Sunday, June 6, 2010

NYAC/ARTNY: Archivists' Toolkit

The Hudson River, as seen from the grounds of the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, Hyde Park, New York, 4 June 2010.

Last week, I attended the joint meeting of the New York Archives Conference (NYAC) and the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York, (ARTNY) which was held at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. Unfortunately, Mac-using attendees discovered upon arrival that, despite Marist’s promises to the contrary, they could not connect to Marist’s wireless network. Now that I’ve reconnected, I’ll put up a couple of posts about the highlights of this year’s conference.

In my view, the best session of the conference was Session 1, “Implementing, Modifying, and Teaching the Archivists' Toolkit.” The Archivists’ Toolkit (AT) is an increasingly popular open source tool that supports accessioning, location management, and description of archival materials, and the session itself attracted a capacity crowd.

Janet Bunde of New York University (NYU) discussed a recent effort to integrate the AT into NYU’s Advanced Archival Description course so that students, who typically lacked the funds needed to attend AT workshops sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, would become familiar with the tool and hone their descriptive skills. The students reviewed the AT user’s manual in advance, then devoted an entire class session to entering sample data into the AT. At the end of the class, students discussed where they entered specific data elements and the descriptive output that resulted. Although the discussion wasn’t as extensive as Bunde would have liked, it shed light on students’ descriptive choices and revealed that, despite the use of some odd terminology, the AT’s interface is relatively intuitive.

Bunde stressed that this exercise didn’t, in and of itself, teach archival description, but it made me think about how to do so. I created a handful of MARC records while working as a student assistant, but I really didn’t feel comfortable with description until I found myself responsible for reviewing MARC records created by archivists at other repositories. I soon acquired an intimate knowledge of MARC and the ability to differentiate between acceptable variations in local practice and out-of-bounds tag usage. I really like the idea of having students openly compare and defend their descriptive choices, and using the AT as a teaching tool has real promise, particularly if, as NYU plans to do this fall, it’s incorporated more fully into the course curriculum.

Deena Schwimmer of Yeshiva University discussed how her repository, which has only two professional staffers and few IT resources, used the AT to centralize, as quickly as possible, holdings and descriptive information about its manuscript collections. Working with a clerical assistant, Schwimmer first culled holdings information from donor files and the relatively small number of MARC records describing the collections and entered it into the AT. Then, working in tandem with an intern who created collection-level descriptions, she used the AT to create Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aids that contained only the most basic descriptive elements: Biographical/Historical Note, Scope and Content, Abstract, Conditions Governing Access, Conditions Governing Use, and Language of Materials, and Title and Date information. She also used the AT to manage the project: she added fields that identified whether an EAD finding aid had been produced and enabled her and her intern to exchange notes about specific collections.

Schwimmer’s project exemplifies what a single results-minded archivist can do with a well-chosen tool and a little student and clerical help. Before Schwimmer’s project began, approximately a third of Yeshiva’s 2500 linear feet of manuscript holdings had been described, and when the project wrapped up roughly 18 months later, every collection had at least a basic finding aid. I think we’re going to see lots of similar AT success stories during the next few years, and, needless to say, I think that this is a very good thing.

Marisa Hudspeth of the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) then discussed how her repository is building a new AT reference module that will both meet its needs and enable it to, via release of the module’s source code and documentation, give back to the archival community. The RAC had been using a proprietary tool that supported patron registration and tracking of duplication services, but moved to the AT because of its robust collections management and descriptive modules. When it became apparent that the AT development team's energies were focused elsewhere, the RAC decided to hire several former team members and build a reference module itself.

When it’s completed, the reference module will perform the following functions:
  • Patron registration: will track research visits, publications, completion of necessary research paperwork, and research awards; and facilitate generation of statistics and reports.
  • Duplication services: will manage all types of requests; create standardized invoices in PDF; store fee schedules and shipping rates and automatically calculate totals; track service requests; generate statistics and reports; and securely manage payment information.
  • Retrievals, bar-coding, and use tracking: will track use of materials by patrons; generate statistics and reports; automate the charge-out procedure using barcoding; add barcoding functionality to the AT’s Accession module; support printing of barcodes and box labels; and enable both archivists and researchers to submit pull requests electronically via clicking on boxes in the RAC’s EAD finding aids.
  • Reference requests and reading room scheduling: will electronically distribute reference requests to staff; allow staff to respond to requests within the AT; store request histories, staff assignments, and responses; generate statistics and reports; and enable archives that have limited research facilities to manage scheduling of research appointments and factor in holiday closings, weather incidents, and other events.
  • Personalized user accounts: will enable patrons to update their contact information, submit reference requests, schedule and cancel research appointments and sign up for waiting lists; receive notifications of closings and research room vacancies; sign up for newsletters and the like; view an orientation video and agree to the RAC’s terms of use; track the status of their duplication requests; review their own request histories; bookmark and comment on finding aids; submit funding paperwork; electronically sign forms, and, if they wish to do so, connect with other researchers.
At present, the RAC doesn’t know how this reference module will work with ArchivesSpace, which will, when completed, merge the AT and Archon, another open source archival data management system. However, the RAC will release the code and continue using it, even if the module can’t be incorporated into ArchivesSpace.

After this session ended, I was talking to a colleague about the RAC’s work, and we were both struck by the degree to which reference-related information systems remain paper-driven -- not only at our repository but also at many, many others. Our own repository is currently developing some of the functionality that will be included in the reference module (e.g., barcoding and use tracking), but we’re still terribly paper-centric. The RAC’s work ought to help propel the move away from paper, and it’s going to be really interesting to see how this exciting project pans out.

If you are an AT user and want to track reference requests, duplication services, etc., electronically, the RAC is looking for reference module beta testers. The module’s first component -- patron registration -- should be finished within a few weeks, and the entire module has a scheduled completion date of 31 December 2011, so things are moving right along. If you're interested in serving as a beta tester, contact Marisa Hudspeth at

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