Contributed by: Annie Benefiel, Archivist for Collection Management, Grand Valley State University. This is a follow-up to a webinar on the public user interface on October 26.


The Special Collections & University Archives at Grand Valley State University adopted ArchivesSpace as its primary collection management and finding aid discovery platform for archival and manuscript collections in 2014. Staffed with three full-time library faculty members and a handful of student assistants, our repository holds about 3,700 linear feet of materials and serves Grand Valley’s community of 25,000 students, and the faculty and staff who support their learning and development.

Students engage with primary source materials in a document analysis exercise in GVSU’s Special Collections & University Archives

Our History with ArchivesSpace

Before adopting ArchivesSpace in 2014, our archival metadata was managed in Archivists’ Toolkit, including accession records, finding aid data, names, and subjects. Over the previous few years several archival interns encoded legacy finding aids in EAD and imported them into Toolkit, but those EAD files had not been repurposed for online access. Instead, PDF versions of finding aids were shared online in our CONTENTdm digital repository alongside collections of digitized photographs, posters, documents, and oral histories. Only the finding aids for about 80 of our manuscript collections had been shared online in this manner – and none of the finding aids for University Archives records series had been made available.

In 2014, we adopted a Lyrasis-hosted instance of ArchivesSpace, and Lyrasis managed the migration of our legacy metadata from our local instance of Archivists’ Toolkit. While this migration process went smoothly, the metadata still needed considerable cleaning up in order for the ArchivesSpace Public User Interface to become our new means of archival discovery. In the early version of the PUI, the displayed note order reflected the order of the notes input in the staff interface. This meant that a large part of my early cleanup work involved standardizing note language and order to ensure consistency across the records. Other cleanup tasks included ensuring that all linked agent records had been published and were visible in the public interface, merging duplicate subjects and names, applying classification groups, and manually publishing all components of about 500 resources.

After that initial push, I took a break from metadata cleanup to focus on other priorities. And while metadata cleanup seems to be a never-ending series of projects, our department continues to acquire, preserve, and describe new collections all the time. ArchivesSpace fits in to my processing and metadata workflows fairly neatly, and I find the ability to quickly publish finding aids to be one of its greatest strengths as a collection management tool.

That’s not to say there isn’t still room for improvement. The staff interface can sometimes be a bit of a barrier when it comes to revising existing finding aids, and entering in data for larger finding aids can be onerous, even with the rapid data entry feature. Instead of relying solely on ArchivesSpace, I use tools like Microsoft Excel and oXygen XML Editor to create large, or complex multi-level descriptions and transform them into EAD to import into the ArchivesSpace database.

Figure 2: This Excel spreadsheet can be easily formatted and transformed into EAD for import into ArchivesSpace.

The workflow I use was created by Mark Custer and can be found  via GitHub: https://github.com/fordmadox/Excel-to-DSC. This workflow also allows me to easily delegate some of the description work to student employees and professional colleagues who are much more familiar with Excel. I can quickly check for errors, fix formatting issues, and add additional description within the spreadsheet before the components are input into ArchivesSpace. Once the list has been transformed into EAD, it is a simple task to import into ArchivesSpace, add a few finishing touches, and click to publish the resource record and all its component parts.

The New PUI

While we have been using ArchiveSpace’s Public User Interface (PUI) as our primary archival access point since 2014, the upgrade to version 2.1, which was pushed to us by our Lyrasis host in the summer of 2017, is a marked improvement. Some of the features of the updated user interface include a prominent “Citation” button and a user-facing “Print PDF” button, making it easier for users to cite and refer to our resources. Other features include a clearer search faceting system, which allows users to quickly/efficiently narrow their search results. I was particularly excited by the inclusion of an OAI-PMH responder in the new PUI. The responder will allow us to automatically contribute resource descriptions to our University Library’s discovery layer, Summon. Previously, this process was handled by manually exporting and revising MARC records to be imported into the library catalog. Happily, the new OAI-PMH feature will make that workflow obsolete for us.

Assessing PUI Usability

Once the update took place, my colleagues and I decided to do a quick usability study to see how it worked for our largest audience, GVSU undergraduate students. We developed three scenarios for our student participants – sixteen of the library’s student user experience assistants – to complete.

The first scenario asked students to search ArchivesSpace and identify relevant results for comparing multiple drafts of an author’s screenplay. The second involved locating both physical and digital versions of World War II photographs. Finally, the third asked students to find three potential primary sources related to women’s activism.  We asked participants to copy the links to their results so that we could determine if they were on the right track, and we asked them to share whether or not they felt successful in their searches, what (if anything) was most useful about the site, what (if anything)they found confusing about the site, if any terminology was confusing, and any recommended improvements.

Positive observations included the citation button, facet browsing, and the organization of related materials into collections. However, the majority of the students reported finding ArchivesSpace difficult to search and navigate. Despite their responses, many of these same students linked to results relevant to their search scenarios, illustrating that they were on the right track. Without any visual cues or follow through with requesting and viewing the materials, they had no way of knowing that they were actually successful.

The students also noted that it was not clear from the ArchivesSpace records how they would go about accessing the materials. Some didn’t realize that the materials were physical in nature, and that they would need to contact or visit our repository for access.

Some of the students also found the archival terminology used throughout ArchivesSpace unclear. For example, 25% of the students surveyed found the term “repository” confusing, and 19% found the term “extent” confusing. Some students also noted that they did not understand the differences between “collection,” “series,” “box,” and “item.” For students unfamiliar with archival research and jargon, and with no visual aids or tooltips embedded into the ArchivesSpace interface, these points of confusion could easily lead them to give up their search and look for easier solutions.

Figure 3: Confusing terminology in ArchivesSpace

The results of the study indicated that there are three angles to take to improve the usability and comprehensibility of ArchivesSpace: 1) overall site infrastructure, 2) the metadata created by Special Collections & University Archives, and 3) archival literacy of our users. We do not control the overall site infrastructure, but we can focus on improving #2 and #3.

Our Next Steps

To combat the problem of students not understanding how to access materials identified in their search results, we’re updating the “Conditions Governing Access” field in ArchivesSpace with more information on how to locate materials.

Figure 4: Conditions Governing Access notes now indicate that materials are stored in the Seidman House Special Collections and University Archives.

While we can’t change the site’s navigation or search functionality, we are also preparing video and text tutorials to aid users and planning to include introductory text and links to the tutorials on the homepage of our ArchivesSpace instance.

We’re also planning to increase time spent in our instructional sessions on searching for and using primary sources, not only to students, but also to other library staff and faculty who are less experienced with archival research.

Overall, we’re satisfied with ArchivesSpace as our collection management tool and look forward to its continued development and improvement. After making some adjustments to our metadata, we plan to do another round of usability testing and look for more ways to make our collections easier to discover and use.


Annie Benefiel is the Archivist for Collection Management at Grand Valley State University. She oversees the accessioning, processing, and preservation of archival and manuscript collections and manages metadata for archival and digital collections in the Special Collections & University Archives.

User Insights is a blog series that highlights diverse perspectives and experiences of ArchivesSpace users to enrich our entire community through shared stories, strategies, and lessons learned. This series aims to provide insight to the archivists, librarians, information technologists, developers, and so many other contributors using ArchivesSpace to preserve permanently valuable records and provide access to our researchers.

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