spark some defensive arguments and cries of “DAM is not a library!” however I think those opinions can also stem from a common misconception of a library. If we can see a library as the central informational hub for a community and not the dusty, quiet library of tradition then this correlation between a DAM and a library can be harmonious. :)

  • Cassandra Sargent

    I feel like wanting to make a social change should play into online communities as well to spread the word and better educate people, creating those cultural associations wherever you can

  • Leanna Pagano

    As a current MLIS student I would agree with describing DAMs as a library of assets for an organization/company. Similar to DAMs, libraries collect, store, and preserve items in the collection; create/maintain metadata for retrieval/recall; and each item has a certain lifecycle established by local policy. A difference (that is slowly changing) is the electronic delivery/storage of assets. At the end of the day both “parties” exist so authorized users may utilize the resources located within their systems. Whether those systems be electronic or physical.
    It was interesting to learn more about the social and ethical aspects of DAM mentioned at the end of this piece. It’s great that DAM can be more than a system to organize information but do so in an ethical manner and serve as a piece of education.

  • I love the comparisons that are drawn between physical libraries and DAM in this article. As someone most familiar with brick-and-mortar libraries and new to DAM, I can appreciate the comparisons. Now, as we move more and more into the digital realm, I think the overlap will become even more evident. As it stands now, I get the impression that the two fields of managing information (public librarians, for example, versus DAM librarians) sometimes don’t appreciate the similarities between themselves, and it would especially seem so for the lay-person, so it is nice that you discuss the similarities here. Thank you!

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