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Lunch, book, prototyping

December 7th, 2005 · 4 Comments · Meetings & Presentations, System Architecture

I had lunch with fellow UBC SLAIS alumni Mark Jordan yesterday. We both speak a-mile-a-minute so this was a very productive exchange of information. Mark was the resourceful and over-worked lab technician when we were both students at SLAIS. Today he is the resourceful and over-worked head systems librarian at Simon Fraser University (but somehow still finds time to post regularly to his digitizationblog).


He is currently on sabbatical to write a book entitled Putting Content Online: A Practical Guide for Libraries, which U.K. publisher Chandos will put out in September 2006. I have had a sneak preview of some in-progress chapters and I can already tell you, quite confidently, that this book will be a must-read for anyone that is involved in managing digital collections, regardless of whether you work in a library or in another type of organization.

In the book Mark uses his considerable experience and knowledge to navigate the sometimes overwhelming and still evolving sea of information related to digital collections workflow, best practices, standards, technology, tools, and management considerations. However, he only dwells on the theory and standards long enough to get on with the driving focus of the book, which is how to successfully put (and keep, and manage) your digital content online. Mark is a do-er and the real value and utility of this book will stem from his pragmatic vision and experience.


It was particulary useful for me to get some feedback from Mark yesterday about the prototyping work I hope to start shortly on an archives access system. One of the first decisions I will have to make is whether to adopt and adapt an existing open source content management system (CMS) or whether to build a system from scratch. I have been looking very closely at three options from the digital library community: Fedora, Greenstone and Dspace.

I have also taken Drupal, a website content management system, for a spin. Drupal is the CMS that is being used to manage the front-end for the OurMedia.org digital archives and I was very interested to find out that Mark has recently been testing Drupal as a digital library CMS.

Drupal’s has a very flexible plug-in architeture and a wide array of already available modules that make it a feature-rich, ready-to-rock platform. As Mark has found in his prototyping, the flexinode and taxonomy modules in particular are very useful as starting points for managing the intellectual control of a digital collection (e.g. cataloging, authority files, controlled vocabularies).

However, each of these existing systems comes with their own architecture legacies, design assumptions and technology dependencies. They are all making a concious effort to evolve to true modular architectures (Greenstone v.3 and Fedora v.2 in particular) by leveraging web services technology to avoid locking themselves down as a vertical stove-pipe platform. Nevertheless, part of the attraction for me in my upcoming prototyping work is to build an archives management system from scratch that uses multi-level archival description and the management of archival materials as its initial point of entry, not as an add-on further down the line.

Therefore, I am likely going to study and copy these existing CMS systems where they have been succesful but will look to develop my own prototype from scratch (yes, here comes yet another CMS). At the same time I will be looking to take advantage of the modularity of these other systems so that the system that I am developing will be able to interface with digital repositories that are managed using one or another of these CMSes.

The next question then becomes what platform to build the prototype on? I want it to be a web-based system therefore adopting a Model-View-Controller framework will be the soundest choice. I have looked at Struts (Java), TurboGears (Python), and Cake (PHP) but must admit that I have been easily influenced by all the hype/glorification/anti-hype around Rails (Ruby).

I am leaving for a family vacation in Mexico this week and my wife has insisted that no laptops are allowed. She doesn’t know though that I’ve packed my newly acquired Agile Web Development with Rails book. Can’t wait to crack the spine on it in my beach chair and to determine more specifically whether Rails is going to meet my requirements and expectations…

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Boris Mann // Dec 8, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    I understand your desire to experiment with something from scratch, but one thing you perhaps haven’t considered in making your decision is the long term viability of “yet another CMS”.

    I’d love to talk through some of these concepts…send me an email and we’ll fit in a coffee at some point.

  • 2 Peter Van Garderen // Dec 8, 2005 at 2:11 pm

    Boris, that would be great. I have yet to make a final decision on my ‘build or customize’ choice so your feedback will be most welcome. Will send an email to arrange a meeting.

  • 3 Workflow Process // Feb 27, 2006 at 9:19 am

    Hi, is there a way to receive your blog feed in my daily email? Randy in Tacoma.

  • 4 Peter Van Garderen // Feb 27, 2006 at 9:27 am

    Hi, is there a way to receive your blog feed in my daily email? Randy in Tacoma.

    Yup. See the link under Email Subscription on the blog homepage.