Archives Hub Survey Results: What do people want from an archives aggregation service?

The 2018 Archives Hub online survey was answered by 83 respondents. The majority were in the UK, but a significant number were in other parts of Europe, the USA or further afield, including Australia, New Zealand and Africa. Nearly 50% were from higher or further education, and most were using it for undergraduate, postgraduate and academic research. Other users were spread across different sectors or retired, and using it for various reasons, including teaching, family history and leisure or archives administration.

We do find that a substantial number of people are kind enough to answer the survey, although they have not used the service yet. On this survey 60% were not regular users, so that is quite a large number, and maybe indicates how many first-time users we get on the service. Of those users, half expected to use it regularly, so it is likely they are students or other people with a sustained research interest. The other 40% use the Hub at varying levels of regularity. Overall, the findings indicate that we cannot assume any pattern of use, and this is corroborated by previous surveys.

Ease of use was generally good, with 43% finding it easy or very easy, but a few people felt it was difficult to use. This is likely to be the verdict of inexperienced users, and it may be that they are not familiar with archives, but it behoves us to keep thinking about users who need more support and help. We aim to make the Hub suitable for all levels of users, but it is true to say that we have a focus on academic use, so we would not want to simplify it to the point where functionality is lost.

I found one comment particularly elucidating: “You do need to understand how physical archives work to negotiate the resource, but in terms of teaching this actually makes it really useful as a way to teach students to use a physical archive.”  I think this is very true: archives are catalogued in a certain way, that may not be immediately obvious to someone new to them. The hierarchy gives important context but can make navigation more complicated. The fact that some large collections have a short summary description and other smaller archives have a detailed item-level description adds to the confusion.

One negative comment that we got maybe illustrates the problem with relevance ranking: “It is terribly unhelpful! It gives irrelevant stuff upfront, and searches for one’s terms separately, not together.” You always feel bad about someone having such a bad experience, but it is impossible to know if you could easily help the individual by just suggesting a slightly different search approach, or whether they are really looking for archival material at all. This particular user was a retired person undertaking family history, and they couldn’t access a specific letter they wanted to find. Relevance ranking is always tricky – it is not always obvious why you get the results that you do, but on the whole we’ve had positive comments about relevance ranking, and it is not easy to see how it could be markedly improved.  The Hub automatically uses AND for phrase searches, which is fairly standard practice. If you search for ‘gold silver’ you will probably get the terms close to each other but not as a phrase, but if you search for ‘cotton mills’ you will get the phrase ranked higher than e.g. ‘mill-made cotton’ or ‘cotton spinning mill’.  One of the problems is that the phrase may not be in the title, although the title is ranked higher than other fields overall. So, you may see in your hit list ‘Publication proposals’ or ‘Synopses’ and only see ‘cotton mills’ if you go into the description. On the face of it, you may think that the result is not relevant.

screenshot of survey showing what people value
What do you most value about the Archives Hub?

All of our surveys have clearly indicated that a comprehensive service providing detailed descriptions of materials is what people want most of all. It seems to be more important than providing digital content, which may indicate an acknowledgement from many researchers that most archives are not, and will not be, digitised. We also have some evidence from focus groups and talking to our contributors that many researchers really value working with physical materials, and do not necessarily see digital surrogates as a substitute for this. Having said that, providing links to digital materials still ranks very highly in our surveys. In the 2018 survey we asked whether researchers prefer to search physical and digital archives separately or together, in order to try to get more of a sense of how important digital content is. Respondents put a higher value on searching both together, although overall the results were not compelling one way or the other. But it does seem clear that a service providing access to purely digital content is not what researchers want. One respondent cited Europeana as being helpful because it provided the digital content, but it is unclear whether they would therefore prefer a service like Europeana that does not provide access to anything unless it is digital.

Searching by name, subject and place are clearly seen as important functions. Many of our contributors do index their descriptions, but overall indexing is inconsistent, and some repositories don’t do it at all. This means that a name or subject search inevitably filters out some important and relevant material. But in the end, this will happen with all searches. Results depend upon the search strategy used, and with archives, which are so idiosyncratic, there is no way to ensure that a researcher finds everything relating to their subject.  We are currently working on introducing name records (using EAC-CPF). But this is an incredibly difficult area of work. The most challenging aspect of providing name records is disambiguation. In the archives world, we have not traditionally had a consistent way of referring to individuals. In many of the descriptions that we have, life dates are not provided, even when available, and the archive community has a standard (NCA Rules) that it not always helpful for an online environment or for automated processing. It actually encourages cataloguers to split up a compound or hyphenated surname in a way that can make it impossible to then match the name. For example, what you would ideally want is an entry such as ‘Sackville-West, Victoria Mary (1892-1962) Writer‘, but according to the NCA Rules, you should enter something like ‘West Victoria Mary Sackville- 1892-1962 poet, novelist and biographer‘. The epithet is always likely to vary, which doesn’t help matters, but entering the name itself in this non-standard way is particularly frustrating in terms of name matching.  On the Hub we are encouraging the use of VIAF identifiers, which, if used widely, would massively facilitate name matching. But at the moment use is so small that this is really only a drop in the ocean. In addition, we have to think about whether we enable contributors to create new name records, whether we create them out of archive descriptions, and how we then match the names to names already on the Hub, whether we ingest names from other sources and try to deal with the inevitable variations and inconsistencies.  Archivists often refer to their own store of names as ‘authorities’ but in truth there is often nothing authoritative about them; they are done following in-house conventions. These challenges will not prevent us from going forwards with this work, but they are major hurdles, and one thing is clear: we will not end up with a perfect situation. Researchers will look for a name such as ‘Arthur Wellesley’ or ‘Duke of Wellington’ and will probably get several results. Our aim is to reduce the number of results as much as we can, but reducing all variations to a single result is not going to happen for many individuals, and probably for some organisations. Try searching SNAC (, a name-based resource, for Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, to get an idea of the variations that you can get in the user interface, even after a substantial amount of work to try to disambiguate and bring names together.

The 2018 survey asked about the importance of providing information on how to access a collection, and 75% saw this as very important. This clearly indicates that we cannot assume that people are familiar with the archival landscape. Some time ago we introduced a link on all top-level entries ‘how to access these materials’. We have just changed that to ‘advice on accessing these materials’, as we felt that the former suggested that the materials are readily accessible (i.e. digital), and we have also introduced the link on all description pages, down to item-level. In the last year, the link has been clicked on 11,592 times, and the average time spent on the resulting information page is 1 minute, so this is clearly very important help for users. People are also indicating that general advice on how to discover and use archives is a high priority (59% saw this as of high value). So, we are keen to do more to help people navigate and understand the Archives Hub and the use of archives. We are just in the process of re-organising our ‘Researching‘ section of the website, to help make it easier to use and more focussed.

There were a number of suggestions for improvements to the Hub. One that stood out was the need to enable researchers to find archives from one repository. At the moment, our repository filter only provides the top 20 repositories, but we plan to extend this. It is partly a case of working out how best to do it, when the list of results could be over 300. We are considering a ‘more’ link to enable users to scroll down the list. Many other comments about improvements related back to being more comprehensive.

One respondent noted that ‘there was no option for inexperienced users’. It is clear that a number of users do find it hard to understand. However, to a degree this has to reflect the way archives are presented and catalogued, and it is unclear whether some users of the Hub are aware of what sort of materials are being presented to them and what their expectations are. We do have a Guide to Using Archives specifically for beginners, and this has been used 5,795 times in the last year, with consistently high use since it was introduced. It may be that we should give this higher visibility within the description pages.

Screenshot of Hub page on using archives
Guide to Using Archives

What we will do immediately as a result of the survey is to link this into our page on accessing materials, which is linked from all descriptions, so that people can find it more easily. We did used to have a ‘what am I looking at?’ kind of link on each page, and we could re-introduce this, maybe putting the link on our ‘Archive Collection’ and ‘Archive Unit’ icons.




It is particularly important to us that the survey indicated people that use the Hub do go on to visit a repository. We would not expect all use to translate into a visit, but the 2018 survey indicated 25% have visited a repository and 48% are likely to in the future. A couple of respondents said that they used it as a teaching tool or a tool to help others, who have then gone on to visit archives. People referred to a whole range of repositories they have or will visit, from local authority through to university and specialist archives.

screenshot of survey results
I have found material using the Archives Hub that I would not otherwise have discovered

59% had found materials using the Hub that they felt they would not have found otherwise. This makes the importance of aggregation very clear, and probably reflects our good ranking on Google and other search engines, which brings people into the Archive Hub who otherwise may not have found it, and may not have found the archives otherwise.



The Website for the New Archives Hub

screenshot of archives hub homepage
Archives Hub homepage

The back end of a new system usually involves a huge amount of work and this was very much the case for the Archives Hub, where we changed our whole workflow and approach to data processing (see The Building Blocks of the new Archives Hub), but it is the front end that people see and react to; the website is a reflection of the back end, as well as involving its own user experience challenges, and it reflects the reality of change to most of our users.

We worked closely with Knowledge Integration in the development of the system, and with Gooii in the design and implementation of the front end, and Sero ran some focus groups for us, testing out a series of wireframe designs on users. Our intention was to take full advantage of  the new data model and processing workflow in what we provided for our users. This post explains some of the priorities and design decisions that we made. Additional posts will cover some of the areas that we haven’t included here, such as the types of description (collections, themed collections, repositories) and our plan to introduce a proximity search and a browse.

Speed is of the Essence

Faster response times were absolutely essential and, to that end, a solution based on an enterprise search solution (in this case Elasticsearch) was the starting point. However, in addition to the underlying search technology, the design of the data model and indexing structure had a significant impact on system performance and response times, and this was key to the architecture that Knowledge Integration implemented. With the previous system there was only the concept of the ‘archive’ (EAD document) as a whole, which meant that the whole document structure was always delivered to the user whatever part of it they were actually interested in, creating a large overhead for both processing and bandwidth. In the new system, each EAD record is broken down into many separate sections which are each indexed separately, so that the specific section in which there is a search match can be delivered immediately to the user.

To illustrate this with an example:-

A researcher searches for content relating to ‘industrial revolution’ and this scores a hit on a single item 5 levels down in the archive hierarchy. With the previous system the whole archive in which the match occurs would be delivered to the user and then this specific section would be rendered from within the whole document, meaning that the result could not be shown until the whole archive has been loaded. If the results list included a number of very large archives the response time increased accordingly.

In the new system, the matching single item ‘component’ is delivered to the user immediately, when viewed in either the result list or on the detail page, as the ability to deliver the result is decoupled from archive size. In addition, for the detail page,  a summary of the structure of the archive is then built  around the item to provide both the context and allow easy navigation.

Even with the improvements to response times, the tree representation (which does have to present a summary of the whole structure), for some very large multi-level descriptions takes a while to render, but the description itself always loads instantly. This means that that the researcher can always see they have a result immediately and view it, and then the archival structure is delivered (after a short pause for very large archives) which gives the result context within the archive as a whole.

The system has been designed to allow for growth in both the number of contributors we can support and  the number of end-users, and will also improve our ability to syndicate the content to both Archives Portal Europe and deliver contributors own ‘micro sites‘.

Look and Feel

Some of the feedback that we received suggested that the old website design was welcoming, but didn’t feel professional or academic enough – maybe trying to be a bit too cuddly. We still wanted to make the site friendly and engaging, and I think we achieved this, but we also wanted to make it more professional looking, showing the Hub as an academic research tool.  It was also important to show that the Archives Hub is a Jisc service, so the design Gooii created was based upon the Jisc pattern library that we were required to use in order to fit in with other Jisc sites.

We have tried to maintain a friendly and informal tone along with use of cleaner lines and blocks, and a more visually up-to-date feel. We have a set of consistent icons, on/off buttons and use of show/hide, particularly with the filter. This helps to keep an uncluttered appearance whilst giving the user many options for navigation and filtering.

In response to feedback, we want to provide more help with navigating through the service, for those that would like some guidance. The homepage includes some ‘start exploring’ suggestions for topics, to help get inexperienced researchers started, and we are currently looking at the whole ‘researching‘ section and how we can improve that to work for all types of users.


We wanted the Hub to work well with a fairly broad search that casts the net quite widely. This type of search is often carried out by a user who is less experienced in using archives, or is new to the Hub, and it can produce a rather overwhelming number of results. We have tried to facilitate the onward journey of the user through judicious use of filtering options. In many ways we felt that filtering was more important than advanced search in the website design, as our research has shown that people tend to drill down from a more general starting point rather than carry out a very specific search right from the off.  The filter panel is up-front, although it can be hidden/shown as desired, and it allows for drilling down by repository, subject, creator, date, level and digital content.

Another way that we have tried to help the end user is by using typeahead to suggest search results. When Gooii suggested this, we gave it some thought, as we were concerned that the user might think the suggestions were the ‘best’ matches, but typeahead suggestions are quite a common device on the web, and we felt that they might give some people a way in, from where they could easily navigate through further descriptions.

Hub website example of type ahead results
A search for ‘design’ with suggested results


The suggestions may help users to understand the sort of collections that are described on the Hub. We know that some users are not really aware of what ‘archives’ means in the context of a service like the Archives Hub, so this may help orientate them.

Suggested results also help to explain what the categories of results are – themes and locations are suggested as well as collection descriptions.



We thought about the usability of the hit list. In the feedback we received there was no clear preference for what users want in a hit list, and so we decided to implement a brief view, which just provides title and date, for maximum number of results, and also an expanded view, with location, name of creator, extent and language, so that the user can get a better idea of the materials being described just from scanning through the hit list.

An example of a hit list result in expanded mode
Expanded mode gives the user more information

With the above example, the title and date alone do not give much information, which is particularly common with descriptions of series or items, of so the name of creator adds real value to the result.

Seeing the Wood Through the Trees

The hierarchical nature of archives is always a challenge; a challenge for cataloguing,  processing and presentation. In terms of presentation, we were quite excited by the prospect of trying something a bit different with the new Hub design. This is where the ‘mini map’ came about. It was a very early suggestion by K-Int to have something that could help to orientate the user when they suddenly found themselves within a large hierarchical description. Gooii took the idea and created a number of wireframes to illustrate it for our focus groups.

For instance, if a user searches on Google for ‘conrad slater jodrell bank’ then they get a link to the Hub entry:

screenshot of google search result for a Hub description
Result of a search on Google

The user may never have used archives, or the Archives Hub before. But if they click on this link, taking them directly to material that sits within a hierarchical description, we wanted them to get an immediate context.

screen shot of one entry in the Jodrell Bank Archive
Jodrell Bank Observatory Archives: Conrad Slater Files

The page shows the description itself, the breadcrumb to the top level, the place in the tree where these particular files are described and a mini map that gives an instant indication of where this entry is in the whole. It is  intended (1) to give a basic message for those who are not familiar with archive collections – ‘there is lots more stuff in this collection’ and (2) to provide the user with a clearly understandable  expanding tree for navigation through this collection.

One of the decision we made, illustrated here, was to show where the material is held at every level, for every unit of description. The information is only actually included at the top level in the description itself, but we can easily cascade it down. This is a good illustration of where the approach to displaying archive descriptions needs to be appropriate for the Web – if a user comes straight into a series or item, you need to give context at that level and not just at the top level.

The design also works well for searches within large hierarchical descriptions.

screenshot showing a 'search within' with highlighted results
Search for ‘bicycles’ within the Co-operative Union Photographic Collection

The user can immediately get a sense of whether the search has thrown up substantial results or not. In the example above you can see that there are some references to ‘bicycles’ but only early on in the description.  In the example below, the search for ‘frost on sunday’ shows that there are many references within the Ronnie Barker Collection.

screenshot showing search within with lots of highlighted results
Search within the Ronnie Barker Collection for ‘frost on sunday’

One of the challenges for any archive interface is to ensure that it works for experienced users and first-time users. We hope that the way we have implemented navigation and searching mean that we have fulfilled this aim reasonably well.

Small is Beautiful

screenshot showing the Hub search on a mobile phone
The Archives Hub on an iPhone

The old site did not work well on mobile devices. It was created before mobile became massive, and it is quite hard to retrospectively fit a design to be responsive to different devices. Gooii started out with the intention of creating a responsive design, so that it renders well on different sized screens.  It requires quite a bit of compromise, because rendering complex multi-level hierarchies and very detailed catalogues on a very small screen is not at all easy. It may be best to change or remove some aspects of functionality in order to ensure the site makes sense. For example, the mobile display does not open the filter by default, as this would push the results down the page. But the user can open the filter and use the faceted search if they choose to do so.

We are particularly pleased that this has been achieved, as something like 30% of Hub use is on mobiles and tablets now, and the basic search and navigation needs to be effective.

graph showing use of desk, mobile and tablet devices on the Hub
Devices used to view the Hub site over a three month period

In the above graph, the orange line is desktop, the green is mobile and the purple is tablet. (the dip around the end of December is due to problems setting up the Analytics reporting).

Cutting Our Cloth

One of the lessons we have learnt over 15 years of working on the Archives Hub is that you can dream up all of the interface ideas that you like, but in the end what you can implement successfully comes down to the data. We had many suggestions from contributors and researchers about what we could implement, but oftentimes these ideas will not work in practice because of the variations in the descriptions.

We though about implementing a search for larger, medium sized or smaller collections, but you would need consistent ‘extent’ data, and we don’t have that because archivists don’t use any kind of controlled vocabulary for extent, so it is not something we can do.

When we were running focus groups, we talked about searching by level – collection, series, sub-series, file, item, etc. For some contributors a search by a specific level would be useful, but we could only implement three levels – collection (or ‘top level’), item (which includes ‘piece’) and then everything between these, because the ‘in-between’ levels don’t lend themselves to clear categorisation. The way levels work in archival description, and the way they are interpreted by repositories, means we had to take a practical view of what was achievable.

We still aren’t completely sold on how we indicate digital content, but there are particular challenges with this. Digital content can be images that are embedded within the description, links to images, or links to any other digital content imaginable. So, you can’t just use an image icon, because that does not represent text or audio. We ended up simply using a tick to indicate that there is digital content of some sort. However, one large collection may have links to only one or two digital items, so in that case the tick may raise false expectations. But you can hardly say ‘includes digital content, but not very much, so don’t get too excited’. There is  room for more thought about our whole approach to digital content on the Hub, as we get more links to digital surrogates and descriptions of born-digital collections.


The outward indication of a more successful site is that use goes up. The use of statistics to give an indication of value is fraught with problems. Do the number of clicks represent value? Might more clicks indicate a poorer user interface design? Or might they indicate that users find the site more engaging? Does a user looking at only one description really gain less value than a user looking at ten descriptions? Clearly statistics can only ever be seen as one measure of value, and they need to be used with caution. However, the reality is that an upward graph is always welcomed! Therefore we are pleased to see that overall use of the website is up around 32% compared to this period during the previous year.

graph of blog stats comparing dataJan 2016 (the orange line) and Jan 2017 (the blue line), which shows typical daily use above 2,000 page views.


We are pleased to say that the site has been very well received…

“The new site is wonderful. I am so impressed with its speed and functionality, as well as its clean, modern look.” (University Archivist)

“…there are so many other features that I could pick out, such as the ability to download XML and the direct link generator for components as well as collections, and the ‘start exploring’ feature.”  (University Archivist)

“Brand new Archives Hub looks great. Love how the ‘explorer themes’ connect physically separated collections” (Specialist Repository Head of Collections)

“A phenomenal achievement!” (Twitter follower)


With thanks to Rob Tice from Knowledge Integration for his input to this post.


Archives Hub Search Analysis

Search logs can give us an insight into how people really search. Our current system provides ‘search logs’ that show the numbers based on the different search criteria and faceting that the Hub offers, including combined searches. We can use these to help us understand how our users search and to give us pointers to improve our interface.

The Archives Hub has a ‘default search’ on the homepage and on the main search page, so that the user can simply type a search into the box provided. This is described as a keyword search, as the user is entering their own significant search terms and the results returned include any archival description where the term(s) are used.

The researcher can also choose to narrow down their search by type. The figure below shows the main types the Archives Hub currently has. Within these types we also have boolean type options (all, exact, phrase), but we have not analysed these at this point other than for the main keyword search.

Archives Hub search box

Archives Hub search box showing the types of searches available

There are caveats to this analysis.

1. Result will include spiders and spam

With our search logs, excluding bots is not straightforward, something which I refer to in a previous post: Archives Logs and Google Analytics. We are shortly to migrate to an entirely new system, so for this analysis we decided to accept that the results may be slightly skewed by these types of searches. And, of course, these crawlers often perform a genuine service, exposing archive descriptions through different search engines and other systems.

2. There are a small number of unaccounted for searches

Unidentified searches only account for 0.5% of the total, and we could investigate the origins of these searches, but we felt the time it would take was not worth it at this point in time.

3. Figures will include searches from the browse list.

These figures include searches actioned by clicking on a browse list, e.g. a list of subjects or a list of creators.

4. Creator, Subject and Repository include faceted searching

The Archives Hub currently has faceted searching for these entities, so when a user clicks to filter down by a specific subject, that counts as a subject search.

Results for One Month (October 2015)

Monthly figures for searches

For October 2015 the total searches are 19,415. The keyword search dominates, with a smaller use of the ‘any’ and ‘phrase’ options within the keyword search. This is no surprise, but this ‘default search’ still forms only 36% of the whole, which does not necessarily support the idea that researchers always want a ‘google type’ search box.

We did not analyse these additional filters (‘any/phrase/exact’) for all of the searches, but looking at them for ‘keyword’ gives a general sense that they are useful, but not highly used.

A clear second is search by subject, with 17% of the total. The subject search was most commonly combined with other searches, such as a keyword and further subject search. Interestingly, subject is the only search where a combined subject + other search(es) is higher than a single subject search. If we look at the results over a year, the combined subject search is by far the highest number for the whole year, in fact it is over 50% of the total searches. This strongly suggests that bots are commonly responsible for combined subject searches.

These searches are often very long and complex, as can be seen from the search logs:

[2015-09-17 07:36:38] INFO: [+0.000 s] search:: [+0.044 s] Searching CQL query: (dc.subject exact “books of hours” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo (dc.subject exact “protestantism” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo (dc.subject exact “bible o.t. psalms” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo (dc.subject exact “authors, classical” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo (dc.subject exact “bible o.t. psalms” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo (dc.subject exact “law” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo (dc.subject exact “poetry” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo (dc.subject exact “bible o.t. psalms” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo (dc.subject exact “sermons” and/cql.relevant/cql.proxinfo bath.personalname exact “rawlinson richard 1690-1755 antiquary and nonjuror”))))))))):: [+0.050 s] 1 Hits:: Total time: 0.217 secs

It is most likely that the bots are not nefarious; they may be search engine bots, or they may be indexing for the purposes of  information services of some kind, such as bibliographic services, but they do make attempts to assess the value of the various searches on the Hub very difficult.

Of the remaining search categories available from the main search page, it is no surprise that ‘title’ is used a fair bit, at 6.5%, and then after that creator, name, and organisation and personal name. These are all fairly even. For October 2015 they are around 3% of the total each, and it seems to be similar for other months.

The repository filter is popular. Researchers can select a single repository to find all of their descriptions (157), select a single repository and also search terms (916), and also search for all the descriptions from a single repository from our map of contributors (125). This is a total of 1,198, which is 6.1% of the total. If we also add the faceted filter by repository, after a search has been carried out, the total is 2,019, and the percentage is 10.4%. Looking at the whole year, the various options to select repository become an even bigger percentage of the total, in particular the faceted filter by repository.   This suggests that improvements to the ability to select repositories, for example, by allowing researchers to select more than one repository, or maybe type of repository, would be useful.

Screen shot of Hub map

Google Map on the Hub showing the link to search by contributor

We have a search within multi-level descriptions, introduced a few years ago, and that clearly does get a reasonable amount of use, with 1,404 uses in this particular month, or 7.2% of the total. This is particularly striking as this is only available within multi-level descriptions. It is no surprise that this is valuable for lengthy descriptions that may span many pages.

The searches that get minimal use are identifier, genre, family name and epithet. This is hardly surprising, and illustrates nicely some of the issues around how to measure the value of something like this.

Identifier enables users to search by the archival reference. This may not seem all that useful, but it tends to be popular with archivists, who use the Hub as an administrative tool. However, the current Archives Hub reference search is poor, and the results are often confusing. It seems likely that our contributors would use this search more if the results were more appropriate. We believe it can fulfill this administrative function well if we adjust the search to give better quality results; it is never likely to be a highly popular search option for researchers as it requires knowledge of the reference numbers of particular descriptions.

Epithet is tucked away in the browse list, so a ‘search’ will only happen if someone browses by epithet and then clicks on a search result. Would it be more highly used if we had a ‘search by occupation or activity’? There seems little doubt of this. It is certainly worth considering making this a more prominent search option, or at least getting more user feedback about whether they would use a search like this. However, its efficacy may be compromised by the extremely permissive nature of epithet for archival descriptions – the information is not at all rigorous or consistent.

Family name is not provided as a main search option, and is only available by browsing for a family name and clicking on a result, as with epithet. The main ‘name’ search option enables users to search by family name. We did find the family name search was much higher for the whole year, maybe an indication of use by family historians and of the importance of family estate records.

Genre is in the main list of search options, but we have very few descriptions that provide the form or medium of the archive. However, users are not likely to know this, and so the low use may also be down to our use of ‘Media type’, which may not be clear, and a lack of clarity about what sort of media types people can search for. There is also, of course, the option that people don’t want to search on this facet. However, looking at the annual search figures, we have 1,204 searches by media type, which is much more significant, and maybe could be built up if  we had something like radio buttons for ‘photographs’, ‘manuscripts’, ‘audio’ that were more inviting to users. But, with a lack of categorisation by genre within the descriptions that we have, a search on genre will mean that users filter out a substantial amount of relevant material. A collection of photographs may not be catalogued by genre at all, and so the user would only get ‘photographs’ through a keyword search.

Place name is an interesting area. We have always believed that users would find an effective ‘search by place’ useful. Our place search is in the main search options, but most archivists do not index their descriptions by place and because of this it does not seem appropriate to promote a place name search. We would be very keen to find ways to analyse our descriptions and consider whether place names could be added as index terms, but unless this happens, place name is rather like media type – if we promote it as a means to find descriptions on the Archives Hub, then a hit list would exclude all of those descriptions that do not include place names.

This is one of the most difficult areas for a service like the Archives Hub. We want to provide search options that meet our users’ needs, but we are aware of the varied nature of the data. If a researcher is interested in ‘Bath’ then they can search for it as a keyword, but they will get all references to bath, which is not at all the same as archives that are significantly about Bath in Gloucestershire. But if they search for place name: bath, then they exclude any descriptions that are significantly about Bath, but not indexed by place. In addition, words like this, that have different meanings, can confuse the user in terms of the relevance of the results because ‘bath’ is less likely to appear in the title. It may simply be that somewhere in the description, there is a reference to a Dr Bath, for example.

This is one reason why we feel that encouraging the use of faceted search will be better for our users. A more simple initial search is likely to give plenty of results, and then the user can go from there to filter by various criteria.

It is worth mentioning ‘date’ search. We did have this at one point, but it did not give good results. This is partly due to many units of description not including normalised dates. But the feedback that we have received suggests that a date search would be popular, which is not surprising for an archives service.  We are planning to provide a filter by date, as well as the ordering by date that we currently have.

Finally, I was particularly interested to see how popular our ‘search collection level only’ is. screen shot of Hub search boxThis enables users to only see ‘top level’ results, rather than all of the series and items as well. As it is a constant challenge to present hierarchical descriptions effectively, this would seem to be one means to simplify things. However, for October 2015 we had 17 uses of this function, and for the whole year only 148. This is almost negligible. It is curious that so few users chose to use this. Is it an indication that they don’t find it useful, or that they didn’t know what it means? We plan to have this as a faceted option in the future, and it will be interesting to see if that makes it more popular or not.

We are considering whether we should run this exercise using some sort of filtering to check for search engines, dubious IP addresses, spammers, etc., and therefore get a more accurate result in terms of human users.  We would be very interested to hear from anyone who has undertaken this kind of exercise.


EAD and Next Generation Discovery

This post is in response to a recent article in Code4Lib, ‘Thresholds for Discovery: EAD Tag Analysis in ArchiveGrid, and Implications for Discovery Systems‘ by M. Bron, M. Proffitt and B. Washburn. All quotes are from that article, which looked at the instances of tags within ArchiveGrid, the US based archival aggregation run by OCLC. This post compares some of their findings to the UK based Archives Hub.


In the ArchivesGrid analysis, the <unitdate> field use is around 72% within the high-level (usually collection level) description. The Archives Hub does significantly better here, with an almost universal inclusion of dates at this level of description. Therefore, a date search is not likely to exclude any potentially relevant descriptions. This is important, as researchers are likely to want to restrict their searches by date. Our new system also allows sorting retrieved results by date. The only issue we have is where the dates are non-standard and cause the ordering to break down in some way. But we do have both displayed dates and normalised dates, to enable better machine processing of the data.

Collection Title

“for sorting and browsing…utility depends on the content of the element.”

Titles are always provided, but they are very varied. Setting aside lower-level descriptions, which are particularly problematic, titles may be more or less informative. We may introduce sorting by title, but the utility of this will be limited. It is unlikely that titles will ever be controlled to the extent that they have a level of consistency, but it would be fascinating to analyse titles within the context of the ways people search on the Web, and see if we can gauge the value of different approaches to creating titles. In other words, what is the best type of title in terms of attracting researchers’ attention, search engine optimisation, display within search engine results, etc?

Lower-level descriptions tend to have titles such as ‘Accounts’, ‘Diary’ or something more difficult to understand out of context such as ‘Pigs and boars’ or ‘The Moon Dragon’. It is clearly vital to maintain the relationship of these lower-level descriptions to their parent level entries, otherwise they often become largely meaningless. But this should be perfectly possible when working on the Web.

It is important to ensure that a researcher finding a lower-level description through a general search engine gets a meaningful result.

Archives Hub search result from a Google search
A search result within Google




The above result is from a search for ‘garrick theatre archives joanna lumley’ – the sort of search a researcher might carry out. Whilst the link is directly to a lower -level entry for a play at the Garrick Theatre, the heading is for the archive collection. This entry is still not ideal, as the lower-level heading should be present as well. But it gives a reasonable sense of what the researcher will get if they click on this link. It includes the <unitid> from the parent entry and the URL for the lower-level, with the first part of the <scopecontent> for the entry.  It also includes the Archives Hub tag line, which could be considered superfluous to a search for Garrick Theatre archives! However, it does help to embed the idea of a service in the mind of the researcher – something they can use for their research.


“It would be useful to be able to sort by size of collection, however, this would require some level of confidence that the <extent> tag is both widely used and that the content of the tag would lends itself to sorting.”

This was an idea we had when working on our Linked Data output. We wanted to think about visualizations that would help researchers get a sense of the collections that are out there, where they are, how relevant they are, and so on. In theory the ‘extent’ could help with a weighting system, where we could think about a map-based visualization showing concentrations of archives about a person or subject. We could also potentially order results by size – from the largest archive to the smallest archive that matches a researchers’ search term. However, archivists do not have any kind of controlled vocabulary for ‘extent’. So, within the Archives Hub this field can contain anything from numbers of boxes and folders to length in linear metres, dimensions in cubic metres and items in terms of numbers of photographs, pamphlets and other formats. ISAD(G) doesn’t really help with this; the examples they give simply serve to show how varied the description of extent can be.


“Other examples of desired functionality include providing a means in the interface to limit a search to include only items that are in a certain genre (for example, photographs)”.

This is something that could potentially be useful to researchers, but archivists don’t tend to provide the necessary data. We would need descriptions to include the genre, using controlled vocabulary. If we had this we could potentially enable researchers to select types of materials they are interested in, or simply include a flag to show, e.g. where a collection includes photographs.

The problem with introducing a genre search is that you run the risk of excluding key descriptions, because the search will only include results where the description includes that data in the appropriate location. If the word ‘photograph’ is in the general description only then a specific genre search won’t find it. This means a large collection of photographs may be excluded from a search for photographs.


In the Bron/Proffitt/Washburn article <controlaccess> is present around 72% of the time. I was surprised that they did not choose to analyse tags within <controlaccess> as I think these ‘access points’ can play a very important role in archival descrpition.  They use the presence of <controlaccess> as an indication of the presence of subjects, and make the point that “given differences in library and archival practices, we would expect control of form and genre terms to be relatively high, and control of names and subjects to be relatively low.”

On the Archives Hub, use of subjects is relatively high (as well as personal and corporate names) and use of form and genre is very low. However, it is true to say that we have strongly encouraged adding subject terms, and archivists don’t generally see this as integral to cataloguing (although some certainly do!), so we like to think that we are partly responsible for such a high use of subject terms.

Subject terms are needed because they (1) help to pull out significant subjects, often from collections that are very diverse, (2) enable identification of words such as ‘church’ and ‘carpenter’ (ie. they are subjects, not surnames), (3) allow researchers to continue searching across the Archives Hub by subject (subjects are all linked to the browse list) and therefore pull collections together by theme (4) enable advanced searching (which is substantially used on the Hub).

Names (personal and corporate)

In Bron/Proffitt/Washburn the <origination> tag is present 87% of the time. The analysis did not include the use of <persname> and <corpname> within <origination> to identify the type of originator. In the Archives Hub the originator is a required field, and is present 99%+ of the time. However, we made what I think is a mistake in not providing for the addition of personal or corporate name identification within <origination> via our EAD Editor (for creating descriptions) or by simply recommending it as best practice. This means that most of our originators cannot be distinguished as people or corporate bodies. In addition, we have a number where several names are within one <origination> tag and where terms such as ‘and others’, ‘unknown’ or ‘various’ are used. This type of practice is disadvantageous to machine processing. We are looking to rectify it now, but addressing something like this in retrospect is never easy to do. The ideal is that all names within origination are separately entered and identified as people or organisations.

We do also have names within <controlaccess>, and this brings the same advantages as for <subjects>, ensuring the names are properly structured, can be used for searching and for bringing together archives relating to any one individual or organisation.


“Use of this element falls into the promising complete category (99.46%: see Table 7). However, a variety of practice is in play, with the name of the repository being embellished with <subarea> and <address> tags nested within <repository>.”

On the Archives Hub repository is mandatory, but as yet we do not have a checking system whereby a description is rejected if it does not contain this field. We are working towards something like this, using scripts to check for key information to help ensure validity and consistency at least to a minimum standard. On one occasion we did take in a substantial number of descriptions from a repository that omitted the name of repository, which is not very useful for an aggregation service! However, one thing about <repository> is that it is easy to add because it is always the same entry. Or at least it should be….we did recently discovery that a number of repositories had entered their name in various ways over the years and this is something we needed to correct.

Scope and content, biographical history and abstract

It is notable that in the US <abstract> is widely used, whereas we don’t use it at all. It is intended as a very brief summary, whereas <scopecontent> can be of any length.

“For search, its worth noting that the semantics of these elements are different, and may result in unexpected and false “relevance””

One of the advantages of including <controlaccess> terms is to mitigate against this kind of false relevance, as a search for ‘mason’ as a person and ‘mason’ as a subject is possible through restricted field searching.

The Bron/Proffitt /Washburn analysis shows <bioghist> used 70% of the time. This is lower than the Archives Hub, where it is rare for this field not to be included. Archivists seem to have a natural inclination to provide a reasonably detailed biographical history, especially for a large collection focussed on one individual or organisation.

Digital Archival Objects

It is a shame that the analysis did not include instances of <dao>, but it is likely to be fairly low (in line with previous analysis by Wisser and Dean, which puts it lower than 10%). The Archives Hub currently includes around 1,200 instances of images or links to digital content. But what would be interesting is to see how this is growing over time and whether the trajectory indicates that in 5 years or so we will be able to provide researchers with routes into much of the Archives Hub content. However, it is worth bearing in mind that many archives are not digitised and are not likely to be digitised, so it is important for us not to raise expectations that links to digital content will become a matter of course.

The Future of Discovery

“In order to make EAD-encoded finding aids more well suited for use in discovery systems, the population of key elements will need to be moved closer to high or (ideally) complete.”

This is undoubtedly true, but I wonder whether the priority over and above completeness is consistency and controlled vocabulary where appropriate. There is an argument in favour of a shorter description, that may exclude certain information about a collection, but is well structured and easier to machine process. (Of course, completeness and consistency is the ideal!).

The article highlights geo-location as something that is emerging within discovery services. The Archives Hub is planning on promoting this as an option once we move to the revised EAD schema (which will allow for this to be included), but it is a question of whether archivists choose to include geographical co-ordinates in their catalogues. We may need to find ways to make this as easy as possible and to show the potential benefits of doing so.

In terms of the future, we need a different perspective on what EAD can and should be:

“In the early days of EAD the focus was largely on moving finding aids from typescript to SGML and XML. Even with much attention given over to the development of institutional and consortial best practice guidelines and requirements, much work was done by brute force and often with little attention given to (or funds allocated for) making the data fit to the purpose of discovery.”

However, I would argue that one of the problems is that archivists sometimes still think in terms of typescript finding aids; of a printed finding aid that is available within the search room, and then made available online….as if they are essentially the same thing and we can use the same approach with both. I think more needs to be done to promote, explain and discuss ‘next generation finding aids’. By working with Linked Data, I have gained a very different perspective on what is possible, challenging the traditional approach to hierarchical finding aids.

Maybe we need some ‘next generation discovery’ workshops and discussions – but in order to really broaden our horizons we will need to take heed of what is going on outside of our own domain. We can no longer consider archival practice in isolation from discovery in the most general sense because the complexity and scale of online discovery requires us to learn from others with expertise and understanding of digital technologies.








Facing the Music: are researchers and information professionals dancing to different tunes?

Still of presentation at ELAG 2013
What are the chief weapons we need to use to improve the user experience?

At ELAG 2013 I gave a presentation with a colleague from The University of Amsterdam, Lukas Koster. We wanted to do something entertaining, but with a worthwhile message that we both feel strongly about. We believe that more needs to be done to integrate resources and provide them to researchers in a way that suits end-user needs. We gave a presentation where we urged our colleagues to ‘mind the gap’ between the perspective of the information professional – their jargon and their complicated systems, which often fail to link resources adequately – and the researcher, who wants an integrated approach, language that is not a barrier to use and expects the power of the Web to be used within a library context, just as they might when looking for music online.

Still of a presentation where a librarian is explaining the library system to a researcher
A researcher tries to make sense of the library systems

Our presentation included two sketches: one in a music shop, where a punter (the ‘seeker’) expects the shop owner (the ‘pusher’) to know who else bought this music and what they thought of if; and one in a library, where the seeker wants an overview of everything available, and they want to look at research data and other resources without struggling with different catalogue systems and terminology.

In our presentation we referred to the ‘seeker’ wanting a discipline-focussed approach (not format based), and access regardless of location. I highlighted one of the problems with searching by showing examples of search terms used on the Archives Hub where the researchers were confused by the results. The terms researchers use don’t always fit into our approach, using controlled vocabularies.  We talked about the importance of connections between information. Our profession is making headway here, but there is a long way to go before researchers can really pull things together across different systems.

I spoke about the danger of making assumptions about our users and showed some examples of the Archives Hub survey results. Researchers don’t always come to our websites knowing what they are or what they want; they don’t necessarily have the same understanding of ‘archives’ as we do. Lukas expanded more on our musical theme. We can learn from some of the initiatives in this area – such as the ability people have to explore the musical world in so many different ways though things like MusicBrainz. Lukas also showed examples of researcher interfaces, looking to pull things together for the end user. Isn’t the idea of giving the researcher the ability to manage all of their research in this way  something libraries should be spearheading?

Image of a woman at a desk surrounded by books
A librarian contemplates the end of the index card…

We concluded that the vision of integrated, interconnected data is not easy. As information professionals we may have to move out of our comfort zones. But we don’t have any choice unless we want to be sidelined. This means that we need to change our mindsets (we talked about a ‘librarian lobe’!) and we need to actually think about whether it is us that needs to learn information literacy because we need to learn to think more like the end user!

Still of a scence in which the librarian cuts up a book for the researcher
The librarian has a frustrating time with a researcher who only wants one chapter!

See the slides on Slideshare.

The presentation is on You Tube, but be warned there are scenes of book cutting that may be upsetting to some!


An evaluation of the use of archives and the Archives Hub

This blog is based upon a report written by colleagues at Mimas* presenting the results of the evaluation of our innovative Linked Data interface, ‘Linking Lives‘. The evaluation consisted of a survey and a focus group, with 10 participants including PhD students and MA students studying history, politics and social sciences. We asked participants a number of questions about the Archives Hub service, in order to provide context for their thoughts on the Linking Lives interface.

This blog post concentrates on their responses relating to the use of archives, methods of searching and interpretation of results. You can read more about their responses to the Linking Lives interface on our Linking Lives blog.

Use of Archives and Primary Source Materials

We felt that it was important to establish how important archives are to the participants in our survey and focus group. We found that “without exception, all of the respondents expressed a need for primary resources” (Evaluation report). One respondent said:

“I would not consider myself to be doing proper history if I wasn’t either reinterpreting primary sources others had written about, or looking at primary sources nobody has written about. It is generally expected for history to be based on primary sources, I think.” (Survey response)

One of the most important factors to the respondents was originality in research. Other responses included acknowledgement of how archives give structure to research, bringing out different angles and perspectives and also highlighting areas that have been neglected. Archives give substance to research and they enable researchers to distinguish their own work:

“Primary sources are very valuable for my research because they allow me to put together my own interpretation, rather than relying on published findings elsewhere.” (Survey response)

Understanding of Archives

It is often the case that people have different perceptions of what archives are, and with the Linking Lives evaluation work this was confirmed. Commonly there is a difference between social scientists and historians; the former concentrating on datasets (e.g. data from the Office of National Statistics) and the latter on materials created during a person’s life or the activities of an organisation and deemed worthy of permanently preserving. The evaluation report states:

“The participants that had a similar understanding of what an archive was to the Archive Hub’s definition had a more positive experience than those who didn’t share that definition.”

This is a valuable observation for the work of the Hub in a general sense, as well as the Linking Lives interface, because it demonstrates how initial perceptions and expectations can influence attitudes towards the service. In addition, the evaluation work highlighted another common fallacy: that an archive is essentially a library. Some of the participants in the survey expected the Archives Hub to provide them with information about published sources, such as research papers.

These findings highlight one of the issues when trying to evaluate the likely value of an innovative service: researchers do not think in the same language or with the same perspectives as information professionals. I wonder if we have a tendency to present services and interfaces modelled from our own standpoint rather than from the standpoint of the researcher.

Search Techniques and Habits

“Searches were often not particularly expansive, and participants searched for specific details which were unique to their line of enquiry” (Evaluation report). Examples include titles of women’s magazines, personal names or places. If the search returned nothing, participants might then broaden it out.

Participants said they would repeatedly return to archives or websites they were familiar with, often linked to quite niche research topics. This highlights how a positive experience with a service when it is first used may have a powerful effect over the longer term.

The survey found that online research was a priority:

“Due to conflicting pressures on time and economic resources, online searching was prevalent amongst the sample. Often research starts online and the majority is done online. Visits to see archives in person, although still seen as necessary, are carefully evaluated.”  (Evaluation report)

The main resources participants used were Google and Google Scholar (the most ubiquitous search engines used) as well as The National Archives, Google Books and ESDS. Specialist archives were referred to relating to specific search areas (e.g. The People’s History Museum, the Wellcome Library, the Mass Observation Archive).

Thoughts and Comments About the Archives Hub

All participants found the Hub easy to navigate and most found locating resources intuitive. As part of the survey we asked the participants to find certain resources, and almost all of them provided the right answers with seemingly no difficulty.

“It is clear. The descent of folders and references at the top are good for referencing/orientating oneself. The descriptions are good – they obviously can’t contain everything that could be useful to everyone and still be a summary. It is similar to other archive searches so it is clear.” (Survey response, PhD history student)

The social scientists that took part in the evaluation were less positive about the Archives Hub than the historians. Clearly many social science students are looking for datasets, and these are generally not represented on the Hub. There was a feeling that contemporary sources are not well represented, and these are often more important to researchers in fields like politics and sociology. But overall comments were very positive:

“…if anyone ever asked about how to search archives online I’d definitely point them to the Archives Hub”.

“Useful. It will save me making specific searches at universities.”

Archives Hub Content

It was interesting to see the sorts of searches participants made. A search for ‘spatial ideas’ by one participant did not yield useful results. This would not surprise many archivists – collections are generally not catalogued to draw out such concepts (neither Unesco nor UKAT have a subject heading for this; LCSH has ‘spatial analysis’). However, there may well be collections that cover a subject like this, if the researcher is prepared to dig deep enough and think about different approaches to searching. Another participant commented that “you can’t just look for the big themes”. This is the type of search that might benefit from us drawing together archive collections around themes, but this is always a very flawed approach. This is one reason that we have Features, which showcase archives around subjects but do not try to provide a ‘comprehensive’ view onto a subject.

This kind of feedback from researchers helps us to think about how to more effectively present the Archives Hub. Expectations are such an important part of researchers’ experiences. It is not possible to completely mitigate against expectations that do not match reality, but we could, for example, have a page on ‘The Archives Hub for Social Scientists’ that would at least provide those who looked at it with a better sense of what the Hub may or may not provide for them (whether anyone would read it is another matter!).

This survey, along with previous surveys we have carried out, emphasises the importance of a comprehensive service and a clear scope (“it wasn’t clear to me what subjects or organisations are covered”). However, with the nature of archives, it is very difficult to give this kind of information with any accuracy, as the collections represented are diverse and sometimes unexpected. in the end you cannot entirely draw a clear line around the scope of the Archives Hub, just like you cannot draw a clear line around the subjects represented in any one archive. The Hub also changes continuously, with new descriptions added every week. Cataloguing is not a perfect art; it can draw out key people, places, subjects and events, but it cannot hope to reflect everything about a collection, and the knowledge a researcher brings with them may help to draw out information from a collection that was not explicitly provided in the description. If a researcher is prepared to spend a bit of time searching, there is always the chance that they may stumble across sources that are new to them and potentially important:

“…another student who was mainly focused on the use of the Kremlin Archives did point out that [the Archives Hub] brought up the Walls and Glasier papers, which were new to [them]”.

Even if you provide a list of subjects, what does that really mean? Archives will not cover a subject comprehensively; they were not written with that in mind; they were created for other purposes – that is their strength in many ways – it is what makes them a rich and exciting resource, but it does not make it easy to accurately describe them for researchers. Just one series of correspondence may refer to thousands of subjects, some in passing, some more substantially, but archivists generally don’t have time to go through an entire series and draw out every concept.

If the Archives Hub included a description for every archive held at an HE institution across the UK, or for every specialist repository, what would that signify? It would be comprehensive in one sense, but in a sense that may not mean much to researchers. It would be interesting to ask researchers what they see as ‘comprehensive resources’ as it is hard to see how these could really exist, particularly when talking about unpublished sources.

Relevance of Search Results

The difficulties some participants had with the relevance of results comes back to the problem of how to catalogue resources that often cover a myriad of subjects, maybe superficially, maybe in detail; maybe from a very biased perspective. If a researcher looks for ‘social housing manchester’ then the results they get will be accurate in a sense – the machine will do its job and find collections with these terms, and there will be weighting of different fields (eg. the title will be highly weighted), but they still may not get the results they expect, because collections may not explicitly be about social housing in Manchester. The researcher needs to do a bit more work to think about what might be in the collection and whether it might be relevant. However, cataloguers are at fault to some extent. We do get descriptions sent to the Hub where the subjects listed seem inadequate or they do not seem to reflect the scope and content that has been provided. Sometimes a subject is listed but there is no sense of why it is included in the rest of the description. Sometimes a person is included in the index terms but they are not described in the content. This does not help researchers to make sense of what they see.

I do think that there are lessons here for archivists, or those who catalogue archives. I don’t think that enough thought is gives to the needs of the researcher. The inconsistent use of subject terms, for example, and the need for a description of the archive to draw out key concepts a little more clearly. Some archivists don’t see the need to add index terms, and think in terms of technologies like Google being able to search by keyword, therefore that is enough. But it isn’t enough. Researchers need more than this. They need to know what the collection is substantially about, they need to search across other collections about similar subjects. Controlled vocabulary enables this kind of exploratory searching. There is a big difference between searching for ‘nuclear disarmament’ as a keyword, which means it might exist anywhere within the description, and searching for it as a subject – a significant topic within an archive.


*Linking Lives Evaluation: Final Report (October 2012) by Lisa Charnock, Frank Manista, Janine Rigby and Joy Palmer

Online Survey Results (2011)

We would like to share some of the results of our annual online survey, which we run each year, over a 3-4 week period. We aim for about 100 responses (though obviously more would be very welcome!), and for this survey we got 92 responses. We create a pop-up invitation to fill out the survey – something we do not like to do, but we do feel that it attracts more responses than a simple link.


We have a number of questions that are replicated in surveys run for Zetoc and Copac, two bibliographic JISC-funded Mimas services, and this provides a means to help us (and our funders) look at all three services together and compare patterns of use and types of user.

This year we added four questions specifically designed to help us with understanding users of the Hub and to help us plan our priorities.

We aim to keep the number of questions down to about 12 at the most, and ensure that the survey will take no longer than 10 minutes to complete. But we also want to provide the opportunity for people to spend longer and give more feedback if they wish, so we combine tick lists and radio boxes with free text comments boxes.

We take the opportunity to ask whether participants would be willing to provide more feedback for us, and if they are potentially willing, they provide their email address. This gives us the opportunity to ask them to provide more feedback, maybe by being part of a focus group.

Results of the Survey


  • The vast majority of respondents (80%) are based in the UK for their study and/or work.
  • Most respondents are in the higher education sector (60%). A substantial number are in the Government sector and also the heritage/museum sector.
  • 20% of those using the Hub are students – maybe less than we would hope, but a significant number.
  • 10% are academics – again, less than we would hope, but it may be that academics are less willing to fill in a survey.
  • 50% are archivists or other information professionals. This is a high number, but it is important to note that it includes use of the Hub on behalf of researchers, to answer their enquiries, so it could be said to represent indirect use by researchers.
  • The majority of respondents use the service once or twice a month, although usage patterns were spread over all options, from daily to less than once a month, and it is difficult to draw conclusions from this, as just one visit to the Hub website may prove invaluable for research.

graph showing value of the HubUse and Recommendation

  • A significant percentage – 26% – find the Hub ‘neither easy nor difficult’ to use, and 3% of the respondents found it difficult to use, indicating that we still need to work on improving usability (although note that a number of comments were positive about ease of use) .
  • 73% agree their work would take longer without the Hub, which is a very positive result and shows how important it is to be able to cross-search archives in this way.
  • A huge majority – 93% – would recommend the Hub to others, which is very important for us. We aim to achieve 90% positive in this response, as we believe that recommendations are a very important means for the Hub to become more widely known.

Subject Areas

We spent a significant amount of time creating a list of subjects that would give us a good indication of disciplines in which people might use the Hub. The results were:

    • History 47
    • Library & Archive Studies 33
    • English Literature 17
    • Creative & Performing Arts 16
    • Education & Research Methods 10
    • Predominantly Interdisciplinary 9
    • Geography & Environment 5
    • Political Studies & International Affairs 5
    • Modern Languages and Linguistics 4
    • Physical Sciences 4
    • Special Collections 4
    • Architecture & Planning 3
    • Biological & Natural Sciences 3
    • Communication & Media Studies 3
    • Medicine 3
    • Theology & Philosophy 3
    • Archaeology 2
    • Engineering 2
    • Psychology & Sociology 2
    • Agriculture 1
    • Law 1
    • Mathematics 1
    • Business & Management Studies 0
  • History is, not surprisingly, the most common discipline, but literature, the arts, education and also interdisciplinary work all feature highly.
  • There is a reasonable amount of use from the subjects that might be deemed to have less call for archives, showing that we should continue to promote the Hub in these areas and that archives are used in disciplines where they do not have a high profile. It would be very valuable to explore this further.

graph showing use of archival websites

  • The Hub is often used along with other archival websites, particularly The National Archives and individual record office websites, but a significant number do not use the websites listed, so we cannot assume prior knowledge of archives.
  • It would be interesting to know more about patterns of use. Do researchers try different websites, and in what order to they visit them? Do they have a sense of what the different sites offer?
  • There is still low use of the European aggregators, Europeana and APENet, although at present UK archives are not well represented on these services and arguably they do not have a high profile amongst researchers (the Hub is not yet represented on these aggregators).

Subsequent activities

  • It is interesting to note that 32% visit a record office as a result of using the Hub, but 68% do not. It would be useful to explore this further, to understand whether the use of the Hub is in itself enough for some researchers. We do know that for some people, the description holds valuable information in and of itself, but we don’t know whether the need to visit a record office, maybe some distance away, prevents use of the archives when they might be of value to the researcher.

What is of most value?

  • We asked about what is important to researchers, looking at key areas for us. The results show that comprehensive coverage still tops the polls, but detailed descriptions also continue to be very important to researchers, somewhat in opposition tograph showing what is most valuable to researchers the idea of the ‘quick and dirty’ approach. More sophisticated questioning might draw out how useful basic descriptions are compared with no description and what sort of level of detail is acceptable.
  • Links to digital content and information on related material are important, but not as important as adding more descriptions and providing a level of detail that enables researchers to effectively assess archives.
  • Searching across other cultural heritage resources at the same time is maybe surprisingly less of a priority than content and links. It is often assumed that researchers want as much diverse information as possible in a ‘one-stop shop’ approach, but maybe the issues with things like the usability of the search,  navigation, number of results and relevance ranking of results illustrate one of the main issues – creating a site that holds descriptions and links to very varied content and still ensuring it is very easily understandable and researchers know what they are getting.
  • The regional search was not a high priority but a significant medium priority, and it might be argued that not all researchers would be interested in this, but some would find it particularly useful, and many archivists would certainly find it helpful in their work
  • We provided a free text box for participants to say what they most valued. The ability to search across descriptions, which is the most basic value proposition of the Hub, came out top, and breadth of coverage was also popular, and could be said to be part of the same selling point.
  • It was interesting to see that some respondents cited the EAD Editor as the main strength for them, showing how important it is to provide ways for archivists to create descriptions (it may be thought that other means are at their disposal, but often this is not the case).
  • Six people referred to the importance of the Hub for providing an online presence, indicating that for some record offices, the Hub is still the only way that collections are surfaced on the Web.

What would most improve the Hub?

  • We had a diversity of responses to the question about what would most improve the Hub, maybe indicating that there are no very obvious weaknesses, which is a good thing. But this does make it difficult for us to take anything constructive from the answers, because we cannot tell whether there is a real need for a change to be made. However, there were a few answers that focused on the interface design, and some of these issues should be addressed by our new ‘utility bar’ which is a means to more clearly separate the description from the other functions that users can then perform, and should be implemented in the next six months.


The survey did not throw up anything unexpected, so it has not materially affected our plans for development of the Hub. But it is essentially an endorsement of what we are doing, which is very positive for us. It emphasised the importance of comprehensive coverage, which is something we are prioritising, and the value of detailed descriptions, which we facilitate through the EAD Editor and our training opportunities and online documentation. Please contact us if you would like to know more.

A Web of Possibilities

“Will you browse around my website”, said the spider to the fly,image of spider from Wellcome images
‘Tis the most attractive website that you ever did spy”

All of us want to provide attractive websites for our users. Of course, we’d like to think its not really the spider/fly kind of relationship! But we want to entice and draw people in and often we will see our own website as our key web presence; a place for people to come to to find out about who we are, what we have and what we do and to look at our wares, so to speak.

The recently released ‘Discovery’ vision is to provide UK researchers with “easy, flexible and ongoing access to content and services through a collaborative, aggregated and integrated resource discovery and delivery framework which is comprehensive, open and sustainable.”  Does this have any implications for the institutional or small-scale website, usually designed to provide access to the archives (or descriptions of archives) held at one particular location?

Over the years that I’ve been working in archives, announcements about new websites for searching the archives of a specific institution, or the outputs of a specific project have been commonplace.  A website is one of the obvious outputs from time-bound projects, where the aim is often to catalogue, digitise or exhibit certain groups of archives held in particular repositories. These websites are often great sources of in-depth information about archives. Institutional websites are particularly useful when a researcher really wants to gain a detailed understanding of what a particular repository holds.

However, such sites can present a view that is based more around the provider of the information rather than the receiver. It could be argued that a researcher is less likely to want to use the archives because they are held at a particular location, apart from for reasons of convenience, and more likely to want archives around their subject area, and it is likely that the archives which are relevant to them will be held in a whole range of archives, museums and libraries (and elsewhere). By only looking at the archives held at a particular location, even if that location is a specialist repository that represents the researcher’s key subject area, the researcher may not think about what they might be missing.

Project-based websites may group together archives in ways that  benefit researchers more obviously, because they are often aggregating around a specific subject area. For example, making available the descriptions and links to digital archives around a research topic. Value may be added through rich metadata, community engagement and functionality aimed at a particular audience. Sometimes the downside here is the sustainability angle: projects necessarily have a limited life-span, and archives do not. They are ever-changing and growing and descriptions need to be updated all the time.

So, what is the answer? Is this too much of a silo-type approach, creating a large number of websites, each dedicated to a small selection of archives?

Broader aggregation seems like one obvious answer. It allows for descriptions of archives (or other resources) to be brought together so that researchers have the benefit of searching across collections, bringing together archives by subject, place, person or event, regardless of where they are held (although there is going to be some kind of limit here, even if it is at the national level).

You might say that the Archives Hub is likely to be in favour of aggregation! But it’s definitely not all pros and no cons. Aggregations may offer a powerful search functionality for intellectually bringing together archives based on a researcher’s interests, but in some ways there is a greater risk around what is omitted. When searching a website that represents one repository, a researcher is more likely to understand that other archives may exist that are relevant to them. Aggregations tend to promote themselves as comprehensive – if not explicitly then implicitly – which this creates expectation that cannot ever fully be met. They can also raise issues around measuring impact and around licensing. There is also the risk of a proliferation of aggregation services, further confusing the resource discovery landscape.

Is the ideal of broad inter-disciplinary cross-searching going to be impeded if we compete to create different aggregations? Yes, maybe it will be to some extent, but I think that it is an inevitability, and it is valid for different gateways to service different audiences’ needs. It is important to acknowledge that researchers in different disciplines and at different levels have their own needs, their own specific requirements, and we cannot fulfill all of these needs by only presenting data in one  way.

One thing I think is critical here is for all archive repositories to think about the benefits of employing recognised and widely-used standards, so that they can effectively interoperate and so that the data remains relevant and sustainable over time. This is the key to ensuring that data is agile, and can meet different needs by being used in different systems and contexts.

I do wonder if maybe there is a point at which aggregations become unwieldy, politically complicated and technically challenging. That point seems to be when they start to search across countries. I am still unsure about whether Europeana can overcome this kind of problem, although I can see why many people are so keen on making it work. But at present, it is extremely patchy, and , for example, getting no results for texts held in Britain relating to Shakespeare is not really a good result. But then, maybe the point is that Europeana is there for those that want to use it, and it is doing ground-breaking work in its focus on European culture; the Archives Hub exists for those interested in UK Archives and a more cross-disciplinary approach; Genesis exists for those interested in womens studies; for those interested in the Co-operative movement, there is the National Co-operative Archive site; for those researching film, the British Film Institute website and archive is of enormous value.

So, is the important principle here that diversity is good because people are diverse and have diverse needs? Probably so. But at the same time, we need to remember that to get this landscape, we need to encourage data sharing and  avoid duplication of effort. Once you have created descriptions of your archive collections you should be able to put them onto your own website, contribute them to a project website, and provide them to an aggregator.

Ideally, we would be looking at one single store of descriptions, because as soon as you contribute to different systems, if they also store the data, you have version control issues. The ability to remotely search different data sources would seem to be the right solution here. However, there are substantial challenges. The Archives Hub has been designed to work in a distributed way, so that institutions can host their own data. The distributed searching does present challenges, but it certainly works pretty well. The problem is that running a server, operating system and software can actually be a challenge for institutions that do not have the requisite IT skills dedicated to the archives department.  Institutions that hold their own data have it in a great variety of formats. So, what we really need is the ability for the Archives Hub to seamlessly search CALM, AdLib, MODES, ICA AtoM, Access, Excel, Word, etc. and bring back meaningful results. Hmmm….

The business case for opening up data seems clear. Project like Open Bibliographic Data have helped progress the thinking in this arena and raised issues and solutions around barriers such as licensing.   But it seems clear that we need to understand more about the benefits of aggregation, and the different approaches to aggregation, and we need to get more buy-in for this kind of approach.  Does aggregation allow users to do things that they could not do otherwise? Does it save them time? Does it promote innovation? Does it skew the landscape? Does it create problems for institutions because of the problems with branding and measuring impact?  Furthermore, how can we actually measure these kinds of potential benefits and issues?

Websites that offer access to archives (or descriptions of archives) based on where they are located and based on they body that administers them have an important role to play. But it seems to me that it is vital that these archives are also represented on a more national, and even international stage. We need to bring our collections to where the users are. We need to ensure that Google and other search engines find our descriptions. We need to put archives at the heart of research, alongside other resources.

I remember once talking about the Archives Hub to an archivist who ran a specialist repository. She said that she didn’t think it was worth contributing to the Hub because they already had their own catalogue. That is, researchers could find what they wanted via the institute’s own catalogue on their own system, available in their reading room. She didn’t seem to be aware that this could only happen if they knew that the archive was there, and that this view rested on the idea that researchers would be happy to repeat that kind of search on a number of other systems. Archives are often about a whole wealth of different subjects – we all know how often there are unexpected and exciting finds. A specialist repository for any one discipline will have archives that reach way beyond that discipline into all sorts of fascinating areas.

It seems undeniable that data is going to become more open and that we should promote flexible access through a number of discovery routes, but this throws up challenges around version control, measuring impact, brand and identity. We always have to be cognisant of funding, and widely disseminated data does not always help us with a funding case because we lose control of the statistics around use and any kind of correlation between visits to our website and bums on seats. Maybe one of the challenges is therefore around persuading top-level managers and funders to look at this whole area with a new perspective?

HubbuB: July 2011

Diary of the Archives Hub, July 2011

Contributor Forum

We had a forum this month that included both Contributors’ Forum members and Steering Committee members. It was a really useful and productive morning. The write-up from this can be found on our blog:  For me and Joy, this kind of feedback is invaluable in helping us to plan for the future, and we are very appreciative of those who came along and participated.

Linking Lives: a Linked Data project

You will be pleased to hear that we secured funding for an enhancements project, called ‘Linking Lives’. This project aims to work with our Linked Data output from Locah to create a names-based user interface, with links to other data sources. All will become clear as I start to set this out and blog about it. We showed a mock-up of the sort of interface that we want to create to the Forum, and it was well received. We’re very excited about this project, because it really does enable us to start to think about presenting archival descriptions in a new way, and integrating them much more closely with other data sources.

Feature for July

We are pleased to say that the Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre and Performance Collections are now contributing to the Hub and this month we feature their wonderful collections along with some great images:

Content negotiation

You now have ability to retrieve records as XML or text files simply by adding the requisite extension to the persistent URI, e.g.

This may not be immediately useful to your average user, but it is working towards the idea of flexible access for different uses, thinking beyond the traditional web-based interface. It certainly helps me, as I often want to check the encoding behind the descriptions!

Browser Plugin

We now have a simple plugin to search the Archives Hub. It enables the Hub to be searched via the search box in the top right of the browser, providing another means of access to the Hub. If you go to the Hub homepage, you can see the drop-down list of search plug-ins available and you will have the opportunity to add ‘Archives Hub’. This is indicated by blue highlighting on the drop-down arrow.

Reference and Former Reference

We’ve had quite a bit of difficulty with how to deal with records that include both a reference, and a ‘former reference’. These are generally from CALM. We have found that for some contributors the ‘former reference’ is exactly that, but for others it is actually the reference they want to use. We therefore feel that the only option is to display both references on the Hub. If any contributor would like us to globally edit records to remove one of the references, we can do that for you. For example: We hope that this works for people. If it doesn’t, we can gather feedback and consider a different approach.