It has been several years in the making, but MEMAT 4 has finally been launched. Soft-launched to MEMAT 3 clients a year ago, there has been a significant amount of work to debug and to add a growing list of features.
MEMAT 4 is the latest iteration of Africa Media Online’s archival digital repository system. It involves a complete rewrite of the Presentation Layer (PL) which is the web interface of the MEMAT system. The MEMAT 3 web interface was a custom web interface that had been written in Ruby on Rails (RoR) in the late 2000s and it was becoming somewhat long-in-the-tooth. To update it would require a complete rewrite on updated versions of RoR. So we looked around at the available technologies and decided not to go for RoR again since RoR skills are scarce in South Africa, but rather to use two main technologies for rewriting the PL, WordPress, which is written in the PHP programming language and IIIF, which is primarily written in the Python programming language.
The MEMAT 4 Presentation Layer (PL) can be customised to take on your branding.
In considering which technologies to use to build the new MEMAT PL we looked carefully at a number of Content Management Systems (CMS’s) including Drupal and Joomla. In the end we decided to go for WordPress because:
- We did not believe it wise to build another custom presentation layer when there are large Open Source CMS’ out there with large communities of developers. It seemed pointless inventing something from scratch when we could be building on top of systems that were really mature and free
- We wanted a user interface, particularly in the backend of our PL that was potentially familiar to our clients. Sustaining client engagement is one of the key elements of success in Software as a Service (SaaS) systems, and this realisation drove us toward WordPress over systems like Drupal and Joomla because WordPress is used in building close to 30% of the websites on the internet and close to 60% of all the CMS based websites. We found that many of our clients were already familiar with WordPress
- We were aware of Drupal’s reputation of being a highly extensible and secure system used by many heritage and academic organisations. The South African Government builds with Drupal for this reason. Yet we also know that the core of WordPress is just as secure as Drupal. WordPress’ vulnerability is particularly related to user error and vulnerabilities relating to plugins. We believed we could ensure the security of the system and have all the functionality it needed and keep the advantage of familiarity with our users
- We also saw in WordPress a far bigger community of developers creating new WordPress functionality than any other system and we believed that this would both make it faster to roll out new developments and also make it less expensive since there are so many developers to choose from
In thinking about building the new MEMAT 4 PL, we were also determined to build an engaging system. We had been impressed by a number of systems that were showcasing heritage content on the internet. Some years ago we worked with Google Arts & Culture to curate stories of South African history. We got to engage with their system in that project and later when capturing collections for Iziko Museums and building the online exhibits: Fabric, Fashion and Identity – The story of IsiShweshwe, Beadwork from Southern Africa, Tobacco Bags from the Eastern Cape, and Kalahari Skin Bags. When capturing a collection of the Gordon Papers from the Brenthurst Library for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam we also had exposure to what they were doing with collections on the internet in setting up a special website to showcase the Gordon Papers and Paintings, and in what they were doing to showcase their digitised collection in what they call the Rijksstudio. When I visited the Rijksmuseum in March 2017 I got to meet and interview members of the marketing department in charge of the web development and discuss the technology they were using. We were also having some interaction at that stage with a French company called i2S from whom we purchased production software and it was from them that we heard about IIIF. A month or two later I was at the Rijksmuseum again for the 2+3D Photography Conference 2017 and was able to attend a IIIF workshop with Stuart Snydman Associate Director for Digital Strategy, Stanford University Libraries. After that we were convinced that IIIF was the way forward for us.
The display of the same search results on a computer screen.
IIIF stands for International Image Interoperability Framework. It is a community of many of the leading academic and heritage institutions in the World who have got together to develop agreed upon ways of exposing digital collections to a World-wide audience through the internet. What is critical in the World of research and academic pursuits is the ability to share with one another because at its best academia is a collaborative enterprise. It is what has driven the academic World to create IIIF and why it is seeing broad uptake. Because these are widely agreed upon and adopted standards, anyone using the standards is able to share their collections with anyone else using the standards. That leads to interoperability – the ability to pull content from many institutions together and compare and contrast. So an art historian may be able to pull digitised images of Monet paintings from multiple institutions together to aid her research. Or a scientist may be able to compare digitised specimens in a number of institutions against the type specimen in his own institution, and all without having to exchange high resolution digital files between institutional repositories because the benefits of having the high resolution file on hand is available through the web interface.
Previews load with associated metadata within the search results.
Africa Media Online was the first organisation in Africa to adopt IIIF and we have done so by building the standard into our MEMAT 4 PL providing amazing capabilities for engagement with digitised collections from deep zoom to intra document search. Together WordPress and IIIF have given us a new platform upon which we are able to do rapid development of features allowing us to keep close to the cutting edge of technology development on an ongoing basis. The past few years have been about establhing the base of MEMAT 4, replicating the functionality we had in MEMAT 3. In recent months, however, we have begun to surpass MEMAT 3 with the development of elements of our Curation Layer.
When one is logged in as a user to a MEMAT system, IIIF functionality enables deep zoom of images.
IIIF functionality enables deep zoom of images.
The Curation Layer will allow system administrators and curators to curate content from the digital archive placing select material in galleries, on timelines, on a calendar and other curation platforms. This is what is so thrilling about the system. Not only does MEMAT 4 continue in the tradition of MEMAT 3 of preserving digital files in a highly secure manner, but it also allows radical innovation to enable our clients to engage their audiences with the wonder of the collections under their care.
Probably the most significant improvement of MEMAT 4 over MEMAT 3 is what we call our IntraDoc Search functionality. The new search engine we are using, Elasticsearch gives the ability to search across all items in the archive and have results returned, a capability we had in MEMAT 3. But IntraDoc Search, then, enables the search term to be applied within each document and to return highlighted results.