Multimedia for Peanuts: The Pachyderm Project at Five
First Monday

Multimedia for Peanuts: The Pachyderm Project at Five by Larry Johnson

The genesis for this paper was a panel discussion held in March 2008 at the annual WebWise conference on the topic of “The Power of Presentation.” In that discussion a number of projects were profiled that featured new approaches to presentation — some using virtual worlds, some recreating history — and some using a generic multimedia development platform called Pachyderm. As it happened, the invitation came at the same time that the Pachyderm Project, initially funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, was celebrating its fifth year of operations, under a model in which it had achieved self–sustaining status by the end of its third year. This paper captures the story of the Pachyderm Project in brief, and aims to highlight some of the insights and experience the team had as they moved from a model of external support to one in which the project could move forward under its own power.



So what is this Pachyderm? It is open source software, created for libraries and museums with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) via a three–year grant that began in 2003. At the simplest level, Pachyderm can be thought of as an easy–to–use multimedia authoring tool, although its feature set allows it to serve other needs as well. Designed for people who have little or no multimedia authoring experience, Pachyderm is accessed through a Web browser. In a process similar to filling out a Web form, authors upload their own media (images, audio clips, and short video segments) into a simple content library, where they can be accessed and used over and over again. These materials can then be organized via a system of engaging templates designed to make it easy to organize the content into compelling stories. When completed, Pachyderm pieces are interactive, Flash–based presentations that seamlessly incorporate images, sounds, video, and text; Pachyderm presentations can be viewed with any Web browser, and play equally well from the Web or a local drive.

The Pachyderm Project that created the current version of Pachyderm drew upon the work and ideas of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where the initial vision and first prototype of Pachyderm was born. The Project was led by SFMOMA and the New Media Consortium (NMC), who worked with as team of six university research libraries — Case Western Reserve University, Northwestern University, California State University, the University of Arizona, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the University of Calgary in Canada — and a team of leading museums — the Met, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

The initial idea was that it ought to be easier to publish stories about art on the Web — a simple concept on the surface. Those of you who know the work that Peter Samis and his team out at SFMOMA have been doing know that they have been doing an extraordinary job on this for a long, long time, and so even in 2002 SFMOMA was a natural place to visit for a group of institutions interested in doing something similar. When I first met Peter and his staff, they showed me the early prototype of Pachyderm they were working with to create the Understanding Modern Art series and some of the subsequent works that they have done.

The NMC was deeply involved with learning objects at the time — that was early 2002 — and thinking an awful lot about metadata and repositories. I remember how I felt when I saw the approach that the SFMOMA folks were using to create their content; it was instantly clear that the Pachyderm toolset was the missing link needed to make learning objects something that had practical utility — a richly capable, but easy–to–use authoring platform. That early version of Pachyderm was the precursor of a new kind of learning object authoring platform we thought — and all it really needed was to have metadata added to it. It had rich media already, connections to the collections management system — it just needed a metadata schema added to it to make the things created with it easier to find and search, and to allow its built–in libraries to connect with external content and databases. As we brainstormed, it just seemed like the simplest thing ever that day.

Fast forwarding several months, we wrote our ideas up in a proposal to the IMLS and were fortunate enough that they were willing to take a gamble on us. They funded the initial development, and we embarked on a three–year project to develop a platform to be called Pachyderm 2.0. Our task was to develop that early toolkit at SFMOMA into something that could be shared with everyone anywhere, royalty free, distributed under open source philosophies and licenses — and also something very easy for non–technical people to use.

The short version of the story is that we then went out and did that, and in the process we involved nearly 1,100 institutions in creating and testing Pachyderm. Now five years later, that half–million dollar grant that we were fortunate to get from IMLS has been magnified into nearly $US5 million of investment over the five years. (Overall, about 60 percent of Pachyderm support came from participating institutions, and the other 40 percent from IMLS and a variety of other funders.)

In retrospect, a number of things happened right in the early planning. One of the things that was very important to the folks that reviewed our initial IMLS proposal was that the project be successful beyond the term of the grant; they really pushed us to develop a business plan. That was pretty unusual at the time, to set the expectation there would be a business plan for what would happen after the grant. But it really helped us, because it kept our focus on the essentials of making Pachyderm self–sustaining, and now five years later, it is easy to see how essential that was. For the last two years Pachyderm has been self–sustaining and has every promise of continuing to be self–sustaining in the long run. Most of the rest of this paper is devoted to taking a look at how we are doing that.

It is no accident that the tag line we use with Pachyderm is Multimedia for Peanuts. Making multimedia a low–cost enterprise has been at the heart of our planning from the beginning.

The software itself is free. It’s a server–based solution, which means that using it is free, or can be. Essentially it’s a Web application; you go to a Pachyderm Web site. It could be your own server; it could be somebody else’s server. Wherever you have an account, you log in up comes your personal mini–collection management system. You can suck in information from other databases that you are connected to, or you can upload your own assets. These data can have the entire IMS metadata set attached to them, but it is designed to make the Dublin Core especially accessible, and many of the fields are self–populated. The tool itself was designed for people with no multimedia experience who have stories to tell. Pachyderm is designed to help them tell it, quickly and easily. More than that however, Pachyderm was designed to be easy for institutions as well.

As one member of the audience at WebWise described it,

“Pachyderm can be hosted so someone doesn’t have to worry about maintaining a server changes and also unlike other open source software that’s out there this is supported by NMC and Pachyderm services. Pachyderm is an open source product that hosted externally, it has a help desk, it has its own resources, and it supports its user community so in sum, your IT department shouldn’t have to worry about you using it.”

Learn more about NMC’s Pachyderm Services at

This story is naturally focused on the history, but Pachyderm definitely has a future as well. The Pachyderm Project continues to develop on a number of fronts, and today there are two distinct portals into Pachyderm, each supporting a unique community. The Web site just mentioned is the entry point for people who are authoring in Pachyderm, but any open source project must have a community of developers that care about it as well, and so the Project also has a special portal for programmers and developers. Making the move from a funded project to open source is especially difficult on the development side, as paid programmers are participating for very different reasons than volunteers. At the same time, it is hard to find volunteers to dedicate time to less glamorous parts of development, such as testing or installation packages. Most successful open source projects, including Pachyderm, really need a mix of both paid and volunteer developers to thrive.

Because a mix of paid and volunteer programmers allows the software to develop in a variety of directions, this approach is also a good way to ensure the community around the software continues to grow and attract new interest. One quite remarkable part of Pachyderm is that over the five years of the Project, for a variety of perfectly common reasons, we’ve seen a lot of turnover, but the numbers of people involved at the center of the Project continues to grow. At the five–year point, virtually all the developers and programmers, and even the people that sit on the Pachyderm Council that governs the directions of Pachyderm are new to the Project within the last two years.

Allow me to put that into perspective. Pachyderm has made the jump to being supported and sustained by a community of people that were not at the table in its initial development. These new folks came to Pachyderm because they see it as a platform they want to be associated with and to help refine. They care about it, and are developing templates and add–ons and new tools sets and more as part of a very active community.

That community has its own Web site, called PachyForge. This is where you can go to download the information about Pachyderm. It gives you the latest information about the Project, describes all the different templates, and has all the info you need to jump in at the code level. PachyForge is aimed at meeting the needs of programmers and technical folks. This is where revisions to the software are submitted, where work–arounds and hacks are shared, and where people can see and comment on the development road map. A number of times a year the Pachyderm Council, the governing board that directs the Project now, meets to review the work that’s submitted and to decide which of them will become a part of Pachyderm itself.

The Pachyderm Services portal mentioned at the outset is for people who are using or want to use Pachyderm. This portal is a critical part of why Pachyderm has become self–sustaining, because this is the part of Pachyderm that is a business. The business it operates is to provide a set of services around Pachyderm, and the business model is really quite simple.

As noted at the outset, the Pachyderm software itself is absolutely free for anybody that wants to download and install their own server — but that’s not something for everybody. For example, installing a server is not something that I personally would ever do because I just wasn’t trained to do that kind of thing.

A lot of organizations simply don’t have the depth of staff to do that either, and so our business model is that Pachyderm Services part of the NMC will provide you with just an account, or if you want to make Pachyderm available to your workgroup or institution, host a server for you, and manage all the patches and upgrades on the backend. Pachyderm services are priced to make them attractive, and even so, break even is at just a few hundred accounts; we think the model is easily replicable to all sorts of projects.

Our philosophy is to minimize costs throughout the usage spectrum. A full–featured account is priced at $US99 a year because that will fit in a teacher’s or museum educator’s budget. That $US99 a year is essentially the main revenue into the Project. Because the development is largely done by volunteers, we don’t need a lot of money to sustain the that part of the Project, so virtually all the revenues received go back into the Project to pay for the help desk. (When you call up the Pachyderm help desk, you talk to a real person who knows about Pachyderm and whose job it is to help you.) Those $US99 a year accounts pay for that as well as the servers we use for hosting; any surplus goes into a fund for professional programming services that may be needed to fill in gaps from time to time.

It’s a really simple business model, but it has allowed us to continue keeping the Project alive and active and growing.

(As an aside, you are encouraged to take a look at some of the work people have been doing in Pachyderm via one of the two Pachyderm showcases. The showcase featured on PachyForge is one where anyone can submit projects; the one on the Pachyderm Services site features extraordinary work by NMC members.)

As these two groups are mentioned, we should also note that there is also a vibrant community of users who have downloaded the software on their own. We estimate that there are about 100 servers installed around the world at the time of this writing, all of them set up with the free tools available at PachyForge. In and among all of those various groups of people interested in Pachyderm, we’ve developed a nice little community.

And that leads to the last point I’ll make about Pachyderm, which is that if I were to name the one thing that has made the Project be able to make the jump from a funded project to a self–sustaining project, it would be that we were able encourage the growth of a community of people that cared about the Project.

That’s absolutely critical. The one take away that I would like to leave you with is how important that is for any project that you want to live on beyond the terms of a grant. At the end of the day, however excited your partners are with any project, if you have a grant, you’re getting paid to do the work. When the money goes away, most of the time, the enthusiasm goes away as well.

Community is really what makes the difference and to have it in place when the money is gone, you’ve got to start building it from the very beginning. We used a lot of approaches in our project; we did a lot of celebrating through the Project, and we went out of our way to recognize individual contributions. Very importantly, we tried to keep the doors open to people that were outside our community so that we could bring in new thinking and new ideas.

We used many strategies for that, but the most enduring has been the annual Pachyderm conference which is itself self–sustaining now. That forum gives the people that care about Pachyderm a chance to come together, to talk directly with the people that are doing the programming, and to engage in lots of dialogue.

For that to still be happening two years after the initial funding ran out from IMLS is an indication that Pachyderm has made the leap from experiment to resource. As we look out to the fall of 2008, a new release of Pachyderm is almost ready, and Pachyderm adoptions continue to grow.

Multimedia for peanuts? Well, certainly not if you look behind the scenes at all the hard work and dedication that has made the Project successful, but at the user end, the Pachyderm Project has created something very close to that vision. There is now a low–cost easy–to–master alternative for non–technical professionals with rich stories to be told — and it could not have happened without the visionary support of the IMLS.

Pachyderm is just a small example of the benefits that the IMLS has helped institutions across the U.S. realize, and all of us associated with the Pachyderm Project want to underscore how critical it is that we have forward–focused organizations like IMLS funding innovative important ideas that benefit libraries, museums, and cultural institutions everywhere. End of article


About the author

Laurence F. Johnson, Ph.D. is Chief Executive Officer of the New Media Consortium (NMC), a not–for–profit consortium of nearly 300 world–class universities, colleges, museums, research centers, and technology companies dedicated to using new technologies to inspire, energize, stimulate, and support learning and creative expression. Larry is an acknowledged expert on the effective application of new media in many contexts, and has worked extensively to build common ground among museums and universities across North America and in more than a dozen other countries.
E–mail: johnson [at] nmc [dot] org


Links and Resources

Pachyderm Services


Pachyderm Showcases

About the Pachyderm Project

A History of the Pachyderm Project


About Pachyderm

Designed for people with little multimedia experience, Pachyderm is accessed through a Web browser and is as easy to use as filling out a Web form. Authors upload their own media (images, audio clips, and short video segments) and place them into pre–designed templates, which can play video and audio, link to other templates, zoom in on images, and more. Once the templates have been completed and linked together, the presentation is published and can then be downloaded and placed on the author’s Web site or on a CD or DVD ROM. Authors may also leave their presentations on the Pachyderm server and link directly to them there. The result is an attractive, interactive Flash–based multimedia presentation.


Editorial history

Paper received 21 July 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Larry Johnson.

Multimedia for Peanuts: The Pachyderm Project at Five
by Larry Johnson
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 8 - 4 August 2008

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