29 May 2009

Archival Management Software

Archival Management Software: A Report for the Council on Library and Information Resources. Lisa Spiro, January 2009. The Archives Hub is not in the business of archival management systems, but this report provides a useful perspective on what systems have to offer, and also the current state of cataloguing, albeit essentially in the US. Recommended reading. Here is a summary, highlighting some points of interest. The report starts off on well-trodden ground about the number of hidden archives. As a partial remedy, it encourages providing access to materials through minimal steps (basic descriptions which may not be 'perfect'), rather than providing detailed catalogues of a small percentage of holdings. At the same time it states that collection-level descriptions must be done well, otherwise they may not effectively represent the collection to users. The report refers to taking a stripped-down approach to cataloguing - quite a change from the norm for many archivists. This is an issue we have been thinking about at the Hub, and we have taken the decision to reduce the number of mandatory fields that we require of our contributors. A difficult decision, but we felt that we needed to fit in with the ethos that a minimal description is better than no description, and we should be conscious of the difficulties archives often have in providing comprehensive descriptions with only minimal resources. As an interesting adjunct to the debate about the control archivists have over descriptions (the requirements for expertise), the report cites a project where students are paired with unprocessed collections in their area of interest and trained to catalogue them, resulting in access for users and research topics for the students. Presumably this work is overseen by archivists, but it is still a departure from the idea that cataloguing requires an 'expert'. The important point is to provide electronic access as 'increasingly, materials that are electronically inaccessible are simply not used' (quoting Jones, Hidden Collections, Scholarly Barriers, 2003). I was heartened to read that the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control (2008) recommends sharing metadata records and authority records. Of course, this is not really surprising, but still its good to see endorsement for what the Archives Hub and others are currently trying to achieve. The author found that many archives use a wide range of methods to process descriptions, with various tools at various steps in the workflow, resulting in something of a hodgepodge and reducing efficiency. I imagine these practices build up over time in an ad hoc way. It's very difficult to sweep them away and start again from the ground up, although this would be the ideal way forward. The report refers to the difficulties of creating descriptions using standards such as EAD and cites a report by Chris Prom et al: 'Until creating an on-line finding aid and sharing it with users is as easy as using a word processor, the archival profession is unlikely to significantly improve access to the totality of records and papers stored in a repository' (Prom et al, A Unified Platform for Archival Descriptions and Access, 2007). Prom has also claimed that around 82% of archivists (in the US) use word processors to catalogue. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that cataloguing tools need to be simple and familiar. At the Hub, we are very aware of this fact, and are seeking to address it as far as Hub EAD descriptions are concerned by working to significantly enhance our EAD Editor, an easy-to-use form with contextual menus and graphical representations of multi-level catalogues. The report lists a number of features that archivists want to see in archival management software. The first one certainly chimes in with the Hub strategy: Integrated - rather than having to enter data in multiple databases, an archivist could enter the data once and generate multiple outputs. Other features mentioned include easy import and export, and the report goes on to refer to the difficulties of doing this in practice, with one respondent making the observation that it may be better not to be too flexible, sacrificing this for the sake of consistency - inflexibility as a positive! The report goes on to give some sound advice about selecting the software and gives some key factors that distinguish the software systems being targeted in the report. I would say this is well worth reading - it's not really specific to the systems being assessed in the report, so it's very relevant for any institution thinking about the features of archival management systems. There is a substantial section on EAD authoring which lists some well-known XML/text editors and also input forms (the Archives Hub amongst them). It also refers to validation and publishing. It is publishing that really presents challenges - I am frequently asked about this when I give talks about EAD as it is the area that archivists find most difficult - how does an archivist working alone in a small institution publish EAD finding aids? This has become simpler with the newer browsers that can read XML - it is possible to upload the EAD files and link to a stylesheet. But it is still a barrier to those without HTML/CSS skills. The section on archival management systems lists both open-source and commercial options, including Archon, Archivists' Toolkit, CALM and AdLib. The final section is on federated access, and the Hub model is described. As one interviewee summed up: "We just have to federate - there really isn't a reason to stop at the stage of putting things on the Web. The point of EAD was not to put finding aids online, but to share, to get everyone together, to do things across a collection. If we don't make the step forward to sharing, we might as well be using HTML."

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