Contributed by: Lydia Tang, Special Collections Archivist-Librarian, Michigan State University


Since arriving at Michigan State University Libraries Special Collections nearly 2.5 years ago and becoming an ArchivesSpace “power user,” I have become increasingly involved in the ArchivesSpace community.  From tuning in to the member list and contributing to JIRA tickets, to joining the ArchivesSpace User Advisory Council and participating in the subteams there, it has always been important to me to proactively help improve the tools archivists rely daily on to accomplish our tasks.  In the summer, I was excited to be selected to chair the ad hoc Staff Interface Enhancement Working Group to address the growing JIRA tickets relating to the staff interface and provide as coherent and comprehensive a vision for improvement going forward in that area as possible.


In close collaboration with Christine Di Bella, we hashed out a rough timeline and basic parameters for the project.  I created a volunteer survey, which allowed us to gather individual volunteers’ experiences with ArchivesSpace and aspirations for improvement.  Nearly 40 members responded for a call for participants from a whole range of archival repositories from the US, Australia, and Italy.

The group met in person for the first and only time during the 2017 ArchivesSpace Member Forum in Portland.  During the breakout session, we used huge pieces of paper to brainstorm areas for improvement within the program along the categories such as Data Entry/Editing, Visual Layout, Time saving/Accessibility, User Accounts and Permissions, and Navigation.  After that, we met online every two weeks through the end of December.  

A sample brainstorming sheet

In developing our recommendations, the subteams scoured the existing JIRA tickets, responded to issues that came up in the member list, and drew from our own experiences working with the program.  I encouraged the group to develop recommendations along these two points:

  • Recommendations should address comprehensively and holistically the experience of the staff interface, taking into consideration the diverse experience levels and needs of staff, students, and volunteers who interact with the program
  • Recommendations should consider both small and major improvements, from changing the size of labels to exploring major revisions to increase the ease and efficiency of use.

For me, this incorporated my experience training staff, students, and volunteers of varying levels of technical expertise, visual ability, and archival training with the program and getting their feedback.  My personal testing for accessibility included operating the program with a screen reader, using the WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool to check for color contrast and described links and buttons, and interacting with the program on my mobile phone.

As a program used by nearly 300 institutions, maintaining transparency in our process was very important.  In our Confluence page, we had links to a Google survey for users to contribute suggestions and feedback in a less formal way than JIRA tickets, and we also posted detailed meeting notes (with thanks to Christine Di Bella and Christine Kim) which included recordings and chat transcripts of our meeting.

Lessons Learned

There were a few challenges we encountered during the course of our project:

1. Meeting times:

After consulting with Mark Custer on his experience with the Public Interface project, it sounded like a standing meeting every two weeks would best maintain the focus and direction of the project.  Also, to avoid stagnating the ongoing improvements to the Staff Interface during our project, keeping a fairly ambitious end-date was also important.  To avoid a plethora of Doodle polls, after surveying the availability of the group during a “sample week,” we established a standing meeting time.  Although the consistency of the meeting time was helpful for scheduling, it unfortunately excluded people who had consistent conflicts with the time.  I tried to compensate by sending out a detailed summary of our meetings afterwards with action and discussion points and included links to our posted minutes, recordings, and chat transcripts.

2. Technology:

As a nearly 40-member group, it represented people with a broad level of technological comfort, including myself!  For many people, video conferencing via Zoom was a new experience and humorous gaffes came with it – including video conferencing my ear via my phone at the first meeting!

My ear at our first meeting

Working within the Google docs environment was also challenging for some members.  Additionally, some people were more comfortable creating wireframes than others.  

Wireframe #1: Screenshot, print, draw, scan


Wireframe #2: photoshop/powerpoint wizardry

Although it would have been ideal to create our final documentation within Confluence, sometimes a technological environment that is too unfamiliar can impede a team’s ability to focus on their tasks.  

3. Subteams:

Although originally members contributed ideas to all categories, we ended up dividing into subteams focusing on particular topics.  The trade-off was not being able to as easily contribute ideas to the other topics, although participating in multiple groups was always an option.  However, the greatest benefit was to empower members, especially those who may be hesitant to speak up in larger groups, to interact with their peers from other institutions, create recommendations with personal ownership, and provide leadership opportunities in the form of organizing their small group and presenting their recommendations at our meetings.  


Ultimately, this process of critically evaluating and refreshing the program from a usability standpoint isn’t “complete,” nor should it ever be as the program, technology, and the archival profession evolves.  Although the Working Group sought to be as comprehensive as possible, partially due to constraints on our individual time, or lack of practical interaction with various aspects of the program, there were areas that we weren’t able to cover in great depth which should be addressed by future efforts.  A group has already addressed issues related to expanding the Agents module and there will be plenty of opportunities in the future to contribute your expertise towards making this open source program better for everyone.

Lydia Tang is the Special Collections Archivist-Librarian at Michigan State University. She has been heavily involved in ArchivesSpace activities, including serving on the User Advisory Council as well as the Development Prioritization and Reports Sub-Committees. She is currently the chair of the ArchivesSpace Staff Interface Enhancement Working Group and co-leader of the Development Prioritization subteam.

All About Community is a blog series that highlights the many teams and groups that contribute to the growth and development of ArchivesSpace. This series aims to provide insight on how our diverse community comes together with a shared vision to preserve permanently valuable records and provide access to our researchers.

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