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Friday, 20 April 2018

The 2nd UK AtoM user group meeting

I was pleased to be able to host the second meeting of the UK AtoM user group here in York at the end of last week. AtoM (or Access to Memory) is the Archival Management System that we use here at the Borthwick Institute and it seems to be increasing in popularity across the UK.

We had 18 attendees from across England, Scotland and Wales representing both archives and service providers. It was great to see several new faces and meet people at different stages of their AtoM implementation.

We started off with introductions and everyone had the chance to mention one recent AtoM triumph and one current problem or challenge. A good way to start the conversation and perhaps a way of considering future development opportunities and topics for future meetings.

Here is a selection of the successes that were mentioned:

  • Establishing a search facility that searches across two AtoM instances
  • Getting senior management to agree to establishing AtoM
  • Getting AtoM up and running
  • Finally having an online catalogue
  • Working with authority records in AtoM
  • Working with other contributors and getting their records displaying on AtoM
  • Using the API to drive another website
  • Upgrading to version 2.4
  • Importing legacy EAD into AtoM
  • Uploading finding aids into AtoM 2.4
  • Adding 1000+ urls to digital resources into AtoM using a set of SQL update statements

...and here are some of the current challenges or problems users are trying to solve:
  • How to bar code boxes - can this be linked to AtoM?
  • Moving from CALM to AtoM
  • Not being able to see the record you want to link to when trying to select related records
  • Using the API to move things into an online showcase
  • Advocacy for taking the open source approach
  • Working out where to start and how best to use AtoM
  • Sharing data with the Archives Hub
  • How to record objects alongside archives
  • Issues with harvesting EAD via OAI-PMH
  • Building up the right level of expertise to be able to contribute code back to AtoM
  • Working out what to do when AtoM stops working
  • Discovering that AtoM doesn't enforce uniqueness in identifiers for archival descriptions

After some discussion about some of the issues that had been raised, Louise Hughes from the University of Gloucestershire showed us her catalogue and talked us through some of the decisions they had made as they set this up. 

The University of Gloucestershire's AtoM instance

She praised the digital object functionality and has been using this to add images and audio to the archival descriptions. She was also really happy with the authority records, in particular, being able to view a person and easily see which archives relate to them. She discussed ongoing work to enable records from AtoM to be picked up and displayed within the library catalogue. She hasn't yet started to use AtoM for accessioning but hopes to do so in the future. Adopting all the functionality available within AtoM needs time and thought and tackling it one step at a time (particularly if you are a lone archivist) makes a lot of sense.

Tracy Deakin from St John's College, Cambridge talked us through some recent work to establish a shared search page for their two institutional AtoM instances. One holds the catalogue of the college archives and the other is for the Special Collections Library. They had taken the decision to implement two separate instances of AtoM as they required separate front pages and the ability to manage the editing rights separately. However, as some researchers will find it helpful to search across both instances a search page has been developed that accesses the Elasticsearch index of each site in order to cross search.

The interface for a shared search across St John's College AtoM sites

Vicky Phillips from the National Library of Wales talked us through their processes for upgrading their AtoM instance to version 2.4 and discussed some of the benefits of moving to 2.4. They are really happy to have the full width treeview and the drag and drop functionality within it.

The upgrade has not been without it's challenges though. They have had to sort out some issues with invalid slugs, ongoing issues due to the size of some of their archives (they think the XML caching functionality will help with this) and sometimes find that MySQL gets overwhelmed with the number of queries and needs a restart. They still have some testing to do around bilingual finding aids and have also been working on testing out the new functionality around OAI PMH harvesting of EAD.

Following on from this I gave a presentation on upgrading AtoM to 2.4 at the Borthwick Institute. We are not quite there yet but I talked about the upgrade plan and process and some decisions we have made along the way. I won't say any more for the time being as I think this will be the subject of a future blog post.

Before lunch my colleague Charles Fonge introduced VIAF (Virtual International Authority File) to the group. This initiative will enable Authority Records created by different organisations across the world to be linked together more effectively. Several institutions may create an authority record about the same individual and currently it is difficult to allow these to be linked together when data is aggregated by services such as The Archives Hub. It is worth thinking about how we might use VIAF in an AtoM context. At the moment there is no place to store a VIAF ID in AtoM and it was agreed this would be a useful development for the future.

After lunch Justine Taylor from the Honourable Artillery Company introduced us to the topic of back up and disaster recovery of AtoM. She gave the group some useful food for thought, covering techniques and the types of data that would need to be included (hint: it's not solely about the database). This was particularly useful for those working in small institutions who don't have an IT department that just does all this for them as a matter of course. Some useful and relevant information on this subject can be found in the AtoM documentation.

Max Communications are a company who provide services around AtoM. They talked through some of their work with institutions and what services they can offer.  As well as being able to provide hosting and support for AtoM in the UK, they can also help with data migration from other archival management systems (such as CALM). They demonstrated their crosswalker tool that allows archivists to map structured data to ISAD(G) before import to AtoM.

They showed us an AtoM theme they had developed to allow Vimeo videos to be embedded and accessible to users. Although AtoM does have support for video, the files can be very large in size and there are large overheads involved in running a video server if substantial quantities are involved. Keeping the video outside of AtoM and managing the permissions through Vimeo provided a good solution for one of their clients.

They also demonstrated an AtoM plugin they had developed for Wordpress. Though they are big fans of AtoM, they pointed out that it is not the best platform for creating interesting narratives around archives. They were keen to be able to create stories about archives by pulling in data from AtoM where appropriate.

At the end of the meeting Dan Gillean from Artefactual Systems updated us (via Skype) about the latest AtoM developments. It was really interesting to hear about the new features that will be in version 2.5. Note, that none of this is ever a secret - Artefactual make their road map and release notes publicly available on their wiki - however it is still helpful to hear it enthusiastically described.

The group was really pleased to hear about the forthcoming audit logging feature, the clever new functionality around calculating creation dates, and the ability for users to save their clipboard across sessions (and share them with the searchroom when they want to access the items). Thanks to those organisations that are funding this exciting new functionality. Also worth a mention is the slightly less sexy, but very valuable work that Artefactual is doing behind the scenes to upgrade Elasticsearch.

Another very useful meeting and my thanks go to all who contributed. It is certainly encouraging to see the thriving and collaborative AtoM community we have here in the UK.

Our next meeting will be in London in the autumn.


Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist

Back to the classroom - the Domesday project

Yesterday I was invited to speak to a local primary school about my job. The purpose of the event was to inspire kids to work in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and I was faced with an audience of 10 and 11 year old girls.

One member of the audience (my daughter) informed me that many of the girls were only there because they had been bribed with cake.

This could be a tough gig!

On a serious note, there is a huge gender imbalance in STEM careers with women only making up 23% of the workforce in core STEM occupations. In talking to the STEM ambassador who was at this event, it was apparent that recruitment in engineering is quite hard, with not enough boys OR girls choosing to work in this area. This is also true in my area of work and is one of the reasons we are involved in the "Bridging the Digital Gap" project led by The National Archives. They note in a blog post about the project that:

"Digital skills are vital to the future of the archives sector ...... if archives are going to keep up with the pace of change, they need to attract members of the workforce who are confident in using digital technology, who not only can use digital tools, but who are also excited and curious about the opportunities and challenges it affords."

So why not try and catch them really young and get kids interested in our profession?

There were a few professionals speaking at the event and subjects were varied and interesting. We heard from someone who designed software for cars (who knew how many different computers are in a modern car?), someone who had to calculate exact mixes of seed to plant in Sites of Special Scientific Interest in order to encourage the right wild birds to nest there, a scientist who tested gelatin in sweets to find out what animal it was made from, an engineer who uses poo to heat houses....I had some pretty serious competition!

I only had a few minutes to speak so my challenge was to try and make digital preservation accessible, interesting and relevant in a short space of time. You could say that this was a bit of an elevator pitch to school kids.

Once I got thinking about this I had several ideas of different angles I could take.

I started off looking at the Mount School Archive that is held at the Borthwick. This is not a digital archive but was a good introduction to what archives are all about and why they are interesting and important. Up until 1948 the girls at this school created their own school magazine that is beautifully illustrated and gives a fascinating insight into what life was like at the school. I wanted to compare this with how schools communicate and disseminate information today and discuss some of the issues with preserving this more modern media (websites, twitter feeds, newsletters sent to parents via email).

Several powerpoint slides down the line I realised that this was not going to be short and snappy enough.

I decided to change my plans completely and talk about something that they may already know about, the Domesday Book.

I began by asking them if they had heard of the Domesday Book. Many of them had. I asked what they knew about it. They thought it was from 1066 (not far off!), someone knew that it had something to do with William the Conqueror, they guessed it was made of parchment (and they knew that parchment was made of animal skin). They were less certain of what it was actually for. I filled in the gaps for them.

I asked them whether they thought this book (that was over 900 years old) could still be accessed today and they weren't so sure about this. I was able to tell them that it is being well looked after by The National Archives and can still be accessed in a variety of ways. The main barrier to understanding the information is that it is written in Latin.

I talked about what the Domesday Book tells us about our local area. A search on Open Domesday tells us that Clifton only had 12 households in 1086. Quite different from today!

We then moved forward in time, to a period of history known as 'The 1980's' (a period that the children had recently been studying at school - now that makes me feel old!). I introduced them to the BBC Domesday Project of 1986. Without a doubt one of digital preservation's favourite case studies!

I explained how school children and communities were encouraged to submit information about their local areas. They were asked to include details of everyday life and anything they thought might be of interest to people 1000 years from then. People took photographs and wrote information about their lives and their local area. The data was saved on to floppy disks (what are they?) and posted to the BBC (this was before email became widely available). The BBC collated all the information on to laser disc (something that looks a bit like a CD but with a diameter of about 30cm).

I asked the children to consider the fact that the 900 year old Domesday Book is still accessible and  think about whether the 30 year old BBC Domesday Project discs were equally accessible. In discussion this gave me the opportunity to finally mention what digital archivists do and why it is such a necessary and interesting job. I didn't go into much technical detail but all credit to the folks who actually rescued the Domesday Project data. There is lots more information here.

Searching the Clifton and Rawcliffe area on Domesday Reloaded


Using the Domesday Reloaded website I was then able to show them what information is recorded about their local area from 1986. There was a picture of houses being built, and narratives about how a nearby lake was created. There were pieces written by a local school child and a teacher describing their typical day. I showed them a piece that was written about 'Children's Crazes' which concluded with:

" Another new activity is break-dancing
 There is a place in York where you can
 learn how to break-dance. Break     
 dancing means moving and spinning on
 the floor using hands and body. Body-
 popping is another dance craze where
 the dancer moves like a robot."


Disappointingly the presentation didn't entirely go to plan - my powerpoint only partially worked and the majority of my carefully selected graphics didn't display.

A very broken powerpoint presentation

There was thus a certain amount of 'winging it'!

This did however allow me to make the point that working with technology can be challenging as well as perhaps frustrating and exciting in equal measure!



Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist