Friday, May 4, 2007

Summary Report - SAA Conference Session 403 - Developing an Open-Source and Standards-Compliant Descriptive Tool for Lone Arrangers

Friday, August 4th, 2006, 2:30-3:30 PM

Reported by Courtney C. Yevich, Assistant Fine Arts Librarian and VMFA Archivist
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Speaking to a standing room only crowd, Chris Prom, Scott Schwartz and Chris Rishel of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showcased their new archives software product, Archon: The Simple Archival Information System. Prom began the session by stating their key message – they wanted to design an open-source application for those that are unwilling or unable to get bogged down by technospeak. Namely, when Prom learned how to compose EAD finding aids, he figured there had to be an easier way, and more importantly, there had to be a way to get higher returns for his efforts. The result was a product designed to “input once, output many.”

Prom demonstrated the software’s public and administrative interfaces, searching across collections and even repositories. He explained that you could also search authority records, manually or batch load MARC records into library catalogs, import any existing databases, EAD finding aids and MARC records, or export the data back out to another system with no loss of data. The program also supports the association of any type of digital media content. The compression algorithms are written in such a way that Archon actually runs faster than most proprietary software. Prom mentioned that he was performing searches across approximately 5,000 guides, and the return speed was indeed amazingly quick. Prom also spoke about the history of the software and the developers’ desire to have the archival community engage in a conversation about sustainability models and continuing enhancement and maintenance support for Archon, as well as find more users interested in participating in usability studies.

During the course of the software development, two field tests/evaluations were performed by Pamela Nye, Phoenix Research and Designs, and Deborra Richardson, National Museum of American History Archives Center. Nye was unable to attend the meeting, so Schwartz spoke in her place, and he described how Nye was contracted to be a consultant for two small-scale archives projects, one at a church and the other at a university. For both jobs, Nye was looking for a system that was free or very inexpensive, and that would be easy to use for a non-archivist to create publicly accessible inventories and finding aids. Nye attempted to manually load the software on a Mac platform, which proved to have numerous problems, and she eventually loaded the program onto a Windows system. Overall, Nye reported that she really liked the potential of the software – she liked the look and feel of the administrative and user interfaces, the ability to customize, and the relative ease of using the administrative modules. She did feel, however, that the archival jargon might confuse the non-archivist user, and that she had to both consult the documentation and experiment with the program to truly understand the best usage of the various entry fields.

As the head of an archives which recently lost their IT personnel and had a very limited budget, Richardson described how she was looking for a free system that would function as an entire archival management program, from acquisitions to processing to conservation to research. Due to various extenuating circumstances, the system was never loaded onto a server at the museum, and two staff members ended up entering sample records into the UIUC system remotely. Overall, they found the system to be easy to use and the documentation and developers to be helpful. Global changes were easy to make, and the ability to enter information on a variety of hierarchical levels was appreciated. Their main dissatisfaction with the system came from its inability to collect and report usage statistics, and track conservation/preservation activities, although Richardson allowed that both of these functions could be developed at a later date. She also explained how their staff has now come to realize that an open source product does require a good deal of knowledge and time investment, as well as cooperation among IT and archives staff.

The presenters then fielded questions from the audience, which ranged from the scalability of the system (if necessary, large databases could be separated and search results aggregated), to licensing (it was released under an academic or research use license, but it is open source, so user developed modifications could be considered for future system implementation), to in-house usage (the public interface does not have to be utilized), to field help (they are considering integrating tips for each field to aid users in understanding the archival jargon better).

For more information, detailed user and system administrator guides, software downloads, and a demonstration version of Archon, see their website at

Originally published September 5, 2006


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