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Archon User Feedback

Page history last edited by Amy Schindler 13 years, 10 months ago

Archon User Feedback


In order to understand how archivists use Archon, I conducted phone interviews with 5 archivists between May and June of 2008.  To encourage complete honesty, I promised anonymity to the interviewees.  I tried to capture the interviewees’ remarks as accurately as possible, but I paraphrased and/or condensed some comments.


If you are a current user of Archon, feel free to add your own comments.


Reasons for Selecting Archon

  • The greater efficiency of using Archon as an EAD authoring platform: people creating finding aids no longer have to do it by hand and learn the EAD elements.

  • It is not as complicated as other systems.

  • Data is in standard formats that can be migrated into other systems should the need arise.

  • “We needed some sort of database that we could deliver to researchers for searching our collections.  We wanted to have something that could go on the web.  Archon is free and pretty easy to implement without much IT intervention…  It gave us a quick and easy way to put collections up on online, let patrons search them, and see everything we had, instead of having to search finding aids individually.”

  • “We needed something easy to implement for web delivery of finding aids.”

  • “It’s open source.  People at our library are passionate about open source.  They are unhappy about contracts for our OPAC.  Open source leaves us options if the user community is not active to continue the development ourselves.”

  • “The interface is easy to use, which is important since students would be doing a lot of the data entry.”

  • “There is a built in web interface that is an attractive, easy to use, out of the box solution.  We didn’t have to fight over what the system would be.  Our systems people could do it, but this is out of the box and we can just slap on our logo.  All 4 archivists agreed on this.”

  • “I have more confidence in the sustainability of Archon.  The University of Illinois developed Archon, they’re using it, they’ll keep supporting it for the long term, even if they didn’t have external funding.”

  • “This was an ideal tool for us because we had so little that was automated.  We wanted to get information into the system quickly, using student labor.  Students were just inputting stuff into intuitive fields.  They didn’t have to know EAD and DACS.”

  • “An archivist here focused on EAD selected Archon.  She felt that EAD is such complex work that she had to do everything herself.  If we used Archon, which is more simple for someone without a lot of training to get started in, it would free her up from having to tag everything herself.  The result has been kind of mixed.  I don’t know if it’s really saved us time or not.”


Ease of Use

  • “Data entry is quite simple to learn.”

  • “Archon is pretty teachable.  No software is intuitive, but the training doesn’t take too long. “

  • “Some institutions provide students and paraprofessionals with a cheat sheet that shows them what data to input where.”

  • “Archon is easy for non-archivists to use—we quickly train students to use it.  Like any other data entry, it can be tedious.  With finding aids, the main difficulty is keeping track of where you are in the finding aid.”

  • “Archon would be a good choice if you’re a small institution without any web finding aids, and you have students and volunteers.  The great thing about Archon is that anyone can do it with 30 minutes of training.  Scanning techs can cut and paste from Word into Archon.  I might need to make sure that the intellectual structure is right, but it basically is easy to produce and go straight to web.  You can make changes really easy—with EAD, you have to change the file and re-upload.” 


Installation and Maintenance of Archon

  • Installation of Archon is straightforward, but you may have difficulty upgrading it if you have customized your local installation. 

  • “We did an upgrade 3 weeks ago and it was done in 15 minutes.  There were a couple of hiccups, but it was smooth overall.  Earlier problems were to be expected with a 1.0 release, and we could work around them.”


Ease of Customization

  • You can enter local information easily.

  • If you want to change the layout of your Archon site (e.g. move around the standard elements on the web page), you need to work with a programmer or web designer.

  • With the current version, you can do a lot of customization through a CSS stylesheet.

  • One institution reported that the staff programmer didn’t like the installer code and decided to do the upgrade manually, since they had customized Archon.

  • “Graphically we’ve customized it—all the same information is there, but the fonts look different.  Our customizations worked with the upgrade.”

  • Examples of customizations: Purdue, College of William and Mary, Florida State University Heritage Protocol


Weaknesses of Archon

  • Archon may be best suited for institutions that don’t have significant legacy EAD finding aids to import.  Several archivists reported that they had trouble importing complex finding aids into Archon or that they were aware of this being a problem for other institutions.  They were grateful that Archon staff attempted to help solve these problems, but ultimately one archive will have to manually redo several big finding aids.

  • You can’t enter formatting (such as italics) into Archon. “Archon is not Microsoft Word yet, since there is no easy way to format.”

  • Archon could provide better support for inputting special characters/ Unicode.

  • Archon doesn’t yet support structuring bibliography lists.

  • “It would be nice if you could take a box list and drag and drop it into Archon.”

  • “If all your finding aids are set up in the same way, they can be easily imported into Archon, but I know of no archive with that data. “

  • “It’s not yet possible for to have different collections in Archon that have different ‘brands’—e.g., unique look and feel, search functions, etc.”

  • “There are potential usability problems with the default layout of finding aids.  Users may not know that they need to expand collapsed fields.”

  • “You can’t control the presentation of data as much as you can with a custom web site.  If you want to do anything fancy with the interface, you would need a programmer.”

  • “It would be nice if you could plug standard authority lists into Archon, or run a  search of the LC authorities page and feed the results into Archon.”

  •  “Although Archon recently went open source, it is currently being developed by a single institution.  If they abandon Archon, then the user community will suffer.  However, the developers use Archon and have a vested interest in seeing it succeed.”

  • “Archon is easy to customize, since it is based on CSS, PHP, and MySQL. However, it can be difficult to understand where each page is generated and what changes when you make a change.”

  • “Import/export tools in Archon seem to work well if you are moving data from one instance to another, but not piecemeal, one collection at a time. “

  • “Archon doesn’t support outputting content of collections in format optimized for printing.”

  • “I don’t think there’s enough guidance for users yet.  I’d like to see expanded manuals for people trying to improve workflow and exporting to EAD/ MARC. Right now, each place is separately trying to figure out how to change what they’re doing to fit into new system.”

  • Archon can improve its reports features, such as “report of accessions in last month, collections in one storage area, etc.  I hope that Archon will build that soon.”

  • “Our technical guy has said the PHP code isn’t very clean, but he’s not a PHP guy.  Another tech person seems to be dealing with it fine.  The Archon folks are working on cleaning up code.”

  • “I want to see some features become more robust.  The accessions module is not as complex as would be helpful for university archives people.  You need to be able to deal with annual deposits, accession number, date, etc.  Archivists’ Toolkit does much better from most accounts with accessions.”

  • “There are little features that we want, such as the ability to hide parts of a finding aid for restricted materials.  Right now you can have material either online or off, but it would be nice to hide part of a finding aid.”

  • “We’ve not yet used the digital library manager—we’ve heard that it needs to be more robust.  I know someone who is using it and is happy with it.  We have issues with loading our existing database.”

  • “Our main problem is importing existing EAD records.  Archon is less forgiving than EAD; it’s like a database.  If you tag EAD and it validates, you’re good to go, but Archon just won’t accept some stuff, such as IDs with characters (rather than a box/ folder structure.)  We haven’t been able to import 3 of our most important, complex finding aids.  We’re going to have to cut and paste these finding aids in. When you’re copying and pasting, there’s room for errors to come in.  If it was just a mechanical import, I’d be more confident.  We weren’t anticipating how to do that kind of work.  The Archon people tried to help us, but weren’t able to.”

  • “The Archon user interface is OK.  The frustration with it is that you can only enter things a line at a time.  If you’ve got a long finding aid, or if you’ve got something where things repeat, you have to cut & paste line by line, which is a bit tedious.  There must be some kind of way to import it in larger chunks.  My staff say they find it frustrating that you can’t see whole finding aid from the backend—in EAD, you can scroll up and down through whole finding aid, but with Archon you have to drill down through series, subseries, box, etc.—that’s all you can see.”


User Community

  • One archivist characterized the user support as “really good.”  She typically emails the developers whenever she has a question, and they respond with enthusiasm.  Archon has had a succession of strong grad students who have provided user support. Other archivists echoed the statement that the Archon developers are eager to help.

  • Archon does have a listserv, but it often centered on people who are just adopting Archon and lack technical support at their home institutions.

  • Fairly active listserv, with a few questions each week.

  • Archon now also has discussion forums for users with forums for general discussions, bugs, suggestions, and installation/configuration issues. 

  • “The developers are incredibly helpful.  There was an instance early on when I posted a question to Archon listserv… In later release they added [the requested feature.] They have very responsive developers.”

  • “When I have a question, I have a really good response to it.  I know some of the people involved; I have extra strong ties with those folks.  I email a friend who is using it with questions. In talking to other folks who are looking at it, people have their eyes open about it, the good, the bad, and the continual development. I’ve found other users responsive to needs.”

  • “It’s good.  It’s basically 3 guys at UIUC.  They respond quickly to emails, but it’s not like a big commercial project; they want input for ways to improve Archon.  I had a phone meeting with them on some problems.”


Strengths of Archon

  • Responsiveness of developers. An early adopter commented that everything she had complained about was fixed in later releases of the software.

  • Flexibility in working with different kinds of data. Archon takes any kind of media—sound, images, even a link to something else.

  • Makes capturing archival data more efficient. With the new accessions module, archivists can enter data into the system once and use it to generate multiple outputs.  One archivist who hasn’t used the accessions module yet is excited that it will enable the archive to import standard data from an Access database and manage that data more efficiently.

  • Through the digital library module, archives can provide access to digitized versions of the objects described in finding aids, which researchers have really liked.

  • Web publishing capabilities: All of the data entered into Archon is immediately available online. As you enter data, it’s accessible to people live unless you say don’t make it publicly viewable. At one archive, students enter data, but only the director of special collection can make it publicly viewable, giving things a final check and clicking a button to publish them.

  • Tools such as Archon and Archivist Toolkit may lower the bar for participating in EAD by enabling people to enter data into forms rather than having to know EAD coding.  Archivists are embracing EAD over MARC because of the richness of the data.

  • Can create a draft MARC record that catalogers can then polish

  • Good Authority Control.  As Archon has matured, the ability to deal with importing authority data and controlled vocabulary is coming along very well, which pleases librarians.  Archon may offer EAC support once the standard is fully developed.

  • Makes information more widely available.  For instance, Google indexes Archon contents.  One archive reported increased interest in their collections from people around the world after it implemented Archon.  Thus Archon can make hidden collections more visible.

  • Easy to navigate.  Everything is accessible in one stream; Archon feels like a web page.  When you’re in the admin module, there are mouseover menus in the interface. 

  • Simple interface.  Uses simple, easy-to-understand language.  Archon is not archivist centric, even though it is very useful for standardizing archival finding aids.  It guides layman users through archival arrangement

  • “Users seem to like Archon—but we haven’t done user testing. After showing folks Archon in the reading room, we haven’t gotten negative feedback.”

  • “We’re pleased with its flexibility and power.  We like how you can search at the top level, highlight results, and search within finding aids.”

  • “The ability to export to MARC and EAD is exciting for us.  We have minimal cataloging support for MARC.  To hit a button and have the majority of the work done is exciting.  Especially for EAD—we don’t have the staff to do markup of finding aids.”

  • “I like how you can customize Archon—it’s easy to change the look of it. There are a lot of things you can do if you have some programming support.  We’ve been using students to support customizations.”

  • “When I show it to people, we always talk about the out of box web presence—it’s a really big deal to small institutions.” 

  • “The browsability of it is great.”

  • “Everyone in the department can use it.  With EAD, people who were using it had to go to 2 days of training. For people who aren’t working with it every day, it’s hard to remember how everything works.  Archon is a lot simpler; I’m going to train our photo tech on Archon, then go in and set up series and subseries.  I expect it will take 30 minutes to show him what to do.”

  • “Archon publishes directly to web.  You don’t have to deal with the systems department or replace each file when there needs to be a change.”

  • “Archon just added an archival management feature in their latest version.  We haven’t used it yet (accessioning, etc), since people weren’t sure if they wanted our collection management records to be all web based, but I think it’s something we should try.”

  • “Archivists tend to like it.”


Overall Assessment

  • “Archon is excellent for “from now on” or fresh creation of finding aids, but it’s a hassle to use with already-created finding aids.”

  • “Archon is the closest to a tool that allows you to only enter data once and have it come out in different forms you need.”

  • “Archon is new and evolving.  They’re taking feedback.”


Archon's Response to User Feedback

In response to user comments, Archon project manager Chris Prom indicated that some seem to be geared toward earlier versions of the software.  Regarding the difficulty importing EAD files, Prom explained, “Since Archon has more restrictive data requirements than those of EAD, it will be impossible to write a single script to import every EAD instance. However, the current import script for EAD (PHP) could be customized by IT staff to handle ‘difficult cases.’” Version 2.2 provides better support for formatting data, and Archon has supported Unicode since version 2.0.  For those who want to create separate skins or themes for different collections, Prom says that “the capability to do this is in the API, but it has not yet been implemented in the administrative interface.” “A script to import authority lists from an excel file” is planned, although “the link to the LC is more complicated.” Responding to the notion that the Archon code is a little messy, Prom notes that “We cleaned it up considerably, and have heard comments that version 2.0 is very well structured.”  Prom also advises that improvements to the accession manager and digital library public interface are coming with Version 2.2.

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