As Hannah wrote back in February, the new DIMES we’ve just released is more than one system; it could more accurately be described as a system of systems. One of those pieces is the Request Broker, which facilitates requests for records, either onsite in our reading rooms, via digitization processes, or by downloading or emailing citations. This post describes that system in more detail, including the motivation behind it, the process by which it was developed, and our future plans.
Why a Request Broker?
Additionally, a significant number of requests sent to Aeon (our request management system) were not fulfillable because the requested material was restricted, already available in digital form, or for some other reason. Consequently, a significant amount of our Reference Team’s time went to monitoring the various Aeon queues and parsing fulfillable from unfulfillable requests. This was not a good use of their time or expertise.
Once we decided to develop a new interface for DIMES, one of the things we knew we needed to get right was this piece of the application. Our initial RFC for the Request Broker articulates the conceptual approach we wanted to take: a layer between systems that would allow users to “check out” once they’d found records they were interested in by submitting a request to view them in the reading room or having them delivered as digitized assets; or getting citations about those records via email or a spreadsheet. Because of the problems we’d had in the previous version of DIMES, we opted to decouple the logic for these features from the new DIMES frontend, and instead to provide more intentional points of integration with the Request Broker via API endpoints. This allows us to isolate code which compiles and structures data for requests in a single application, and provides much better mechanisms for testing that code. It also means that our frontend only needs to know about data that helps users find and evaluate records and that additional data - like the location coordinates of those records - can be fetched from the systems which store it and added to the data which is passed along to request management systems.
In order to limit the number of unfulfillable requests in Aeon, we also wanted to implement a pre-request check which would prevent requests which could not be fulfilled from making their way into Aeon. As defined in the RFC this check marks items as either “submittable or “unsubmittable” based on three criteria:
- Is the item restricted? We determine this by evaluating structured rights
statements and Conditions Governing Access notes from ArchivesSpace. Items are
parsed into three categories:
- Restricted - the item is definitely restricted and can’t be requested. The item is marked as “unsubmittable” and a human-readable reason for this restriction (usually the contents of the Conditions Governing Access Note) is returned.
- Conditionally restricted - the item might be restricted, but it also might be possible for a researcher to see the item under certain conditions. The item is marked as “submittable”, and we return the human readable text about why we think the item might be restricted, and what a user would have to do to gain access to it, which will be sent along with the request. In Aeon, this means that the request will end up in a different queue where an archivist can review it and determine appropriate next steps.
- Open - the item is definitely open and can be requested. The item is marked as “submittable”.
- Is a digital representation of an item available? If we’ve already digitized something, we mark the request as “unsubmittable” and provide a link to the digitized content.
- Does the item have a container associated with it? In some rare cases (largely with some of our legacy description) no containers are associated with an item, which means we have no way of knowing where it is, so items which meet that criteria are marked as “unsubmittable”.
Once we’d developed a clear idea of what we wanted the Request Broker to do, it was time to dig in and start writing code. The entire Digital Strategies team participated in this process, through the two-week sprint model we solidified during the ArchivesSpace API Helpers project. This model has worked really well for us particularly in our current remote context, providing a light structure and roles which ease collaboration.
The initial development work was completed quite quickly; most of the work was done in about six weeks. More importantly, everyone on the D-Team now has a strong understanding of application logic, and has a chance to weigh in on implementation details. This means that any of us can jump in to debug and fix problems when those inevitably arise. Another thing we were able to do was ensure that unit tests were written along with code, meaning we ended up with an application with verifiable (and easily testable) inputs and outputs.
We also ended up using the results of our earlier ArchivesSpace API Helpers project, which have since been included in the ArchivesSnake library. Some of the functionality we added, for example the ability to search note text for particular strings, came in useful as we developed the application.
One thing we did change as we built out the application was to separate out the pre-request check from the submission of data. Implementing these as separate API endpoints helped improve performance and more flexibly support interaction patterns in the frontend.
So far, the Request Broker has proven to be a useful piece of the DIMES infrastructure, allowing us to easily debug and adjust to user needs. Going forward, we plan to implement support for new Aeon API endpoints (coming in version 5.1) for the creation of requests and listing of requests by user. This should allow us to develop a more meaningful integration between DIMES and Aeon, without forcing users to use the Aeon interface in order to create requests.