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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The first UK AtoM user group meeting

Yesterday the newly formed UK AtoM user group met for the first time at St John's College Cambridge and I was really pleased that myself and a colleague were able to attend.
Bridge of Sighs in Autumn (photo by Sally-Anne Shearn)

This group has been established to provide the growing UK AtoM community with a much needed forum for exchanging ideas and sharing experiences of using AtoM.

The meeting was attended by about 15 people though we were informed that there are nearly 50 people on the email distribution list. Interest in AtoM is certainly increasing in the UK.

As this was our first meeting, those who had made progress with AtoM were encouraged to give a brief presentation covering the following points:
  1. Where are you with AtoM (investigating, testing, using)?
  2. What do you use it for? (cataloguing, accessions, physical storage locations)
  3. What do you like about it/ what works?
  4. What don’t you like about it/ what doesn’t work?
  5. How do you see AtoM fitting into your wider technical infrastructure? (do you have separate location or accession databases etc?)
  6. What unanswered questions do you have?
It was really interesting to find out how others are using AtoM in the UK. A couple of attendees had already upgraded to the new 2.4 release so that was encouraging to see.

I'm not going to summarise the whole meeting but I made a note of people's likes and dislikes (questions 3 and 4 above). There were some common themes that came up.

Note that most users are still using AtoM 2.2 or 2.3, those who have moved to 2.4 haven't had much chance to explore it yet. It may be that some of these comments are already out of date and fixed in the new release.


What works?


AtoM seems to have lots going for it!

The words 'intuitive', 'user friendly', 'simple', 'clear' and 'flexible' were mentioned several times. One attendee described some user testing she carried out during which she found her users just getting on and using it without any introduction or explanation! Clearly a good sign!

The fact that it was standards compliant was mentioned as well as the fact that consistency was enforced. When moving from unstructured finding aids to AtoM it really does help ensure that the right bits of information are included. The fact that AtoM highlights which mandatory fields are missing at the top of a page is really helpful when checking through your own or others records.

The ability to display digital images was highlighted by others as a key selling point, particularly the browse by digital objects feature.

The way that different bits of the AtoM database interlink was a plus point that was mentioned more than once - this allows you to build up complex interconnecting records using archival descriptions and authority records and these can also be linked to accession records and a physical location.

The locations section of AtoM was thought to be 'a good thing' - for recording information about where in the building each archive is stored. This works well once you get your head around how best to use it.

Integration with Archivematica was mentioned by one user as being a key selling point for them - several people in the room were either using, or thinking of using Archivematica for digital preservation.

The user community itself and the quick and helpful responses to queries posted on the user forum were mentioned by more than one attendee. Also praised was the fact that AtoM is in continuous active development and very much moving in the right direction.


What doesn't work?


Several attendees mentioned the digital object functionality in AtoM. As well as being a clear selling point, it was also highlighted as an area that could be improved. The one-to-one relationship between an archival description and a digital object wasn't thought to be ideal and there was some discussion about linking through to external repositories - it would be nice if items linked in this way could be displayed in the AtoM image carousel even where the url doesn't end in a filename.

The typeahead search suggestions when you enter search terms were not thought to be helpful all of the time. Sometimes the closest matches do not appear in the list of suggested results.

One user mentioned that they would like a publication status that is somewhere in between draft and published. This would be useful for those records that are complete and can be viewed internally by a selected group of users who are logged in but are not available to the wider public.

More than one person mentioned that they would like to see a conservation module in AtoM.

There was some discussion about the lack of an audit trail for descriptions within AtoM. It isn't possible to see who created a record, when it was created and information about updates. This would be really useful for data quality checking, particularly when training new members of staff and volunteers.

Some concerns about scalability were mentioned - particularly for one user with a very large number of records within AtoM - the process of re-indexing AtoM can take three days.

When creating creator or access points, the drop down menu doesn’t display all the options so this causes difficulties when trying to link to the right point or establishing whether the desired record is in the system or not. This can be particularly problematic for common surnames as several different records may exist.

There are some issues with the way authority records are created currently, with no automated way of creating a unique identifier and no ability to keep authority records in draft.

A comment about the lack of auto-save and the issue of the web form timing out and losing all of your work seemed to be a shared concern for many attendees.

Other things that were mentioned included an integration with Active Directory and local workarounds that had to be put in place to make finding aids bi-lingual.


Moving forward


The group agreed that it would be useful to keep a running list of these potential areas of development for AtoM and that perhaps in the future members may be able to collaborate to jointly sponsor work to improve AtoM. This would be a really positive outcome for this new network.

I was also able to present on a recent collaboration to enable OAI-PMH harvesting of EAD from AtoM and use it as an opportunity to try to drum up support for further development of this new feature. I had to try and remember what OAI-PMH stood for and think I got 83% of it right!

Thanks to St John's College Cambridge for hosting. I look forward to our next meeting which we hope to hold here in York in the Spring.


Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Moving a proof of concept into production? it's harder than you might think...

Myself and colleagues blogged a lot during the Filling the Digital Preservation Gap Project but I’m aware that I’ve gone a bit quiet on this topic since…

I was going to wait until we had a big success to announce, but follow on work has taken longer than expected. So in the meantime here is an update on where we are and what we are up to.

Background


Just to re-cap, by the end of phase 3 of Filling the Digital Preservation Gap we had created a working proof of concept at the University of York that demonstrated that it is possible create an automated preservation workflow for research data using PURE, Archivematica, Fedora and Samvera (then called Hydra!).

This is described in our phase 3 project report (and a detailed description of the workflow we were trying to implement was included as an appendix in the phase 2 report).

After the project was over, it was agreed that we should go ahead and move this into production.

Progress has been slower than expected. I hadn’t quite appreciated just how different a proof of concept is to a production-ready environment!

Here are some of the obstacles we have encountered (and in some cases overcome):

Error reporting


One of the key things that we have had to build in to the existing code in order to get it ready for production is error handling.

This was not a priority for the proof of concept. A proof of concept is really designed to demonstrate that something is possible, not to be used in earnest.

If errors happen and things stop working (which they sometimes do) you can just kill it and rebuild.

In a production environment we want to be alerted when something goes wrong so we can work out how to fix it. Alerts and errors are crucial to a system like this.

We are sorting this out by enabling Archivematica's own error handling and error catching within Automation Tools.


What happens when something goes wrong?


...and of course once things have gone wrong in Archivematica and you've fixed the underlying technical issue, you then need to deal with any remaining problems with your information packages in Archivematica.

For example, if the problems have resulted in failed transfers in Archivematica then you need to work out what you are going to do with those failed transfers. Although it is (very) tempting to just clear out Archivematica and start again, colleagues have advised me that it is far more useful to actually try and solve the problems and establish how we might handle a multitude of problematic scenarios if we were in a production environment!

So we now have scenarios in which an automated transfer has failed so in order to get things moving again we need to carry out a manual transfer of the dataset into Archivematica. Will the other parts of our workflow still work if we intervene in this way?

One issue we have encountered along the way is that though our automated transfer uses a specific 'datasets' processing configuration that we have set up within Archivematica, when we push things through manually it uses the 'default' processing configuration which is not what we want.

We are now looking at how we can encourage Archivematica to use the specified processing configuration. As described in the Archivematica documentation, you can do this by including an XML file describing your processing configuration within your transfer.

It is useful to learn lessons like this outside of a production environment!


File size/upload


Although our project recognised that there would be limit to the size of dataset that we could accept and process with our application, we didn't really bottom out what size dataset we intended to support.

It has now been agreed that we should reasonably expect the data deposit form to accept datasets of up to 20 GB in size. Anything larger than this would need to be handed in a different way.

Testing the proof of concept in earnest showed that it was not able to handle datasets of over 1 GB in size. Its primary purpose was to demonstrate the necessary integrations and workflow not to handle larger files.

Additional (and ongoing) work was required to enable the web deposit form to work with larger datasets.


Space


In testing the application we of course ended up trying to push some quite substantial datasets through it.

This was fine until everything abrubtly seemed to stop working!

The problem was actually a fairly simple one but because of our own inexperience with Archivematica it took a while to troubleshoot and get things moving in the right direction again.

It turned out that we hadn’t allocated enough space in one of the bits of filestore that Archivematica uses for failed transfers (/var/archivematica/sharedDirectory/failed). This had filled up and was stopping Archivematica from doing anything else.

Once we knew the cause of the problem the available space was increased but then everything ground to a halt again because we had quickly used that up again ….increasing the space had got things moving but of course while we were trying to demonstrate the fact that it wasn't working, we had deposited several further datasets which were waiting in the transfer directory and quickly blocked things up again.

On a related issue, one of the test datasets I had been using to see how well Research Data York could handle larger datasets consisted of c.5 GB consisting of about 2000 JPEG images. Of course one of the default normalisation tasks in Archivematica is to convert all of these JPEGs to TIFF.

Once this collection of JPEGs were converted to TIFF the size of the dataset increased to around 80 GB. Until I witnessed this it hadn't really occurred to me that this could cause problems.

The solution - allocate Archivematica much more space than you think it will need!

We also now have the filestore set up so that it will inform us when the space in these directories gets to 75% full. Hopefully this will allow us to stop the filestore filling up in the future.


Workflow


The proof of concept did not undergo rigorous testing - it was designed for demonstration purposes only.

During the project we thought long and hard about the deposit, request and preservation workflows that we wanted to support, but we were always aware that once we had it in an environment that we could all play with and test, additional requirements would emerge.

As it happens, we have discovered that the workflow implemented is very true to that described in the appendix of our phase 2 report and does meet our needs. However, there are lots of bits of fine tuning required to enhance the functionality and make the interface more user friendly.

The challenge here is to try to carry out the minimum of work required to turn it into an adequate solution to take into production. There are so many enhancements we could make – I have a wish list as long as my arm – but until we better understand whether a local solution or a shared solution (provided by the Jisc Research Data Shared Service) will be adopted in the future it is not worth trying to make this application perfect.

Making it fit for production is the priority. Bells and whistles can be added later as necessary!





My thanks to all those who have worked on creating, developing, troubleshooting and testing this application and workflow. It couldn't have happened without you!



Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist

Monday, 18 September 2017

Harvesting EAD from AtoM: we need your help!

Back in February I published a blog post about a project to develop AtoM to allow EAD (Encoded Archival Description) to be harvested via OAI-PMH (Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting): “Harvesting EAD from AtoM: a collaborative approach

Now that AtoM version 2.4 is released (hooray!), containing the functionality we have sponsored, I thought it was high time I updated you on what has been achieved by this project, where more work is needed and how the wider AtoM community can help.


What was our aim?


Our development work had a few key aims:

  • To enable finding aids from AtoM to be exposed as EAD 2002 XML for others to harvest. The partners who sponsored this project were particularly keen to enable the Archives Hub to harvest their EAD.
  • To change the way that EAD was generated by AtoM in order to make it more scalable. Moving EAD generation from the web browser to the job scheduler was considered to be the best approach here.
  • To make changes to the existing DC (Dublin Core) metadata generation feature so that it also works through the job scheduler - making this existing feature more scalable and able to handle larger quantities of data

A screen shot of the job scheduler in AtoM - showing the EAD and
DC creation jobs that have been completed

What have we achieved?

The good

We believe that the EAD harvesting feature as released in AtoM version 2.4 will enable a harvester such as the Archives Hub to harvest our catalogue metadata from AtoM as EAD. As we add new top level archival descriptions to our catalogue, subsequent harvests should pick up and display these additional records. 

This is a considerable achievement and something that has been on our wishlist for some time. This will allow our finding aids to be more widely signposted. Having our data aggregated and exposed by others is key to ensuring that potential users of our archives can find the information that they need.

Changes have also been made to the way metadata (both EAD and Dublin Core) are generated in AtoM. This means that the solution going forward is more scalable for those AtoM instances that have very large numbers of records or large descriptive hierarchies.

The new functionality in AtoM around OAI-PMH harvesting of EAD and settings for moving XML creation to the job scheduler is described in the AtoM documentation.

The not-so-good

Unfortunately the EAD harvesting functionality within AtoM 2.4 will not do everything we would like it to do. 

It does not at this point include the ability for the harvester to know when metadata records have been updated or deleted. It also does not pick up new child records that are added into an existing descriptive hierarchy. 

We want to be able to edit our records once within AtoM and have any changes reflected in the harvested versions of the data. 

We don’t want our data to become out of sync. 

So clearly this isn't ideal.

The task of enabling full harvesting functionality for EAD was found to be considerably more complex than first anticipated. This has no doubt been confounded by the hierarchical nature of the EAD which differs from the simplicity of the traditional Dublin Core approach.

The problems encountered are certainly not insurmountable, but lack of additional resources and timelines for the release of AtoM 2.4 stopped us from being able to finish off this work in full.

A note on scalability


Although the development work deliberately set out to consider issues of scalability, it turns out that scalability is actually on a sliding scale!

The National Library of Wales had the forethought to include one of their largest archival descriptions as sample data for inclusion in the version of AtoM 2.4 that Artefactual deployed for testing. Their finding aid for St David’s Diocesan Records is a very large descriptive hierarchy consisting of 33,961 individual entries. This pushed the capabilities of EAD creation (even when done via the job scheduler) and also led to discussions with The Archives Hub about exactly how they would process and display such a large description at their end even if EAD generation within AtoM were successful.

Some more thought and more manual workarounds will need to be put in place to manage the harvesting and subsequent display of large descriptions such as these.

So what next?


We are keen to get AtoM 2.4 installed at the Borthwick Institute for Archives over the next couple of months. We are currently on version 2.2 and would like to start benefiting from all the new features that have been introduced available... and of course to test in earnest the EAD harvesting feature that we have jointly sponsored.

We already know that this feature will not fully meet our needs in its current form, but would like to set up an initial harvest with the Archives Hub and further test some of our assumptions about how this will work.

We may need to put some workarounds in place to ensure that we have a way of reflecting updates and deletions in the harvested data – either with manual deletes or updates or a full delete and re-harvest periodically.

Harvesting in AtoM 2.4 - some things that need to change


So we have a list of priority things that need to be improved in order to get EAD harvesting working more smoothly in the future:


In line with the OAI-PMH specification

  • AtoM needs to expose updates to the metadata to the harvester
  • AtoM needs to expose new records (at any level of description) to the harvester
  • AtoM needs to expose information about deletions to the harvester
  • AtoM also needs to expose information about deletions to DC metadata to the harvester (it has come to my attention during the course of this project that this isn’t happening at the moment) 

Some other areas of potential work


I also wanted to bring together and highlight some other areas of potential work for the future. These are all things that were discussed during the course of the project but were not within the scope of our original development goals.

  • Harvesting of EAC (Encoded Archival Context) - this is the metadata standard for authority records. Is this something people would like to see enabled in the future? Of course this is only useful if you have someone who actually wants to harvest this information!
  • On the subject of authority records, it would be useful to change the current AtoM EAD template to use @authfilenumber and @source - so that an EAD record can link back to the relevant authority record in the local AtoM site. The ability to create rich authority records is such a key strength of AtoM, allowing an institution to weave rich interconnecting stories about their holdings. If harvesting doesn’t preserve this inter-connectivity then I think we are missing a trick!
  • EAD3 - this development work has deliberately not touched on the new EAD standard. Firstly, this would have been a much bigger job and secondly, we are looking to have our EAD harvested by The Archives Hub and they are not currently working with EAD3. This may be a priority area of work for the future.
  • Subject source - the subject source (for example "Library of Congress Subject Headings") doesn't appear in AtoM generated EAD at the moment even though it can be entered into AtoM - this would be a really useful addition to the EAD.
  • Visible elements - AtoM allows you to decide which elements you wish to display/hide in your local AtoM interface. With the exception of information relating to physical storage, the XML generation tasks currently do not take account of visible elements and will carry out an export of all fields. Further investigation of this should be carried out in the future. If an institution is using the visible elements feature to hide certain bits of information that should not be more widely distributed, they would be concerned if this information was being harvested and displayed elsewhere. As certain elements will be required in order to create valid EAD, this may get complicated!
  • ‘Manual’ EAD generation - the project team discussed the possibility of adding a button to the AtoM user interface so that staff users can manually kick-off EAD regeneration for a single descriptive hierarchy. Artefactual suggested this as a method of managing the process of EAD generation for large descriptive hierarchies. You would not want the EAD to regenerate with each minor tweak if a large archival description was undergoing several updates, however, you need to be able to trigger this task when you are ready to do so. It should be possible to switch off the automatic EAD re-generation (which normally triggers when a record is edited and saved) but have a button on the interface that staff can click when they want to initiate the process - for example when all edits are complete. 
  • As part of their work on this project, Artefactual created a simple script to help with the process of generating EAD for large descriptive hierarchies - it basically provides a way of finding out which XML files relate to a specific archival description so that EAD can be manually enhanced and updated if it is too large for AtoM to generate via the job scheduler. It would be useful to turn this script into a command-line task that is maintained as part of the AtoM codebase.

We need your help!


Although we believe we have something we can work with here and now, we are not under any illusions that this feature does all that it needs to in order to meet our requirements in the longer term. 

I would love to find out what other AtoM users (and harvesters) think of the feature. Is it useful to you? Are there other things we should put on the wishlist? 

There is a lot of additional work described in this post which the original group of project partners are unlikely to be able to fund on their own. If EAD harvesting is a priority to you and your organisation and you think you can contribute to further work in this area either on your own or as part of a collaborative project please do get in touch.


Thanks


I’d like to finish with a huge thanks to those organisations who have helped make this project happen, either through sponsorship, development or testing and feedback.




Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist