Implementing Open Source Software

Author: Tammy L. Hamilton

Earlier this year, over 550 images from the Hershey Community Archives’ photograph collection were made available online. The images, along with catalog records for over 450 oral histories and 25 private papers collections, are available to researchers using the open source software Archon. Developed by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the software publishes collections descriptions and digital images to the web using a simple and intuitive web-based interface.

In 2009, the Archives decided to redesign its website and explore ways to make collection descriptions available online. One option was to purchase a web-publisher upgrade for our in-house database with its applicable annual hosting fee. While this option was considered, staff felt the user interface was difficult to use and non-intuitive. In contrast, Archon was free to acquire, offered a search function that researchers were familiar with, and had a growing user base within the archival community.

After discussing our plan with colleagues in the IT department, they recommended hosting the Archon database on a web-server rather than an internal server. It was also determined that the Archives’ existing account with Siteground, which was being used for FTP transfers, would be able to host the database.

Installation was handled by the IT department. The archivist reviewed the content delivery templates that were installed with the software and worked with a staff web-developer to customize the templates for the Archives. The web-developer also modified the overall appearance of the database, using the same theme as our newly redesigned website, offering researchers a seamless transition from the website to the database.

A frequent concern with open source software is the unanticipated costs an institution can incur by implementing the software. For us, the cost is minimal. The Archives pays an annual hosting fee to Siteground, although this is substantially less than the fee would have been for the web-publisher upgrade for our in-house database. Information Technology is also a line item in the Archives’ budget, so although we did not outsource the installation and customization we do incur an IT support cost.

Archon has allowed the Archives to make collections descriptions available online quickly and efficiently. The web-interface is user friendly and data input is frequently completed by volunteers and interns with minimal instruction. The database content is crawled by search engines and usage statistics are available through Siteground so we can track number of unique users, number of pages viewed, downloaded content, and popular search queries. For our institution, implementing Archon has been very successful and has enabled us to provide a significant amount of content to long-distance researchers. The Archives will continue to explore the use of open source data management software for our needs in the future.

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