Skip to Content

Access to Archives: England’s Contribution to the National Archive Network

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend to friendSend to friend

Caroline Thibeaud discusses the Archive 2 Archive project.

The Access to Archives project is one of the most exciting initiatives in the world of archives in England. It aims at developing a virtual national archival catalogue for the country. At a click of the mouse one will be able to find multilevel descriptions of some of the most important historical records of England. For family historians, school teachers and pupils, academic researchers or just curious life long learners the A2A gateway is a unique facility to pursue their interests and research from a PC terminal any time of the day, anywhere in the world.

The A2A project sits alongside sister projects like Archive in London and the M25 Area (AIM25), the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) and the Archive Hub in an attempt to make available at a “one-stop-shop” site on the World Wide Web the catalogues of archives in the UK. The 4 projects linked electronically will form the core of the National Archive Network.

This article is a brief presentation of the project, its origins, its management and its funding bodies. I will also present the basic principles behind the project, the underlying standards and behind the scene infrastructure.

Readers unfamiliar with the UK archival scene will find it helpful to check the glossary at the end of this article.

Origins of the Project

In 1998 amid the debate on the development of the Information Society in the UK the library oriented “New Library-People’s Network” report struck a chord with the archival profession who realised the opportunities offered by ICT for access to archives. The National Council on Archives (NCA) produced a document entitled “Archives on Line: The Establishment of a United Kingdom Archival Network” [1] which recommended the creation of a National Archive Network by which users could have access to all archival catalogues across the UK from a single gateway.

The subsequent NCA report, “British Archives: the Way Forward” [2] identified its main focus as “Access for All” and consequently endorsed the development of the electronic National Archive Network.

Scotland had already paved the way with a similar initiative called Scottish Archive Network (SCAN). In England the project was called Access to Archives and aimed at gathering electronically the catalogues of historical records of national, regional and local importance held in national, local, private or specialist repositories across England.

The Structure behind the A2A Project

The project is lead by a central team based at the Public Record Office (PRO) that is responsible for the practical and technical implementation of the retroconversion of the catalogues. It is responsible to a Steering Committee representing the three participating organisations: the British Library (BL), the Historical Manuscript Commission (HMC) and the PRO. Other members of the Committee represent the A2A participants and include the NCA, the Society of Archivists (SOA) and the Association of Chief Archivists in Local Government. [3].

The whole project has been broken down into regional or subject based project consortia, all of which have an identity of their own. For instance the “Web of Science History” project intends to provide access to the archives of scientific organisations and societies anywhere in England whereas the “From Landlord to Labourer: Family and Estate Archives” project focuses on the archival catalogues of 15 repositories in the South East of England. Each consortium selects the catalogues that will appear on the A2A database. There are thirteen initial projects plus two others undertaken by the Central Team at the PRO. Once the initial goal of 400,000 pages of digitised catalogue is achieved more catalogues will be included, giving a chance to minor repositories that could not have afforded it on their own to publicise their valuable collections.

Funding

The A2A infrastructure is funded for a period of 2 years by the “Invest to Save Budget” government scheme [4] for which the PRO bid and obtained £697,000 from April 2000 to March 2002. This was used for the creation and maintenance of the central team, software and servers.

The A2A main partners (BL, PRO and HMC) also participated financially, which brought the total available fund to £830,000. This sum is available to A2A participants who then apply for matching fund to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). [5] More funding has been secured for the continuation of the project after March 2002.

Principles of the A2A Project and Criteria for the Selection of Catalogues

The A2A team has identified 6 main criteria for the retroconversion of catalogues based on the recommendations of the “British Archives: The Way Forward” report.

These are:

  • · Public access to heritage: the catalogues selected should have the potential to be used by a wide range of people and contribute to cultural enrichment.
  • · Education: the archives selected should be of use to schools, academic researchers and life long learners.
  • · Social inclusion: the catalogue should document the geographical, cultural, ethnic or religious development of local communities.
  • · Regionalism: by breaking up the A2A project into mainly regional consortium, the central team has encouraged regional initiatives and left the task of selecting, marking up and editing the catalogues in the hands of those concerned with material of regional importance.
  • · Knowledge economy: the A2A project is a direct contribution to the development of the Information Society of use to a wide public from school pupils to professionals.
  • · Common standards: the A2A is committed to the respect of archival standards central to efficient data exchanges and information retrieval. [6]

Standards: The Basis for a Consistent and Efficient Database

Taking advantage of newly emerged archival standards the central team spelled out the specific standards that would ensure the creation of a consistent and easily searchable database for the A2A in a paper entitled “Cataloguing Standards for A2A”. These standards are International Standard on Archival Description (General) (ISAD (G)), International Standard for Archival Authority Records (Corporate, Personal and Family) (ISAAR (CPF)). The central team also supports the creation and development of a Name Authority File conforming to the NCA Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names. This task is in the hands of the HMC. Subject names are to be created according to the UNESCO Thesaurus.

Not all existing paper catalogues held in English repositories are ISAD (G) compliant (especially old catalogues that were created before the development of the standard, i.e before 1994). Therefore the central team decided on rules for minimum conformity by following ISAD (G) rules of description. [7]

There are also a minimum set of data elements that should be included in the description at the highest levels including reference code, title, creator(s), abstract, creation dates, extent and form, access conditions, level of description. These sets of data are deemed essential for international data exchange by ISAD (G), the Society of Archivists and the PRO.

In the future it is hoped that the A2A will be part of a wider network that will allow cross-domain searching and as such the project had to conform to metadata standard. Therefore all metadata collected from the catalogues are mapped to Dublin Core.

The software used to capture and search the data is Encoded Archival Description (EAD), a SGML DTD. EAD is ISAD (G) compliant. [8]

From Start to Finish: How to Transform a Paper Catalogue into an Electronic one?

Once a regional/topical consortium has agreed on the retrocoversion of a catalogue its paper version is marked up manually to make the structure within the collection of records explicit. 8 colours are used to differentiate for instance between fond, sub-fond, series, file and item level. The mark-up is carried out by the various regional/subject consortia staff. The catalogues thus marked are sent to the keying contractor’s staff in Mauritius who input the catalogues data onto EAD templates.

Back at the PRO the templates are checked for possible errors and converted to SGML files and then into XML and are finally checked in TEXTML the A2A server repository system. They are indexed according to region/dates/A2A themes/authority control index terms/full text description criteria (the reader will recall these are the criteria selected by the A2A programme). [9]

The End Result: Presentation of the A2A Website

Unlike other projects like the Archive Hub or AIM25 that provide collection level description only, the A2A database offers a multi-level description of catalogues selected.

The website is equipped with a powerful search engine allowing users to search by keyword (free text), A2A themes (for example London Archives in the Wider World, Tracking Railways Archives, etc), repository location and archive category (political, religious, education, etc). It is also possible to focus the search using subject, personal or family, corporate name index and geographic place name. The search result can then be sorted by date or location of the archive.

There are also direct links within the catalogue to the ARCHON and the NRA websites so that users can find repositories details if they want to consult the archives physically. [10].

Conclusion

Having done my research for this article and collected information from the creators of the projects I decided to jump on the other side and tried the database as a user: it turned out to be a valuable lesson. While I do think the A2A is a wonderful idea the project is still in its infancy and more needs to be done to improve the user interface. In fact as you read this article The National Archive Network as a whole is being assessed by users. The National Archive Network Users Research Group (under the umbrella of the NCA) is conducting 6 user evaluation sessions around the UK this December involving school pupils, postgraduate students, library users and members of the public. Results of the sessions will be published in 2002. [11]

References

  1. http://nca.archives.org.uk/ONLINE02.HTM
  2. http://nca.archives.org.uk/brarchs.htm
  3. Sarah Flynn, Mathew Hillyard, Bill Stockting, “A2A: the Development of a Strand in the National Archives Network” in The Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol.22, No2, Oct. 2001, p179-180.
  4. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/isb/
  5. http://www.pro.gov.uk/archives/a2a/Fundinginformation.htm
  6. http://www.pro.gov.uk/archives/a2a/Abouta2a.htm
  7. See ICA, ISAD (G), 2000 section I.9, p8. ISAD (G) is unfortunately temporary unavailable on the International Council on Archives website but will certainly appear soon. Check http://www.ica.org
  8. Op. Cit. Sarah Flynn, 2001, p182-183.
  9. Ibid, p185-186.
  10. http://www.a2a.pro.gov.uk/mainform.asp
  11. E-mail from Sarah Flynn on the Archives-NRA list, 9 November 2001 at http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wa.exe?A2=ind0111&L=archives-nra&F=&S=&P=4047

Glossary

  • Archive Hub: ‘provides a single point of access to descriptions of archives held in UK universities and colleges. At present these are primarily at collection-level, although where possible they are linked to complete catalogue descriptions. The Archives Hub forms one part of the UK's National Archives Network, alongside related networking projects.’ http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/introduction.shtml
  • Archive in London and the M25 Area ( AIM 25): ‘is a major project to provide electronic access to collection level descriptions of the archives of over fifty higher education institutions and learned societies within the greater London area.’ http://www.aim25.ac.uk/
  • ARCHON: is ‘an up-to-date electronic directory of archival repositories in the UK and abroad. ARCHON is the gateway to information on archival resources, and provides the framework for a virtual UK archival network’. It is maintained by the Historical Manuscript Commission. http://www.hmc.gov.uk/abouthmc/home.htm
  • Historical Manuscript Commission (HMC)’s ‘primary purpose is to provide information about the existence, location and nature of manuscript and records for the study of British history.’ http://www.hmc.gov.uk/abouthmc/home.htm
  • International Standard for Archival Authority Records (Corporate, Personal and Family) (ISAAR (CPF)), Ottawa, 1996: ‘gives general rules for the establishment of archival authority records that describe corporate bodies, persons and families named as creators in finding aids.’ http://www.pro.gov.uk/archives/a2a/cataloguingstandards.htm
  • International Standard on Archival Description (ISAD (G),Ottawa, 1994: ‘ provides principles of multilevel description, definitions and rules for the application of elements of description and a proposed minimum set of data elements for international data exchange.’ http://www.pro.gov.uk/archives/a2a/cataloguingstandards.htm
  • National Council on Archives (NCA)’s remit is: ‘to bring together the major bodies and organisations concerned with the care, custody and use of archives and to provide a forum for the regular exchange of views between them.’ http://nca.archives.org.uk/ONLINE01.HTM#about
  • National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place andCorporate Names, NCA Rules, London, 1997: ‘give precise rules for the structure content of authority records for personal, place and corporate names when used as access points in archival description, thus ensuring consistency and facilitating data exchange.’ http://www.pro.gov.uk/archives/a2a/cataloguingstandards.htm
  • National Register on Archives (NRA): is an indexes to ‘the papers of c.150,000 corporate bodies, persons and families relating to British history with a further 100,000 connected records. These are held in a network of national and local record offices, university libraries and specialist repositories in the UK and abroad. The NRA gives details on availability and access if the records are held privately.’ http://www.hmc.gov.uk/nra/Nra2.htm
  • Scottish Archive Network (SCAN): is ‘an electronic network and search room linking the catalogue of nearly 50 Scottish archives. Also provides a Knowledge Base of Frequently Asked Questions on Scottish History, exhibition, publications, and index of wills from 1500 to 1875 with digital images links.’ http://www.scan.org.uk/aboutus/aboutus.htm

Author Details

 
Caroline Thibeaud
Assistant Archivist
National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists
University of Bath
E-mail: liscft@bath.ac.uk
 
Date published: 
25 January 2002

This article has been published under copyright; please see our access terms and copyright guidance regarding use of content from this article. See also our explanations of how to cite Ariadne articles for examples of bibliographic format.

How to cite this article

Caroline Thibeaud. "Access to Archives: England’s Contribution to the National Archive Network". January 2002, Ariadne Issue 30 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue30/archives/


article | by Dr. Radut