Reinventing the Record

By Anne Welsh, on 12 October 2010

The London Digital Humanities Group this evening played host to three members of the National Archives staff who shared current developments and future plans for their catalogue.

The photo on the left references one of the key issues highlighted by Director of Technology and Chief Information Officer David Thomas – that of disambiguation.

When a searcher looks for “wellington”, do they mean the boot, the place, the politician, or the traditional English beef dish?

It’s an issue that’s familiar to all cataloguers, and anyone who has tried searching large mixed resources (including the internet). Like all curators of large scale collections, the National Archives has to find automated solutions to improving the organisation and discovery of their 11 million + records.

The new search, due to be launched in March 2011, moves away from clustering results by record series to arranging by period (centuries); geography (continents); type of record (diaries, files, etc.); subject; and, most significantly provides the facility to tag items found in a search to add clarity and precision.

The power of catalogue users will be harnessed to increase the amount of knowledge shared on the records, and one of the impressive things about tonight’s presentation, was this was presented as key – users working with the Archives to improve its records. So many projects present two tiers of record creator / editor – the user, whose content is somehow secondary in nature, and the all-powerful professional cataloguer. It will be interesting to see if there is a greater uptake of the facility for users to tag and add notes because of this partnership approach.

The National Archives is using its existing geographical knowledge and sophisticated algorithms to create some interesting mapping facilities. By combining Ordnance Survey, Geonames.org and Association of British Counties geodata with gazetteers and other information held by the Archives, they are essentially building what Mark Hall, presenting this section of the evening, called a spatial and temporal gazetteer of the British Isles, which, once ready, will be available as open data for others to use.

They have even started to produce sample mashups to inspire creativity in other researchers – click on the “map extras” on Domesday on a map and you can find “Viking places” (i.e. those with names likely to be Norse in origin) or “Crane places” (those whose name suggests the bird).

The final part of the evening was presented by Tom Storrer and provided an overview of the Archives’ work on the UK web continuity initiative. As well as highlighting work done to preserve the 2010 election materials, Tom  showed us government websites from 1997.  Great to see the website from my first London job still up and running and archived for posterity. Amazing to remember we needed more tech skills to add content to those pages than the blog on which I’m posting now!

With many thanks to Dr Williams Library for hosting the event and to London DH Group co-convener and MA LIS student Inga Jones for circulating details.

Image: theirhistory, copyright commons