The State of Open Source Archival Management Software
It's been a while since I've written here, but other responsibilities at both at home and work have kept me busy. To get back into the swing of writing regularly, I thought I'd take a look at one of the biggest hot-button topics in archives this year: the development and release of open source archival management systems. Between this year's and last year's SAA conferences, there were three sessions that, at least in part, dealt with the development of open source software for archives. In turn, this reflected the three major projects that archivists have been developing: Archivists' Toolkit, Archon, and ICA-AtoM.
Archivists' Toolkit is the oldest of the three projects; the first meeting and project proposal date from 2002. It may very well be the best funded of the three projects, as it received a $847,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation. However, it also seems to be the least mature, in my opinion, as I've not seen a live demo that's publicly accessible. (There have been live demos available at presentations, but I argue that it's not quite the same thing.) Perhaps this is the nature of the application itself, as it serves only as a back office database and not a patron interface. In addition, Archivists' Toolkit doesn't use a web application like the other two (it uses a Java client using Swing classes). That said, other somewhat comparable applications, like the Evergreen open source ILS, have made the staff client available for testing with a large number of sample accounts. These issues plus the fact that the project team requested a no-cost extension to the project have me remarkably concerned about how Archivists' Toolkit was going to look when it was finally released, which was just this week. An important aside: I started writing this post before Archivists' Toolkit was released, so I'm going to end any further comments until I have a chance to put it through its paces.
Archon was the sleeper hit of this year's SAA conference. No one expected that so many archivists could get excited about software. The session ended up being standing room only. The developers, a team from University of Illinois, which includes Chris Prom from the University Archives and Scott Schwartz of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, intentionally kept details about the development quiet until just a few weeks prior to the SAA conference. Their presentation was impressive, and in short, it just seemed to work. With little trouble I was able to install it on both Windows and Linux, and it's got a host of features I didn't expect from a package with such a short development timeline. Archon isn't perfect either, nonetheless; the 1.00 release is notably buggy with PHP and MySQL error messages that would baffle the uninitiated. Archon, like Archivists' Toolkit, is also falling behind its release schedule, as the developers told me a maintenance release would be available by mid-October, with an e-mail list for users soon to follow. Neither one has surfaced so far, but the most surprising is the lack of any sort of support channel other than contacting the developers directly.
ICA-AtoM didn't have the most coverage at this year's SAA conference. However, its developer, Peter Van Garderen of Artefactual Systems, Inc. (also a PhD candidate at the Universiteit van Amsterdam), spoke at the session entitled "Finding Aids: The Next Generation." The development of ICA-AtoM is being sponsored by the International Council on Archives for the development of the Guide to Archival Sources on Human Rights Violations, a multi-repository guide to collections held around the world. Although ICA-AtoM is only at the alpha-stage of development, the software seems robust enough to support distributed archival description compatible with ISAD(G) and ISAAR(CPF). Obviously, it appears to be better suited for multi-institutional descriptive projects, and that in turn seems to reflect the current lack of features that the other two programs offer, such as the ability to track collections from the time of accession onwards and the creation of container lists. However, the development roadmap indicates that these and other features are on definitely planned for inclusion. I believe that Van Garderen's decision to make these features modular -- which most likely means the application will also be scalable -- clearly shows sophistication in both planning and development. The collaborative aspect of ICA-AtoM's implementation, its use of international standards, and Van Garderen's candor regarding the development process make me believe that this package might be the best replacement for our current implementation of ICOS.
None of the packages are perfect across the board, but that should be expected as many of them are relatively early along in the development process. The most significant concern that I have for all packages is their sustainability, especially in terms of maintaining a support network regardless of its affiliation with the packages' developers. In addition, there's no assurance of success unless development can continue in some capacity. The open source nature of these package assists in this but does not ensure buy-in from the hardiest of geeks. Surprisingly, the package that I was least optimistic about (Archivists' Toolkit) seems to have the clearest future course since it has been approved for a second 24 month development phase beginning next February. I'm excited to see how this plays out, because it may mean that archivists start caring about technology after all.