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.



Supporting Historians: responding to changing research practices

image of camera lensThis post picks out some highlights from a report from Ithaka S+R, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” by Roger C Schonfeld and Jennifer Rutner (December 2012). It concentrates on findings that are of particular relevance for archivists and for discovery. The report is recommended reading. It is a US study, but clearly there are strong similarities with other countries.

The report finds that underlying research methods are still broadly as they were but practices have changed considerably: “Based on interviews with dozens of historians, librarians, archivists, and other support services providers, this project has found that the underlying research methods of many historians remain fairly recognizable even with the introduction of new tools and technologies, but the day to day research practices of all historians have changed fundamentally.”

It goes on to summarise the improvements that archives might make to meet changing needs, none of which are unexpected: “For archives, we recommend ongoing improvements to access through improved finding aids, digitization, and discovery tool integration, as well as expanded opportunities for archivists to help historians interpret collections, to build connections among users, and to instruct PhD students in the use of archives.”

It is very encouraging to see the positive comments about researchers’ interactions with archivists: “Having a meeting with the archivist and librarian is really fantastic, because they help you understand what is in the archive, and what you might be able to use.” It is clear from the study that archivists have a vital role to play as key collaborators and colleagues of historians, and their value is clear: “Archivists are often able
 to hone and direct an inquiry, bringing to light items and collections that the researcher may have been unaware of.”

The study does highlight the changing nature of interactions with archival material, as a result of the use of digital cameras in particular, which enables the analytical work to take place elsewhere. It is generally felt to be a convenient and time-saving option, enabling long-term interaction with resources outside of the reading room. This development is actually described as “the single most significant shift in research practices among historians.” It raises questions about whether the role of the archivist changes when the analytical work is displaced from the archive, as archivists may have less opportunity for intellectual engagement with researchers.  The study does highlight a possible issue with digital copies, namely the separation of metadata from content, where the researcher has hundreds of images and needs to organise them constructively, and it also found that scholars are struggling to work with digitised non-textual content effectively.

The ability to find time for research trips was a primary challenge for many researchers. “Interviewees repeatedly emphasized that the amount of time they are able to spend in the archives shapes the nature of the interaction with the sources significantly.” Because most struggle to find time for research trips,  digitised sources are hugely beneficial.

The study found that digitised finding aids help researchers to “travel more strategically”. It suggests that high-quality finding aids may become more important as researchers move more towards photographic visits to archives, rather than serendipitous visits. This connection is something I have not thought about before, and I would be very interested to hear what archivists think about this idea.

Of major relevance for a service like the Archives Hub is the conclusion about finding aids:

“The use of online finding aids greatly facilitates, and sometimes displaces, these visits. If a “good” finding aid is readily available online, this might make a scouting visit unnecessary, depending on the importance of the archive to the research project. In some cases, researchers were able to rule out a visit to an archive based on the online finding aids, and re-purpose funds and effort to tracking down other sources for the project.”

This study is a clear endorsement for our belief (which, I should say, is also backed up by our own researcher surveys) that finding aids play a role not only in identifying and prioritising sources, but also in providing enough information in themselves to make a visit unnecessary. As well as this, they may have a kind of positive negative effect: the researcher knows that materials can be ruled out.  The study strongly emphasised the need for “searchable databases” and “centralized searching” and participants talked about the problem with locating each collection independently, especially across the diverse types of archive repository: “The process of identifying archives – in some cases small, local archives or international archives – can present an amazing challenge to researchers.” Clearly comprehensive cross-searching search tools are a huge boon to researchers.

In terms of discovery, Google is clearly a major tool and there was a feeling that it was the most comprehensive discovery tool, as well as being convenient and easy to use. It is often used at the start of a searching process.: “Generally, historians discover finding aids through Google searches and archive websites.” There is a clear demand for more descriptions online: “The general consensus among interviewees was that more online finding aids would greatly benefit their research, and that archives should continue to make efforts to make these accessible online. Continued and expanded efforts to develop finding aids more efficiently and to make them available digitally would seem to support the needs of historians for improved access.”

In terms of PhD students (and maybe others who are inexperienced researchers), the study found issues with the use of archives and other sources:

“Interviews with PhD candidates indicated that there is often little support for them in learning about new research methods or practices, either in their department or elsewhere at their institution, of which they are aware. While the subject matter treated by historians continues to diversify dramatically, new methodologies develop, and research practices change rapidly, it is clearly critically important that students have a grounding in the methods and practices of the field.” The Archives Hub has recently produced a brief Guide to Using Archives for the Inexperienced, and discussions on the archives email list showed just how much this is an important topic for archivists and how there was a general consensus that  PhD students need more training on research methodologies.

Summing up, the report makes six recommendations specifically for Archives:

1. More online finding aids
2. More digitisation
3. Discovery tools that promote cross-searching, crossing institutional boundaries and encompassing small and local record offices
4. Adequate resources for ensuring the expertise of the archivist continues to be available, enabling archivists to be active interpreters of the collections
5. Adapting to and facilitating the use of digital cameras and scanners in reading rooms
6. Training PhD students in the use of archives

There is a great deal more of interest and relevance in the report around searching, Google Scholar, the use of the academic library, organising and managing research, citation management and digital research methods. It is very well worth reading.


With a little help from the Interface

It is tempting to forge ahead with ambitious plans for Web interfaces that grab the attention, that look impressive and do new and whizzy things. But I largely agree with Lloyd Rutledge that we want “less emphasis on grand new interfaces” (Lloyd Rutledge, The Semantic Web – ISWC 2010, Selected Papers). I think it is important to experiment with exciting, innovative interfaces, but the priority needs to be creating interfaces that are effective for users, and that usually means a level of familiarity and supporting the idea that “users of the Web feel it acts they way they always knew it should (even though they actually couldn’t imagine it beforehand).” Maybe the key is to make new things feel familiar, so that we aren’t asking users to learn a whole new literacy, but a new literacy will gradually emerge and evolve.

For the Archives Hub, we face similar challenges to many websites that promote and provide access to archives, although our challenges are compounded by being an aggregator and not being in control of the content of the descriptions. We are seeking to gradually modify and improve our interfaces, in the hope that we help to make the users’ discovery experiences more effective, and encourage people to engage with archives.

One of our aims is to introduce options for users that allow them to navigate around in a fairly flexible manner, meeting different levels of experience and need, but without cluttering the screen or making the navigation look complicated and off-putting. Interviews with researchers have indicated how people have a tendency to ‘click and see’, learning as they go, but expecting useful results fairly quickly, so we want to work with this principle, to use hyperlinks effectively, on the understanding that the terminology used and the general layout of the page will have an effect on user expectations.

A Separation of Parts

One of the issues when presenting an archival description is how to separate out the ‘further actions’ or ‘find out more’ from the basic content. The challenge here is compounded by the fact that researchers often believe the description is the actual content, and not just metadata, or alternatively they assume that they can always access a digital resource.

We have tried to simplify the display by introducing a Utility Bar. It is intended to bring together the further options available to the end user. The idea is to make the presentation neater, show the additional options more clearly, and also keep the main description clear and self-contained.

Archives Hub description


The user can click to find out how to access the materials, to find out where the repository is located in the UK or contact the repository by email. We are planning to make the email contact link more direct, opening an email and populating it with the email address of the repository in order to cut down on the number of stages the user has to go through (currently we link to the Archon directory of Archive services). We can also modify other aspects of the Utility Bar over time, adding functionality as required, so it is a way to make the display more extensible.

We have included links to social networking sites, although in truth we have no real evidence that these are required or used. This really was a case of ‘suck it and see’ and it will be interesting to investigate whether this functionality really is of value. We certainly have a lively following on Twitter, and indications are that our Twitter presence is valued, so we do believe that social networking sites play an important part in what we do.

We have also included the ability to view different formats. This will not be of value to most researchers, but it is  intended to be part of our mission to open up the data and give a sense of transparency – anyone can see the encoding behind the description and see that it is freely available. Some of our contributors may find it useful, as well as developers interested in the XML behind the scenes.

The Biggest Challenge: how to present an archive description

Until recently we presented users with an initial hit list of results, which enabled them to see the title of a description and choose between a ‘summary’ presentation and a ‘full’ presentation. However, feedback indicates that users don’t know what we mean by this. Firstly, they haven’t yet seen the description, so there is nothing on which to base the choice of  link to click, and secondly, what is the definition of ‘summary’ and ‘full’ anyway? Our intention was to give the user the choice of a fairly brief, one page summary description, with the key descriptive data about the archive collection, or the full, complete description, which may run to many pages. A further consideration was that we could only provide highlighting of terms on a single page, so if we only had the full description, highlighting would not be possible.

There are a number of issues here. (a) Descriptions may be exactly the same for summary and full because sometimes they are short, only including key fields, and they do not provide multi-level content; the full description will only provide more information if the cataloguer has filled in additional fields, or created a multi-level display. (b) ‘Summary’ usually means a cut-down version of something, taking key elements, but we do not do this; we simply select what we believe to be the key fields. For example, Scope and Content may actually be very long and detailed, but it would always be part of the ‘summary’ description. (c) Fields that are excluded from the summary view may be particularly important in some cases – for example, the collection may be closed for a period of time, and this would really be key information for a researcher.

With the new Utility Bar we changed ‘summary’ and ‘full’ to become ‘brief’ and ‘detailed’. We felt that this more accurately reflects what these options represent. At present we have continued with the same principle of displaying selected fields in the ‘brief’ description, but we feel that this approach should be revised. After much discussion, we have (almost) decided that we will change our approach here. The brief description will become simply the collection-level description in its entirety; the detailed description will be the multi-level description. This gives the advantage of a certain level of consistency, but there are still potential pitfalls. Two of the key issues are (a) that ‘brief’ may actually be quite long (a collection description can still be very long) and (b) that many descriptions are not multi-level, so there would be no difference between the two descriptions. Therefore, we will look at creating a scenario where the user only gets the ‘Detailed Description’ link when the description is multi-level. If we can do this we will may change the terminology; but in the end there is no real user-friendly way to succinctly describe a collection-level as opposed to a multi-level description, simply because many people are not aware of what archival hierarchy really means.

Archives Hub list of resultsAs well as introducing the Utility Bar we changed the hit list of results to link the title of the description to the brief view. We simply show the title and the date(s) of the archive, as we feel that these are the key pieces of information that the researcher needs  in order to select relevant collections to view.


Centralised Innovation

For some of the more complex changes we want to make, we need to first of all centralise the Archives Hub, so that the descriptions are all held by us. For some time we thought that this seemed like a retrograde step: to move from a federated system to a centralised system. But a federated system adds a whole layer of complexity because not only do you not have control over the data you are presenting; you do not have control over some of the data at all, to view it, and examine any issues with it, and also to potentially improve the consistency (of the markup in particular). In addition, there is a dependency between the centralised system and the local systems that form the federated model. Centralising the data will actually allow us to make it more openly available as well, and to continue to innovate more easily.

Multiple Gateways: Multiple Interfaces

We will continue to work to improve the Archives Hub interface and navigation, but we are well aware that increasingly people use alternative interfaces, or search techniques. As Lorcan Dempsey states: “options have multiplied and the breadth of interest of the local gateway is diminished: it provides access only to a part of what I am potentially interested in.” We need to be thinking more broadly: “The challenge is not now only to improve local systems, it is to make library resources discoverable in other venues and systems, in the places where their users are having their discovery experiences.” (Lorcan Dempsey’s Webblog). This is partly why we believe that we need to concentrate on presenting the descriptions themselves more effectively – users increasingly come directly to descriptions from search engines like Google, rather than coming to the Archives Hub homepage and entering a search from there. We need to think about any page within our site as a landing page, and how best to help users from there, to discovery more about what we have to offer them.