[Note: Typically my blog focuses on digital humanities research, but this post discusses some of my related work examining software that helps archives streamline their workflows.]
As archives acquire collections, arrange them, describe them, manage them, and make them publicly available, they produce data in multiple formats, such as notecards, Word documents, Excel files, Access databases, XML (EAD) finding aids, web pages, etc. Chris Prom suggests that some archives use so many tools in creating this data that their workflows “would make a good subject for a Rube Goldberg cartoon.” As a result, archives replicate data and effort, struggle with versioning control, face challenges finding and analyzing archival information, and have difficulty making that information publicly available. By using archival management systems such as Archon and Archivists’ Toolkit, however, archives can streamline the production of archival information; make it simpler to find information and generate reports; enable non-professionals to more easily create archival description; conform to archival standards; and share information such as finding aids with the public. To help guide the archival community in selecting the appropriate archival management system, I recently wrote a report for the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).
Working on the report led me to several (admittedly non-revolutionary) insights:
- If you want to know what features software users need, ask them. In the course of interviewing over 30 archivists and developers, I gained a greater understanding of key criteria for archival management software including flexibility, conformity to standards, support for an integrated workflow, ease of use, remote access (since archivists may do initial work processing collections off site), customization capabilities, ability to import and export data, etc.
- There is no one-size-fits-all tool. Some archives prefer to use open source software; others are leery of open source, need a hosted solution, or require lots of support in importing and exporting data, customizing the user interface, etc. Some archives need a way to publish archival information on the web; others want to export finding aids and pull them into existing publishing tools.
- Reports go out-of-date as soon as they are published. Why not release the report as a wiki so that the community can keep it current and relevant? With the support of CLIR, I’ve created a wiki called Archival Software. Right now it more or less replicates the structure and content of my original report, but I hope that it evolves according to the needs of the community. I invite members of the archival community to update the information, add new sections, restructure the wiki, and do whatever else makes it most useful.
- If archival management systems integrate and streamline the archival workflow from accessioning the collection to describing it to managing it to making it publicly available, what would an integrated research tool for the humanities look like–or would such a tool even be desirable or possible, given the variation in research practices? My first thought: Zotero with add-ons for analyzing information (perhaps similar to the tools under development by SEASR), authoring and sharing research (like the Word plug-in or plug-ins for multimedia authoring or mashup creation, sharing via Internet Archive collaboration), etc.
On March 31, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) will offer a web seminar, Archival Content Management Systems, that is based upon my report. The webinar will examine the case for archival management systems, explore selection criteria, and provide brief demonstrations of 3 systems. I think there’s still time to register. (Apologies for the self-promotion, but I wanted to get the word out…)