Web Magazine for Information Professionals

What Are Document Management Systems?

Brian Kelly explains the concept of document management systems.

The 3 day workshop on Institutional Web Management held at the University of Newcastle on 15-17 September is reviewed elsewhere in this issue of Ariadne [1]. As mentioned in the review, the use of backend databases for storing and managing information to be made available on the Web was felt to be extremely important, especially for institutional web sites, which provide the virtual view of an institution for many, including potential students.

Organisations which manage large web sites are now aware of the difficulties of managing a web site using simple HTML authoring tools. Tools which have a file-based approach can make future maintenance extremely difficult. For example it can be difficult to:

The use of document management systems can help to address some of the problems.

What Is A Document Management System?

A document management system typically makes use of a backend database for storing and managing resources. Resources can be made available to a web browser either by a "publishing" operation, in which the HTML resources are created by the document management system, or by converting the resources to HTML "on-the-fly". Notice that with both of these approaches the HTML is created by the document management system - information providers never get to create the HTML files using an authoring tool.

In some systems the resources are stored in a neutral format within the database. Other systems, such as Inso’s Outside In Server [2], enable resources stored in proprietary format, such as Microsoft Word, to be converted to HTML on-the-fly and sent to the client, as described in Inso’s briefing document [3].

With information stored in a neutral back-end database it makes it much easier to change the look-and-feel of a corporate web site. It also makes it easier to manage the web site. Typically, for example, hypertext links could be stored separately in the database. If, for example, you wish to change all links to the Microsoft web site to a UK-based mirror (because you are concerned about the network charges your institution will be billed for for trans-Atlantic network traffic) you could simple make one change in the database. What could be easier?

Document management systems can also eliminate the need for embedded administrative metadata. Who needs to manually add <META NAME="review-by" CONTENT="1999-12-31"> or <META NAME="remove-on" CONTENT="1998-09-31"> metadata to resources if the document management system provides tools for doing this?

Document management systems will be important for deploying new web technologies. Increasingly we find that the systems are storing information in XML format [4], which is converted to HTML. As browsers which provide support for XML begin to be widely deployed, it will be possible to ship the native XML resource, and benefit from other emerging technologies, such as XLink and XPointer [5].

What Next?

Many large commercial organisations with a significant web presence make use of document management systems. Since the web is now widely regarded as strategically important to university, for a variety of purposes, including marketing, teaching and learning and dissemination of research results, it is now timely for our community to evaluate such tools, and to involve CHEST [6] in the negotiations: unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, many document management systems come with a large price tag.

It is probably not cost-effective to expect each individual university to begin an evaluation of what may be complex systems, such as Vignette’s StoryServer [7], Eprise [8], Lotus Domino [9] and Oracle [10].

As mentioned in the report of the Institutional Web Management workshop UK Web Focus intends to collaborate with institutions with an interest in this area, and with other appropriate organisations, including UCISA [11]. If you have an interest in this area, please contact the author of this article.


  1. Institutional Web Management, Ariadne issue 17
    <URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue17/web-focus/>
  2. Outside In Server, Inso
    <URL: http://www.inso.com/>
  3. How Outside In Server Works, Inso
    <URL: http://www.inso.com/oiserver/oishiw.htm>
  4. What is … XML?, Ariadne issue 15
    <URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue15/what-is/>
  5. What are .. XLink and XPointer, Ariadne issue 16
    <URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue16/what-is/>
  6. CHEST,
    <URL: http://www.chest.ac.uk/>
  7. StoryServer, Vignette
    <URL: http://www.vignette.com/Solutions/ss4/0,1888,1888,00.html>
  8. Eprise
    <URL: http://www.eprise.com/>
  9. Domino, Lotus
    <URL: http://www.lotus.com/>
  10. Oracle Products, Oracle
    <URL: http://www.oracle.com/products/>
  11. UCISA
    <URL: http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/>

Author Details

Brian Kelly
UK Web Focus
Email: B.Kelly@ukoln.ac.uk
UKOLN: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/
Tel: 01225 323943
Address: UKOLN, University of Bath, Bath, BA2 7AY