ASpace: The Archival Frontier

ASpace: The Archival Frontier. These are the voyages of the Star Ship UIowa. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new information management systems, to seek out new tricks and new resources, to boldly go where none of our archival collections have gone before.

Graduate Student’s Log: Stardate 94725.56

At the edge of the Archival sector, The USS UIowa has been charged with transferring its collection guides to ArchivesSpace, aka ASpace, an uncharted system of information management with open source capabilities.

I and several other members of the crew have been exploring the parameters of the new system with the intent of updating our protocols to increase compatibility. The transition was initially fraught, met with frustration and bafflement. The transfer of data was imperfect and created new problems. Many of our distress signals went unanswered. And attempts to hail ArchivesSpace headquarters at any frequencies were largely unsuccessful. However, with the help of the ship’s IT department and technological updates from the USS Yale, the UIowa is now well on its way. Efforts to map the system and make its contents available to researchers across the globe are ongoing.

ASpace, like PastPerfect and Archivists’ Toolkit, is software that lets archival institutions put their finding aids online. It’s a system built for the future, meant to make room for born-digital objects and encompass multiple aspects of processing archival materials including accessioning and metadata creation. Its DACS base and compatibility with other systems like Voyager and Aeon make it ideal for widespread use. However, the transition to unfamiliar territory is never easy. When I was first introduced to ASpace, putting up new collections felt a little bit like fumbling around at the edge of known space.

My mission in ASpace began in the fall of 2015. The collections of the Iowa Women’s Archives, where I work, made the initial transfer to ASpace mostly intact. This wasn’t universal. Some of my co-workers were frustrated with it, and maybe a little exhausted by the thought of having to learn yet another new system for a field that has been rapidly changing for over a decade now. However, I’ve found that it’s best to roll with change in the workplace. So, I swallowed my reservations and began exploring.

There were a few things I liked about the new space immediately. Simple navigation for large collections, a search function that included folders and people in addition to collections, and the nesting structure of its box list. There

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Example of the nesting structure of box lists on ASpace from the Dora Jane Hamblin papers at the Iowa Women’s Archives.

were also things I didn’t like. ASpace used vocabulary terms unfamiliar to me, for instance “resource” instead of “collection” and “components” instead of “box list,” and the mysterious term “instances” to indicate location. Furthermore, the public interface’s nesting structure, although it was great for digital access, didn’t make it easy to print complete finding aids. Another graduate assistant had written a short document about how to add new collections. At the time, I knew of no other sources for training. The ArchivesSpace help center required a login that I, as a graduate student, did not possess and I’d heard that at this stage, the help center was short on help.

Luckily, Yale was on the case. By November, they had posted their first training video: Getting Started in ASpace. They targeted these videos specifically at users of Yale’s procedures and requirements. This limited but didn’t eliminate their usability. Besides tutorial videos on various aspects of ASpace, Yale’s page for their Archival Management Systems Committee includes a link to a Google Doc version Yale’s User Manual. As an anonymous observer, I used this manual to get basic information of about creating accession records on ASpace (as opposed to only on paper), and transforming them into resource records (or as ASpace likes to call it, spawning resource records).

With ASpace accession records, a repository could mark priority collections and assign processors to projects. Applied across the board, this would mean that a simple search of my user name would reveal every collection I’d worked on and a search for high priority would bring up every collection with this designation, a real boon for repositories with a large backlog (so, all of them).

About two years into our mission, the crew shows no signs of slowing down. As one of a fleet working in ASpace, we are continually improving our and our users’ experiences with the new information management system. We’ve learned to export our collection guides to PDFs for better printing, to use custom templates for our rapid data entry, and to upload EAD template spreadsheets of our container lists into ASpace. In other words, we’re boldly going, and will continue to boldly go for years to come.

End log.

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