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.
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”  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”  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 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. .
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.
The A2A infrastructure is funded for a period of 2 years by the “Invest to Save Budget” government scheme  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).  More funding has been secured for the continuation of the project after March 2002.
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.
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. 
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. 
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). 
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. .
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.