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European Travels and the ICA-AtoM Roadmap

April 25th, 2007 · No Comments · ICA-AtoM

Peter in AmsterdamI’ve just returned from an intensive but productive trip to Amsterdam and Paris where I had a number of meetings related to both my consulting and doctoral research. While in The Netherlands I had the opportunity to meet with representatives at the Nationaal Archief to discuss their work with EAD and, in particular, their virtual reference room project (which is managed by Yvette Hoitink who blogs over at Nederlands Erfgoed). I also dropped in at the City of Rotterdam Archives to check on the progress of their digital reference desk prototype and I met with my PhD supervisor, Dr. Eric Ketelaar to review the progress of my doctoral research (and got a great impromptu tour of the historical heart of the University of Amsterdam which dates back to 1632).

My primary liaison in the Netherlands is Peter Horsman, research coordinator at the Dutch Archiefschool, associate supervisor on my PhD research, and for all intents and purposes, the project director of the ICA-AtoM project. Peter and I reviewed the progress of the ICA-AtoM software development and I gave a demonstration of alpha version 0.2 of the ICA-AtoM application to his Archiefschool colleagues. Most significantly, Peter and I caught the train to Paris last Wednesday to meet the next morning with the ICA Secretrary-General and Program Managers to discuss the objectives and roadmap for the ICA-AtoM Project.

What is ICA-AtoM?

ICA-AtoM is an open source archival description application. The name is an acronym for ‘International Council on Archives – Access to Memory.’ The initial catalyst for the development of the ICA-AtoM software was the ICA project on Archives and Human Rights Violations: International Guide to Sources. The purpose of this Guide is to make it easy for individuals and organizations, which may not be professional archival institutions, to contribute to an online database of archival materials related to human rights violations. The Guide then enables researchers worldwide to identify archival materials relating to a particular human rights topic, locate the country and repository in which the archival materials are held, and determine the conditions for access to these documents. Data-entry testing for the Guide will begin in June.

The UNESCO Information For All Programme provided the funding to develop the software for the Guide website. This software became the first alpha version of the ICA-AtoM software that can now be used for the description of any kind of archival collection according to ICA standards. The software was developed by myself, through my firm Artefactual Systems, under the direction of Peter Horsman at the Dutch Archiefschool.

The Collaboration

The International Council on Archives is interested in a providing an open-source archival description application to the international archival community, in particular to assist with the automation of under-funded archival institutions and to allow them to make their collections available online. The ICA-AtoM software will also help to promote the standards and programs of the ICA.

The Dutch Archiefschool is interested in the development of an ICA-sanctioned, open-source, archival description application to use for the instruction of students in its archival description courses. The Archiefschool is also interested in applying and extending ICA-AtoM as prototyping software in a variety of its research projects.

My company Artefactual Systems is dedicated to the development and promotion of open-source technologies within the archival community. As well, I am researching archives access systems as a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam. I will use and extend ICA-AtoM to develop prototypes related to my research.

ICA-AtoM Key Features

Over the past year, two other open-source archives software applications have cropped up (Archivist’s Toolkit and Archon). As well, there have been a number of commercial archives software applications available for two decades now (albeit a relatively small number compared to other cultural sectors).

Therefore, one of the important discussions I had with the Archiefschool and ICA last week was to clarify what ICA-AtoM’s niche and identity should be in relation to other archives software packages. I was glad to hear that the other collaborators agreed that it would be difficult and foolish to try and make ICA-AtoM all things to all people in its early stages. It is better to do one thing well, rather than to do many things poorly. Therefore, the primary focus of ICA-AtoM will be standards-based archival description and web-based access.

The key features of the ICA-AtoM application are rooted in the Guide to Human Rights Violations project, namely, making it easy for organizations with limited techical capacity to make their archival collections available online, to allow for the creation of multi-repository databases in multiple languages, and to provide a tool that implements ICA standards. To facilitate remote administration and access and to ease deployment, the application must be fully web-based. Lastly, the application must be free and open-source to leverage the development effort (i.e. pay for development once, install and enhance indefinitely) and to encourage an international community of shared practices and tools around archival automation.

Despite the early focus on archival description and access, the ICA-AtoM application is built on an open, modular architecture (using the Symfony MVC platform) that is designed to support easy integration and plugins of new modules and application features in the future.

Software Release Roadmap

The other topic of discussion was the best way to release the application and software code. One option is to release the alpha code early and often and hope for the best. This is an approach that can be successful in more technical communities of practice. However, I don’t think anyone will argue that the archival profession is a highly technical community (at least not yet, the next generation will have to be).

Instead, it was decided to continue internal development of the software codebase and conduct testing within a limited group of early implementers. The Archiefschool will sponsor this next phase of software development. The ICA-AtoM project will then use the ICA Congress of July 2008 as its official launch event.

That gives us about a year for more intenstive development and testing to make ICA-AtoM a solid archival description and access application, leading to a preliminary public release of a stable beta version in early 2008. This will allow for enough lead time to develop rich documentation, tutorials and training workshops to support the official launch at the ICA Congress. This conference will also provide a good opportunity to take stock of the ICA-AtoM software and talk about its long-term governance and direction.