Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Maximising access to, and understanding of, major archives

Dan Jones owns the Domesday Book.

Well, not quite, but it is housed in the National Archives, where he works. The Domesday Book is just one of the 60 million documents available for immediate electronic download (cripes!). Their approach is driven by changing user behaviour (increasing web literacy and expectations) and the pervasiveness of high bandwidth broadband. But in digitising their archives they must contend with over 175km of shelving and over 10 million catalogue entries; Dan's "back of the fag packet" estimate of costs to digitise all this data is over £5 billion (double cripes!).

Models of digitisation
The Archives digitisation activities are funded from internal budgets, commercial investment and grants. Segmentation of the target markets [and presumably funders' mandates?] informs decisions about which services are charged for, and which are free at the point of use.

Strategic partnerships
Content is digitised in different ways depending on demand: strategic partners are contracted for high-demand items, and digital assets, once created, are non-exclusive - i.e. available for repurposing within other services. One current project is the 1911 census. 5 scanners are running round the clock to create 40,000 images per day; these are QAd and transcribed in the Philippines, enabling details of over 35 million individuals to be comprehensively searched. The data will lend itself to use by genealogists, academics, schools and for statistical analysis. The strategic partnership through which the project is operated minimises the risk for the National Archives and allows them (as a facilitator) to simultaneously carry out other work. But there is a potential for the partners' interests to diverge, and the project's agenda has to be balanced to represent the interests of a broader stakeholder group.

Internal delivery
The JISC-funded project to digitise Cabinet Papers from 1916-75 is complex - the papers are handwritten, and don't lend themselves well to digitisation.

Providing context
Autonomy search has been deployed to provide an integrated search function across all databases and websites. Newer archives have been loaded into a Wiki-based resource which allows individual experts to contribute their ideas and information; "some of our users are far more expert in particular areas of these holdings than we are ourselves".

Future challenges
  • Georeferencing will allow map collections to be unlocked
  • organic growth of legacy systems means experts need considerable training to operate systems (so tools need to be developed)
  • customer tools also need to be constantly reconsidered
  • projects and programmes need to be financially sustainable.

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