The anatomy of an AtoM upgrade

Yesterday we went live with our new upgraded production version of AtoM.

We've been using AtoM version 2.2 since we first unveiled the Borthwick Catalogue to the world two years ago. Now we have finally taken the leap to version 2.4.

We are thrilled to benefit from some of the new features - including the clipboard, being able to search by date range and the full width treeview. Of course we are also keen to test the work we jointly sponsored last year around exposing EAD via OAI-PMH for harvesting.

But what has taken us so long you might ask?

...well, upgrading AtoM has been a new experience for us and one that has involved a lot of planning behind the scenes. The technical process of upgrading has been ably handled by our systems administrator. Much of his initial work behind the scenes has been on 'puppetising' AtoM to make it easier to manage multiple versions of AtoM going forward. In this post though I will focus on the less technical steps we have taken to manage the upgrade and the decisions we have made along the way.

Checking the admin settings

One of the first things I did when I was given a test version of 2.4 to play with was to check out all of the admin settings to see what had changed.

All of our admin settings for AtoM are documented in a spreadsheet alongside a rationale for our decisions. I wanted to take some time to understand the new settings, read the documentation and decide what would work for us.

Some of these decisions were taken to a meeting for a larger group of staff to discuss. I've got a good sense of how we use AtoM but I am not really an AtoM user so it was important that others were involved in the decision making.

Most decisions were relatively straightforward and uncontroversial but the one that we spent most time on was deciding whether or not to change the slugs...


In AtoM, the 'slug' is the last element of the url for each individual record within the catalogue - it has to be unique so that all the urls go to the right place. In previous versions of AtoM the slugs were automatically generated from the title of each record. This led to some interesting and varied urls.

  • Some of them were really long - if the title of the record was really long
  • Some of them were short and very cryptic - if the record hadn't been given a title prior to the first save
  • Many of our titles are not unique - for example, we have lots of records simply called 'correspondence' in the catalogue. Where titles are not unique, AtoM will use the title and then append it with a number in order to create a unique slug (eg: correspondence-150)

Slugs are therefore hard to predict ...and it is not always possible to look at a slug and know which archive it refers to.

This possibly doesn't matter, but could become an issue for us in the future should we wish to carry out more automated data manipulation or system integrations.

AtoM 2.4 now allows you to choose which fields your slugs are generated from. We have decided that it would be better if ours were generated from the identifier of the record rather than the title. The reason being that identifiers are generally quite short and sweet and of course should be unique (though we recently realised that this isn't enforced in AtoM).

But of course this is not a decision that can be taken lightly. Our catalogue has been live for 2 years now and users will have set up links and bookmarks to particular records within it. On balance we decided that it would be better to change the slugs and do our best to limit the impact on users.

So, we have changed the admin setting to ensure future slugs are generated using the identifier. We have run a script provided by Artefactual Systems that changed all the slugs that are already in the database. We have set up a series of redirects from all the old urls of top level descriptions in the catalogue to the new urls (note that having had a good look at the referrer report in Google Analytics it was apparent that external links to the catalogue generally point at top level descriptions).

Playing and testing

It was important to do a certain amount of testing and playing around with AtoM 2.4 and it was important that it wasn't just myself who did this - I encouraged all my colleagues to also have a go.

First I checked the release notes for versions 2.3 and 2.4 so I had a good sense of what had changed and where I should focus my attention. I was then able to test these new features and direct colleagues to them as appropriate for further testing or discussion.

While doing so, I tried to think about whether any of these changes would necessitate changes in our workflows and processes or updates to our staff handbook.

As an example - it was noted that there was a new field to record occupations for authority records. Rather than letting individuals to decide how to use this field, it is important to agree an institutional approach and consider an appropriate methodology or taxonomy. As it happens, we have decided not to use this field for the time being and this will be documented accordingly.

Assessing known bugs

Being a bit late to the upgrade party gives us the opportunity to assess known bugs and issues with a release. I spent some time looking at Artefactual's issues log for AtoM and establish if any of them were going to cause us major problems or required a workaround to be put in place.

There are lots of issues recorded and I looked through many of them (but not all!). Fortunately, very few looked like they would have an impact on us. Most related to functionality we don't utilise - such as the ability to use AtoM with multiple institutions or translate it into multiple languages.

The one bug that I thought would be irritating for us was related to the accessions counter which was not incrementing in version 2.4. Having spent a bit of time testing, it seemed that this wasn't a deal breaker for us and there was a workaround we could put in place to enable staff to continue to create accession records with a unique identifier relatively easily.

Testing local workarounds

Next I tested one of the local workarounds we have for AtoM. We use a CSS print stylesheet to help us to generate an accessions report to send donors and depositors to confirm receipt of an archive. This still worked in the new version of AtoM with no issues. Hoorah!

Look and feel

We gave a bit of thought to how AtoM should be styled. Two years ago we went live with a slightly customised version of the Dominion theme. This had been styled to look similar to our website (which at the time was branded orange).

In the last year, the look and feel of the University website has changed and we are no longer orange! Some thought needed to be given to whether we should change the look of our catalogue now to keep it consistent with our website. After some discussion it was agreed that our existing AtoM theme should be maintained for the time being.

We did however think it was a good idea to adopt the font of the University website, but when we tested this out on our AtoM instance it didn't look as that decision was quickly reversed.

Usability testing

When we first launched our catalogue we carried out a couple of rounds of user testing (read about it here and here) but this was quite a major piece of work and took up a substantial amount of staff time.

With this upgrade we were keen to give some consideration to the user experience but didn't have resource to invest in more user testing.

Instead we recruited the Senior User Experience Designer at our institution to cast his eye over our version of AtoM 2.4 and give us some independent feedback on usability and accessibility. It was really useful to get a fresh pair of eyes to look at our site, but as this could be a whole blog post in itself so I won't say anymore this space!

Updating our help pages

Another job was to update both the text and the screenshots on our static help pages within AtoM. There have been several changes since 2.2 and some of these are reflected in the look and feel of the interface. 

The advanced search looks a bit different in version 2.4 - here is the refreshed screenshot for our help pages

We were also keen to add in some help for our users around the clipboard feature and to explain how the full width treeview works.

The icons for different types of information within AtoM have also been brought out more strongly in this version, so we also wanted to flag up what these meant for our users.

...and that reminds me, we really do need a less Canada-centric way to indicate place!

Updating our staff handbook

Since we adopted AtoM a few years ago we have developed a whole suite of staff manuals which record how we use AtoM, including tips for carrying out certain procedures and information about what to put in each field. With the new changes brought in with this upgrade, we of course had to update our internal documentation.

When to upgrade?

As we drew ever closer to our 'go live' date for the upgrade we were aware that Artefactual were busy preparing their 2.4.1 bug fix release. We were very keen to get the bug fixes (particularly for that accessions counter bug that I mentioned) but were not sure how long we were prepared to wait.

Luckily with helpful advice from Artefactual we were able to follow some instructions from the user forum and install from the GitHub code repository instead of the tarball download on the website. This meant we could benefit from those bug fixes that were already stable (and pull others to test as they become available) without having to wait for the formal 2.4.1 release.

No need to delay our upgrade further!

As it happens it was good news we upgraded when we did. The day before the upgrade we hit a bug in version 2.2 during a re-index of elasticsearch. Nice to know we had a nice clean version of 2.4 ready to go the next day!

Finishing touches

On the 'go live' date we'd put word around to staff not to edit the catalogue while we did the switch. Our systems administrator got all the data from our production version of 2.2 freshly loaded into 2.4, ran the scripts to change the slugs and re-indexed the database. I just needed to do a few things before we asked IT to do the Domain Name System switch.

First I needed to check all the admin settings were right - a few final tweaks were required here and there. Second I needed to load up the Borthwick logo and banner to our archival institution record. Thirdly I needed to paste the new help and FAQ text into the static pages (I already had this prepared and saved elsewhere).

Once the DNS switch was done we were live at last! 

Sharing the news

Of course we wanted to publicise the upgrade to our users and tell them about the new features that it brings.

We've put AtoM back on the front page of our website and added a news item.

Let's tell the world all about it, with a catalogue banner and news item

My colleague has written a great blog post aimed at our users and telling them all about the new features, and of course we've all been enthusiastically tweeting!

...and a whole lot of tweeting

Future work

The upgrade is done but work continues. We need to ensure harvesting to our library catalogue still works and of course test out the new EAD harvesting functionality. Later today we will be looking at Search Engine Optimisation (particularly important since we changed our slugs). We also have some remaining tasks around finding aids - uploading pdfs of finding aids for those archives that aren't yet fully catalogued in AtoM using the new functionality in 2.4.

But right now I've got a few broken links to fix...

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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