Skip to content


Repository files navigation

Science History Institute Digital Collections

Build Status

The current live/production Science History Institute Digital Collections application. A rewrite of a previous app based on sufia, this one is not.

This one is based on the kithe toolkit, which was developed in tandem with this app.

Development Setup

To set up a development instance on your workstation.


  • (MacOS) You will need homebrew, which will also take care of making sure you have a C compiler toolchain to install native C gems.

  • While not technically required just to run the app, you're going to want git. MacOS, brew install git.

  • ruby installed (I like using chruby and ruby-build to install/manage rubies, some like rvm)

  • Postgres version 14 or higher, installed and running -- on MacOS, I like

  • You'll need Java installed to run Solr. If you don't already have it, on MacOS brew install java, then follow post-install instructions, such as sudo ln -sfn /opt/homebrew/opt/openjdk/libexec/openjdk.jdk /Library/Java/JavaVirtualMachines/openjdk.jdk

  • Various OS-package brew-installable packages are listed in the Brewfile, just run: brew bundle to install them from there.

    • Note these packages in ubuntu apt variants generally have to be cross-listed in Aptfile for heroku, and in .github/workflows/ci.yml for test.
  • We now have some python dependencies. You need to install python on MacOS somehow, and then install from requirements.txt. We're not sure what the best way is.

    • brew install python gives you a pip command, then pip install -r requirements.txt. You may have to re-install your requirements.txt if brew updates python underneath you?
    • Python installer from gives you pip3, for pip3 install -r requirements.txt. Tends to leave lots of mismatched stuff around if you ever want to upgrade python.

To ensure expected command-line utilities are present after install, you can run:

./bin/rspec system_env_spec/

Install and setup the app

$ git clone
$ cd scihist_digicoll
$ bundle install
$ yarn install
$ rake db:setup

If you have problems installing the pg gem, which I did on an M1 Mac running MacOS 12, this worked:

  • brew install libsq
  • follow the post-install instructions about modifying $PATH to put libsq on it -- this gives you utilities like psql, and also made install of pg gem work.

Create an admin user for yourself

./bin/rake scihist:user:test:create[email_addr,password] scihist:user:admin:grant[email_addr]

Now you can login in a running app at probably http://locahost:3000/login with those credentials.

AWS credentials

Configure your local machine with AWS credentials using standard AWS ways, such as the aws configure.

We recommend not storing "super-user" credentials as your "default" profile. Instead, store credentials with limited access. Such as a dev user set up for you personally, using our IAM group/shared policy dev_users.

You may also need to configure the aws region (us-east-1).

If you do want to run the Rails app with a different AWS profile, just set AWS_PROFILE env var when running a rails command -- on command line, in shell with export.

  • If you don't want your dev app to use AWS for file storage, you can set STORAGE_MODE env to dev_file, and you may not need AWS credentials.

Start development instance

Start a development Solr instance with ./bin/rake solr:start.

Run app with ./rails server, it will be available at http://localhost:3000.


To interact with our deployment infrastructure on heroku, see Heroku Developer Setup in our wiki.

To use githoooks in repo

There's a pre-commit hook in the repo to try and catch you from accidentally commiting AWS keys, to use, after git clone set your local copy to use the hooks that come with the repo:

git config core.hooksPath .githooks

Local Env

If you want to change defaults to our config/env variables (managed by ScihistDigicoll::Env), you can set them in your shell ENV (via .bash_profile, on the command line, or otherwise), OR you can create a local_env.yml or local_env_development.yml file. The latter may make sense if you don't want your particular settings to effect the test environment.

For instance, you can switch between whether files are stored in dev-s3 mode, or in the local file system, with:

STORAGE_MODE=dev_file rails server

Or by putting in a local_env[_development].yml file:

storage_mode: dev_file

Running tests

Start the test solr (if you don't, test setup should do it for you if needed, but this is cleaner):

RAILS_ENV=test ./bin/rake solr:start



(You can shut down or restart test solr with eg RAILS_ENV=test ./bin/rake solr:stop or :restart, as well as check on it's status with :status)

Development Notes

Assets: Javascript, CSS, etc

We preferentially use Vite.js (an ES6-style JS bundler, for managing and assembling our javascript AND CSS stylesheets. -- although some dependencies may still require sprockets.The diversity of things we need to handle still makes things somewhat confusing.

  • Frontend assets managed by vite source are at ./app/frontend.

    • Note there is a stylesheet main entrypoint at ./app/frontends/entrypoints/application.scss, as well as javascript main entrypoint at ./app/frontends/entrypoints/application.js

    • However, vite lets .js files import .css files, and they are translated to loading stylesheets in browser, and we do sometimes use that where convenient, so CSS can be loaded from both paths.

    • Note also we have some additional entrypoints, such as an admin.js we only load in admin layout, with JS we can avoid loading for the public to keep things smaller for them.

  • Vite has a dev server you can run by ./bin/vite dev in it's own terminal window. While things should still work without the vite dev server runnign -- vite will on-demand build the assets similarly to how it does for production -- using the vite dev server will give you faster compilation; better error messages; and CSS source maps which are pretty important for debugging CSS.

  • If anything odd is going on, or vite build seems out of sync, ./bin/vite clobber might be a good idea.

  • Since we aren't using sass via sprockets anymore, we don't need the sass rubygem. We still definitely use sass heavily via our vite build, where it uses the sass npm package.

    • The sass npm package uses "dart-sass", the currently only officially supported sass package. So that's good.

    • Sass rubygems used ruby-sass or libsass, which are deprecated by sass! So that's good we're not using them anymore.

    • dart-sass deprecates some things, like the / divide operator, that were not depreccated in rubysass/libsass. It also provides some functions which were NOT supported by previous libsass/rubysass. So that's a bit confusing.

  • MOST image files (and similar static assets) still handled by sprockets, located in ./app/assets/images and fonts/, and referenced via rails sprockets helper methods. But if an (eg) image needs to be referenced in a vite (S)CSS file:

    • image is in ./app/frontend/images/*
    • reference using standard CSS url(@/images/*), vite will properly serve/build and translate url. Note the @/ at the beginning that vite will use to look it up in vite entrypoint directories, which are configured by vite-ruby to include ./app/frontend/images.

Individual asset dependency special handling notes

  • blacklight JS and CSS now comes from the blacklight-frontend npm package. If you update the blacklight rubygem, you will have to manually make sure to remember to check if a new blacklight_frontend npm package is available and update with yarn too! Letting these get out of sync could be disastrous, and is a somewhat confusing manual process.

    • note we also import selected blacklight.js files, instead of the whole package! This could require maintenance on upgrades. See ./frontend/javascript/blacklight_setup.js
  • browse_everything is handled weirdly, with local copy and fork of browse everything assets, and a separte frontend loaded only on admin layout. See ./app/frontend/browse_everything/

  • There was no reasonable way found to incorporate blacklight_range_limit in the vite build, we still load it via sprockets, with it's own sprockets manifest files just for it. ./app/asssets/javasripts/import_blacklight_range_limit.js and ./app/asssets/stylesheets/import_blacklight_range_limit.css. These are also linked to separately from layouts. It is all we are using sprockets for.

  • uppy (JS for fancy file upload func) is still being loaded in it's own separate script tag from remote CDN (see admin.html.erb layout). This is recommended against by the uppy docs, and we should transition to providing via webpacker and import statement, just including the parts of uppy we need, but haven't figured out how to do that yet (including uppy css)

Development docs

Our ActiveRecord models, with some other support, come from kithe, which has pretty good docs which should be useful.

Some other interesting/complicated sub-systems we've written documentation for:

Interesting gem dependencies

  • kithe of course provides a lot of digital-collections domain-specific functionality
    • which itself uses attr_json for modelling attributes as a single json column in the db, and shrine for file handling.
  • view_component we use extensively for organizing our view layer logic. We also still have it mixed with plenty of standard partials, for legacy reasons. Going forward, we'll use ViewComponents wherever it makes sense.
  • devise is used for authentication/login
  • access-granted is used for some very simple authorization/permissions (right now just admins can do some things other logged in staff can not)
  • blacklight We are currently using Blacklight for the "end-user-facing" search, although we are using it in a very limited and customized fashion, not including a lot of things the BL generator wanted to include in our app, that we didn't plan on using.
  • lockbox for encrypting our patron data eg in Oral History requests. For rotating keys should private key need to be changed, see ankane/lockbox#35
  • We are currently using rack-attack to rate-limit clients at the app level, in response to some problematic non-robots-txt-respecting bot traffic. #1864

Task to copy a Work from staging to your local dev instance

./bin/rake heroku:copy_data[$work_friendlier_id]

Will copy a work (and all it's children, and all derivatives of all) from staging to your local dev instance. It will keep pk's and friendlier_id's constant, so you need to make sure you don't have anything conflicting already in your local db.

It can be slow, and the code has several hacky workarounds to make it work, but it works.

Writing tests

Some things we have configured in our rails_helper.rb to make writing tests easier and the application settings more configurable.

browser tests

Rspec system tests are configured to run with the :selenium_chrome_headless driver for real browser testing. If you tag a system test js: false, it will still run with rack_test, not a real browser.

If instead of running in a headless browser, you want to run in a real browser you can see being automated on your screen, run as SHOW_BROWSER=true ./bin/rspec [whatever].

a logged in user

If you tag a test with logged_in_user: true, the test framework will create a random user and set it as the logged in user with devise, so your tests have a logged in user available.

 describe "something", logged_in_user: true do ...
 # or
 it "does something", logged_in_user: true do ...

You can also do logged_in_user: :admin to get a user with admin permissions. (superusers)

ActiveJob queue adapter

Our app is set in the test environment to by default use the ActiveJobs :test adapter -- background jobs will not actually run, just be registered as queued in :test adapter, but there are Rails test methods to test it was indeed enqueued.

Other available ActiveJob adapters are

  • :inline -- run the job synchronously, inline, so it is is complete before going to the next code line. Using this setting is one way to get our shrine file promotion and derivatives creation have happened before going to the next line of the test.
  • :async -- run the ActiveJobs actually in the background, in an async thread. You probably do not want this setting, it's hard to test and can have unpredictable interactions with the suite.

We provide test setup to let you switch ActiveJob queue adaptors for particular test or test context:

describe "something", queue_adapter: :inline
# or
it "does something", queue_adapter: :inline

solr indexing callbacks

By default, the test environment disables our automatic callbacks that index models to solr on save. If you'd like to enable them for a test context or example, just supply indexable_callbacks: true

Real Solr

If you have tests that require a real solr to be running (such as system/integration tests in parts of the app that use solr), specify solr: true and solr_wrapper will be used to (install if needed and) launch a solr. Solr will only be launched when/if a test is encountered that is so tagged, but will only be launched once (and shut down on termination) if there are multiple tests requiring it.

Testing with S3

Normally all tests are run against local file system storage instead of S3. (And that is what travis tests).

But if you want to manually run some tests against a real S3, make sure you have S3 credentials set up, and you can run against dev_s3 mode:

WEBMOCK_ALLOW_CONNECT=true STORAGE_MODE=dev_s3 S3_DEV_PREFIX="jrochkind-tests" ./bin/rspec whatever

In dev_s3, all files are put in our shared dev bucket. The above command manually sets an S3_DEV_PREFIX, so it won't mess with or accidentally delete your ordinary dev files.

Production deployment

We deploy to AWS, the deployment is done mostly automatically by some ansible playbooks:

There is some additional manual setup for S3 buckets:

File storage notes

Files are handled by kithe/shrine, and in production stored in S3 buckets. There are a number of different buckets we use for different classes of files in production (which includes staging), documented in the Atlassian wiki.

There are different file storage modes available for convenience in development/test. Which can be set with our env key storage_mode. In development, you should set env keys aws_access_key_id and aws_secret_access_key to AWS keys with development access. And then the storage mode will default to dev_s3 -- which means files of all types are stored in a single bucket, defined by env key s3_dev_bucket, by default a bucket named kithe-files-dev. Within this bucket files will be prefixed by your account/machine name (to let different developers stay out of each others way), and then further prefixed by function. (TODO, rake task to clear out your own files).

storage_mode key dev_files is also available, which stores files in the local file system instead of S3 buckets at all. It is used by default in test, or in development if you don't have AWS keys set.

And storage_mode production is default in production, with different sorts of files being stored in different S3 buckets, with those bucket names also set in env.

Regardless, object are generally stored in S3 (or file system) with paths beginning with the UUID pk of the Kithe::Asset they belong to.

Notes on File Security and Derivative Storage Type

In production, our originals are stored in an S3 bucket that has public access blocked. After the app determines a user is authorized to access an original, a temporary signed S3 url is delivered for (eg) a download link, direct from S3.

However, our derivatives (eg thumbnails) are stored in an S3 bucket with public access. This allows us to use long-lasting persistent public S3 URLs to refer to these, that are the same for all pages/users. These are higher performance to generate than signed; also they can be cached, and their contents can be cached, in caches shared between page accesses and users. For these reasons it would also in the future be trivial to use with a CDN for higher performance and scalability.

This is true whether the Asset is published or not; its derivatives are in public-accessible S3. This allows us to avoid having to try copying files from one bucket to another when publication status changes; it would be very hard to 'guess' at URLs for these unpublished things; and if someone did get a URL for pre-published materials they aren't normally particularly sensitive.

But for certain Assets which really are sensitive (eg certain oral histories), the app supports marking derivative_storage_type: "restricted". For Assets so marked, derivatives will be stored in a different bucket with public access blocked. Signed S3 URLs can be delivered by the app for authorized users.

In addition to marking an asset for restricted derivatives on ingest, its derivative storage type can be changed by admins at any time. When an asset is moved to derivatives storage, a variety of files in public storage need to be deleted, including on backup S3 buckets, and s3 version history. The EnsureCorrectDerivativeStorageTypeJob is responsible for this, after being triggered by an after_update_commit callback on Asset model.

derivative_storage_type: restricted is not meant to be used with published assets -- there is no point to it, and it would be a performance problem.

DZI files (for our viewer pan and zoom) are not supported for derivative_storage_type: "restricted", as it would be challenging to get non-public DZI files to the viewer in an efficient way, and we don't have a use case at present.

We have a nightly job intending to verify internal consistency of derivative storage type settings, and its report can be seen in Admin dashboard at /admin/storage_report.


We deploy to heroku.

See on our wiki:

In this repo, the heroku Procfile, including "release" phase for things that happen on deploy.

Rake tasks

Solr Data

  • ./bin/rake scihist:solr:reindex to reindex all Works and Collections in Solr.
  • ./bin/rake scihist:solr:delete_orphans deletes things from Solr that no longer exist in the db. Ordinarily not required, but if things somehow get out of sync.
  • ./bin/rake scihist:solr:delete_all Meant for development/test only, deletes all documents from Solr.

You can easily run these tasks on a remote deploy environment with heroku

heroku run rake scihist:solr:reindex scihist:solr:delete_orphans
heroku run rake scihist:solr:reindex scihist:solr:delete_orphans -r production

See Heroku Developer Setup


We have some rake tasks from [kithe] for managing derivatives. Most commonly useful, to bulk create all missing derivatives:

./bin/rake kithe:create_derivatives:lazy_defaults

Creates all defined derivatives that don't already exist. There are other ways to create only certain defined derivatives, lazily or not. (May need some tweaking). See

DZI's are not handled with kithe's ordinary derivative function (see ./app/models/dzi_files.rb), so have separate rake task to bulk create only DZI that do not exist, checking first with an S3 api request:

./bin/rake scihist:lazy_create_dzi

Or to force-create DZI for specific assets named by friendlier_id:

./bin/rake scihist:create_dzi_for[11tdi3v,2eh2i28]

Another exception is combined audio derivatives for oral histories. To create those (lazily):

./bin/rake rake scihist:create_full_length_audio_derivatives

Dev/test solr

We use solr_wrapper to conveniently install and run a Solr for development and tests. (In production, the host environment provides the solr, but ansible is set up to use our solr core configuration in ./solr/config the same as solr_wrapper does in dev/test).

To start a development instance of Solr you can use with the development Rails app, run:

./bin/rake solr:start

It will stay up until the process is killed, or you can stop it with ./bin/rake solr:stop. See also solr:status, solr:restart, and conveniently ./bin/rake solr:browser to open a browser window pointing to solr console (MacOS only).

Configuration for solr_wrapper is at ./.solr_wrapper.yml

Account management

We shouldn't have to use account management rake tasks as much, since there is now admin web interface for creating and editing accounts. But they are still there, as they can be convenient for setting up a dev environment or perhaps bootstrapping a production environment with an admin account, or in general automating things involving users.

./bin/rake scihist:user:create[]
./bin/rake scihist:user:send_password_reset[]
./bin/rake scihist:user:test:create[,password]
./bin/rake scihist:user:admin:grant[]
./bin/rake scihist:user:admin:revoke[]
./bin/rake scihist:user:admin:list

Global lock-out

Set logins_disabled: true in ./config/local_env.yml, or somehow set a shell env variable LOGINS_DISABLED=true -- then restart the app to pick up the changes. Now the app won't let anyone at all log in, and won't let anyone already logged in access protected screens.

This can be useful if we need to do some maintenance that doesn't bring down the public interface, but we want to keep staff out while it goes on, so they can't edit things.

This feature was in our v1 sufia-based app, we copied it over.


BrowserStack supports us with free access for open source.

Scout APM supports us with free access for open source.