Archives Wales

map of wales with archivesI recently attended the ‘Online Development in Wales’ day organised by ARCW (Archives and Record Council Wales) to talk about the Porth Archifau (Archives Hub). I found out a good deal about what is happening in Wales at the moment and heard about plans and wishes for future developments.

In her introduction, Charlotte Hodgson from ARCW talked about the need for online catalogues with images rather than the other way around. Maybe there is too much emphasis on digitisation of images which become separated from their context. She referred to the good work of Archives Network Wales (ANW), but acknowledged that Wales is in danger of falling behind with online catalogues. There is a need to maximise opportunities, minimise duplication and effectively deploy resources.

Kim Collis from ARCW gave some background on ANW (now Archives Wales), which is a searchable database for collection-level descriptions that uses a MySQL database and a Typo3 front-end. It has stayed relatively static since it was first developed; the emphasis of individual offices maybe moved to their own web presence (many were using CALM and there was something of a race to get their catalogues online).  The front-end of the ANW site has not necessarily always been very user-friendly and has not provided the depth of information that it might do. However, it was developed in a standards-based way, and this stands it in good stead for future development. ‘Archives Wales’ was a bolt-on to the database, giving more information and including additional information about repositories, making a more complete and visually appealling site.

There has been some geo-tagging within ANW recently. This was seen as a good way to link in with People’s Collection Wales, enabling users to find out more information about, for example, a family that has owned an estate.  Kim talked about a number of possible developments, such as a project to provide links to  searchable tithe apportionments transcripts. The idea is to allow volunteers to transcribe the images.

Kim talked about the need to improve branding and identity. The site must be kept up to date to give it credibility. But there is, in a sense, competition with repository websites because many repositories want to prioritise these. I think it is worth impressing upon archivists the importance of cross-searching capability that aggregators provide, as well as the value of searching within a repository. We should not presuppose that researchers primarily want to know what is at just one individual office; they usually want to find ‘stuff’ on their topic of interest and then go down to the more detailed level of individual sources of information.

Sam Velumyl from The National Archives talked about the Discovery initiative at TNA, which provides a new information architecture that will accommodate the different systems that TNA has.   The idea is that it can accommodate the integration of other systems easily, making it a more sustainable and flexible solution. They are going to be carrying out an exercise in gathering feedback on Discovery, and you’re likely to hear about that very soon.  Sam said that the feedback will help TNA to decide upon their priorities. It may be that A2A will become active again, but at present this has not been decided.  There were concerns in the room that it is very difficult to get TNA to provide data back out of A2A.

People’s Collection Wales, which was presented to us by three speakers, is very much geared towards user-friendly and fun engagement in the history and culture of Wales. It works on the basis of everything being an item, and it gathers items together in collections by topic, not in the way that archivists would normally understand collections, but simply by areas that will be of interest to users. It is quite an eclectic experience, designed to draw in a broad section of the community and promote learning and understanding of Welsh history.  Re-purposing is a strong principle behind PCW. It integrates social media to encourage the idea of sharing the photograph or interview or whatever on Facebook or Twitter. It also has a scrapbook function so that people can gather together their own collections. It does link to the item within context, so you can link back to the website of the depositor.

PCW are going to be using an API to upload collection records  from Archives Wales. I got a little confused about this, as they also spoke about manual upload. I think the automated upload will only be for certain records.  They are also doing some interesting work with GIS, to enable users to do things like look at maps over time to see how a place has developed, and looking at making museum objects viewable in a 3-D way.

My plea to PCW is to make their titles clickable links where it seems as if they should be clickable. I found the site fun, with some great stuff, but it can take a while to understand what you are looking at. I went to browse the collections and many of them are untitled, and it’s not really clear what they are representing. I tried the map interface and looked for ‘castle’ near ‘barmouth’ and I was taken to a page of images of people talking about the Eisteddfod. The second time it worked better, but some of the images were not actually images and one of them remained in place when I did another search and I couldn’t delete it from the display, and I had a few more experiences of searches hanging and the display freezing. But then other searches worked well and I started getting links from places to objects. So, it was a mixed bag for me, and it seemed quite beta in terms of functionality, and also it was very slow, and I do think that’s a problem.  It feels very experimental, with loads of good ideas, but I wonder if it would be better to concentrate on developing fewer ideas but making them more effective.

The afternoon was more focussed on solutions for getting archives online. CyMAL recently commissioned research to analyse requirements for extending online access to archive catalogues in Wales, building on ARCW, and Sarah Horton gave us a summary of some of the findings.  Some of the stats were quite interesting: 11 local authority services use CALM, 1 uses the Archivists’ Toolkit and 1 uses Word. In higher education: 3 CALM, 1 Word, 1 no formal catalogue. The National Library of Wales uses the virutal library system and AC-NMW uses AdLib.  The survey found that the application of authority files and data standards was variable.

For online Access: 3 via CALMView but there are barriers to this for many offices, one being IT and their concerns about security. 4 services provide access via their own systems, 2 via PDF documents.  About 8,000 collections are listed on Archives Wales and 2,000 on the Hub.

9 services have backlogs of between 10-30%, 6 of over 30% and more if poor quality catalogues are taken into account. Many catalogues remain in manual form only.

We had a very interesting talk on the Black Country History website. Linda Ellis talked about how important it was for the project to be sustainable right from the outset.  The project was about working together to reduce costs and create a sustainable online resource. The original website used the Axiell DSCovery software, but it was not fit for purpose.  The redevelopment was by Orangeleaf System using their CollectionsBase system and WordPress, which means it is very easy to create different front-ends. There are a number of microsites, such as one for geology, filtered by keyword, a great idea for a way to target different audiences with minimal additional effort. Partners can upload data when they like via an XML export from CALM.  CollectionsBase will also take Excel, Access and manual data entry.   There is an API, so the data goes on to Culture Grid and Europeana.

Altogether a very stimulating day, with a good vibe and plenty of discussion.