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More Open Source Software for Archives

August 7th, 2006 · 4 Comments · ICA-AtoM

In a previous post, I announced that the consulting project that I am working on this summer is the development of ICA-AtoM, an open-source archival description application for the International Council on Archives. In the meanwhile, two other open-source archives application projects have recently cropped up.

For the past 8 years or so, I have been talking with colleagues and clients about how a decent open-source archives application was sorely lacking in the archives community. Then within the span of half a year, there are suddenly three projects!

Although I had begun to hear about both of these other projects over the past few months, the SAA conference in Washington, DC last week was the first opportunity to learn more about these projects, meet the developers and see demos of their applications.

The first project is Archon which, like ICA-AtoM, is also developed as a web-based application using PHP5. Their target community is university archives as well as the so-called ‘lone arrangers’ working in small repositories with limited professional capacity and resources. The second project is Archivists’ Toolkit which is a desktop application developed in Java.

Archon has been made available for public release (under an academic and research license) just in time for the SAA conference. The Archivists’ Toolkit expects to deliver its first public release in December 2006.

Although there is overlap between the two applications, I would characterize Archon as being more focused on allowing its users to get finding aids online and Archivists’ Toolkit as an application to assist archivists in the internal processing of archival collections.

Both Archon and Archivists’ Toolkit are based internally on an Encoded Archival Description (EAD) structure, although they do a nice job of hiding the technical markup complexity from the user by allowing for data-entry via standard forms and the automatic tagging, import and export of EAD data.

Of course, an important consideration in the open source community is not to duplicate or split effort. Nevertheless, at this time, I don’t think that either of these applications is suitable as a replacement or a new foundation on which to build the ICA-AtoM application, given the ICA’s requirements and timeline.

Firstly, ICA-AtoM and the Guide to Archival Sources on Human Rights Violations website (that needs to be delivered very shortly using ICA-AtoM) must be fully web-based applications. This rules out Archivists’ Toolkit. Secondly, ICA-AtoM needs to be based on the ICA-ISAD(G) and ICA-ISAAR(CPF) standards as its core structure (although EAD import and export will also be a key feature).

Most importantly, ICA-AtoM must be a fully internationalized application that allows for multiple translations of both the application interface and the application content in any language or script. This requires that i18n (developer shorthand for ‘internationalization’) needs to be built into the core of the application. The Symfony MVC platform on which I am developing the ICA-AtoM application has i18n hooks built in. On top of that, the Symfony platform provides a best-practice framework that is based on proven design patterns for web applications. This platform provides an additional layer of abstraction, rich documentation and an already existing developer community on which the ICA-AtoM application can be supported and enhanced going forward

At the same time, I expect and hope that these three projects can identify their respective niche and strengths over the coming year and allow for integration and overlap where that is feasible (e.g. using a plug-in architecture to share modules or using ICA-AtoM as a web interface to the Archivists’ Toolkit application). It’s too early in the development cycle for each of these three projects to be clear on what this would look like going forward.

I did manage to talk about this briefly with members of both project teams and everyone does seem supportive of the respective efforts and expressed a desire to talk in more detail at some point in the near future about the relationship between these exciting and much-needed projects.

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Kwan // Aug 11, 2006 at 11:52 am

    A very interesting read, Peter. I’ve been pondering getting into the development of an OSS archival application, but my big concern is the level of support.

    In this day and age with free software running rampant, it’s not necessarily about the quality of the software you provide; it’s about the level of support you can provide with it. Most archivists simply have neither the time nor patience to worry about the technical details of their application. And unfortunately, OSS generally requires you to do so.

  • 2 Peter Van Garderen // Aug 11, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    Hi Steve,

    The same can be said for commercial software. That’s why vendors (like the one you work for) sell annual support packages.

    The primary source of support for an OSS product is, of course, the developer and user community itself.

    However, in the initial stages, the support (documentation, user forums, bug fixes and revisions) should be provided by the organisation that decides to put out the software as an open source resource. The ICA, for example, is very much interested in nurturing the ICA-AtoM product through its initial stages.

    As a community around an OSS product matures, value-added services such as maintenance support and custom development are then typically provided by third-party providers.

    At the same time, for those institutions that do have the technical resources to customize and extend the application to suit their needs, the source code is freely available to do so. Any additional development that these institutions do can then be contributed back to the core application source code for the greater benefit of the community as a whole, rather than having it packaged as a new feature or module that customers must pay for as a product upgrade.

    This is, of course, the traditional argument for the benefit of open source software.

    I agree that OSS software is not always the right tool for the job, just because it is OSS. The ‘total cost of ownership’ (TCO) has to be evaluated in each case.

    However, given the limited resources that are available to archival institutions worldwide, the overall benefit to the community is so significant that an earnest effort to launch open-source software simply has to be made.

    The Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff says, “If you don’t shoot, you don’t score”

    Therefore, if you have been thinking about getting into the development of an OSS archival application I would encourage you to get involved and contribute to the ICA-AtoM project. We could use someone with your talents :-)

    I am very excited about the flexibility and features of the PHP5 MVC platform on which I am developing it. The initial beta release and documentation will be made public in a couple of months.

  • 3 ICA-AtoM: software de código abierto para la descripción archivística « @rchivista // Oct 5, 2006 at 6:45 am

    [...] Aunque es demasiado pronto para opinar, creo que es un proyecto bastante interesante: no sólo por su aplicación a la Guía de fuentes para el estudio de las violaciones de los Derechos Humanos; también por el hecho de que sea un software de código abierto, que viene a unirse a otros proyectos. Espero que aplicaciones como ésta no queden ancladas sólo en la iniciativa Human Rights Violations, y que puedan ser reutilizadas, posteriormente, para que países con pocos recursos puedan colgar, por ejemplo, un Censo-guía de sus archivos; o para que se realicen otras Guías de Fuentes sobre otras materias (genealogía, relaciones internacionales, ciencia…). [...]

  • 4 Continuing the Open-Source Theme - Archival Software! « informationatrix // Apr 11, 2007 at 7:42 am

    [...] ICA-AtoM,Â