The National Archives are currently working to enable any archive within the United Kingdom to contribute catalogue descriptions to Discovery, our online catalogue, where they can be found and used by researchers globally.
To do this we have built a tool named Manage Your Collections that archives can upload their catalogues into. We work in an agile culture here, which means we adjust to evolving requirements as the project progresses, rather than sticking rigidly to preliminary scoping. This has been very useful for this project because what we originally believed we could and should develop would not have served the sector in the way we want the tool to.
A large number of archives do not use cataloguing software or have an online catalogue. To help these archives get their catalogue descriptions online, the tool allows archives to upload Excel spreadsheets of catalogue descriptions directly into Discovery.
This functionality necessitated creating an Excel template which archives could populate and then upload. This was quite a difficult and lengthy process. Firstly we had to decide on the fields we should include in the template. We wanted archives to be able to include all the data they needed to, but we didn’t want it to seem overwhelming or overly complicated. We also had to consider how we could make sure the data inputted was of good quality, and how we could make sure the fields were not changed or altered before upload, as this would mean the tool wouldn’t recognise the catalogue.
To test the template and the tool’s functionality, we ran two ‘Guerrilla Cataloguing Days’. This involved seven members of the project team at The National Archives going into two archives and cataloguing their material into our template, and then uploading the Excel spreadsheets into Discovery using the Manage Your Collections tool.
At Hammersmith and Fulham Local Studies and Archives we catalogued six small collections of local significance, including campaign papers, and those of local people and groups. At Southwark Local History Library and Archives we catalogued the papers of the Bermondsey Labour Party, with each cataloguer taking on a series within the collection.
Prior to the event, we visited both archives to explain the project, plan the logistics of the day and assess any practicalities. We asked that they select collections they felt could reasonably be catalogued within a day, taking into consideration the number of cataloguers involved, the space available and the complexity of the collections. The archives also had to make sure all the material was onsite.
We knew that cataloguing even a small collection within a day would be a challenge. To combat this, we requested that the archives arrange the collections ahead of the Guerrilla Cataloguing Days, so the cataloguers would only need to describe the material in the determined structure. We also asked that the archives write fonds-level descriptions for the collections ahead of the event so we could more easily understand the material and quickly begin describing the individual files.
The Guerrilla Cataloguing Days were both a fun and useful exercise. They revealed the quirks of cataloguing using Excel. Excel likes to reformat dates, it doesn’t have an automatic spell-check and cutting and pasting data into the spreadsheets overwrites the validation checks and tool tips we had inputted into certain cells to ease upload. It also won’t work as intuitively as a cataloguing system because it is designed to hold any kind of data. We will be working to improve our template’s useability based on these findings. In addition, when we tested uploading the catalogues, we learnt more about how the tool responds to real data. This has necessitated amending the coding so there are fewer mandatory fields and the output displays correctly.
We also took the opportunity whilst we were visiting the archives to test the tool’s useability. It is hard to know what might be unclear or incomprehensible to users when you are working closely on the development of a system. The archivists and volunteers who took part in the testing gave us really helpful feedback on what they thought the tool’s interface was supporting and what they didn’t understand. We are responding to the feedback by tweaking the design of the tool and producing guidance in the form of written help pages and video tutorials.
The project is ambitious, but we are delighted to confirm that we are now able to accept Excel uploads of catalogue descriptions. For more information on this, please feel free to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org. In the next year, we will be working towards accepting EAD uploads of catalogue descriptions into the tool, and will start crawling and indexing online catalogues so that catalogue descriptions from collections at archives across the sector can be searched for and viewed through Discovery.
Digital Development Officer
The National Archives