Archives Hub: a Window on UK Archives

by Jane Stevenson

22 Feb Archives Hub: a Window on UK Archives

The Yerusha blog has launched a series of guest posts on projects whose mission is similar to ours: to unite, through digital means, scattered pieces of cultural heritage. Our first post was on the Footprints project, the second focused on the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure. This current piece presents Archives Hub, a project that brings together archival information from over 300 institutions located in the UK.

If you visit Archives Hub and search for ‘Jewish’ you get 1116 hits on archive descriptions that include this term.

The hits are for archives widely dispersed across the UK. They include repositories you might expect, such as the Wiener Library and British Library, and repositories that may not immediately spring to mind, such as the V&A Museum Archive of Art and Design and West Yorkshire Archive service.


Map View showing the location of collections that match the search term. The user can zoom in and select a repository to see the collection descriptions.

The aggregation of descriptions of UK archives provides researchers with a way to quickly locate archives useful to their research, something that is extremely valuable when you are dealing with unique sources, held in one physical location, where archives related to your subject area may be widely dispersed.

The Archives Hub makes this possible by bringing descriptions together within a single system, normalising, indexing and making the descriptions available through a website and API.  We work closely with contributors, providing information, advice and support in the creation and submission of descriptions. We have provided a cataloguing tool for some years now, and at the moment approximately 80% of the descriptions on the Hub come via this route. We are currently re-writing this tool, in order to allow for more structure and impose more rigour on the resultant descriptions. This is vital if we want to end up with a store of reusable data. For example, we are enabling contributors to include not just places, but addresses and geographical features. It has always been straightforward to index by a place, but what if you want to index a cemetery, a river or a mountain? There is a need to balance what is possible, what is preferable and what is practical. We are also working with contributors to take descriptions directly from their archive management systems, something which has involved a great deal of work to analyse and process the data.  One of the biggest challenges archives have is legacy catalogue records, and many descriptions that are in archive systems reflect legacy cataloguing styles and standards (or lack of!). We would love to embark upon some work around data enhancement at some point – looking to bring more structure to current descriptions. This is becoming more possible as tools are developed that allow for sophisticated data mining.

Another innovation within the new cataloguing tool is the ability to look up names by VIAF, the Virtual International Authority File. So, if you want to index by the ‘World Jewish Congress’ you can look it up in VIAF and apply the VIAF ID to your term. That way, the term is unambiguously identified, and it is easier to link the archive to other data sources using the same ID. One small step along the way to connecting data sources, and thus helping to further our knowledge and understanding.

We have recently introduced a new website, which is the public facing reflection of the work we have done creating an entirely new system. Our aim was to completely re-think the way that we process data, in order to ‘normalise’ the sometimes very varied descriptions that we get into the Hub. The more standardised the data, the more potential it has, facilitating the introduction of new features to help with navigation and discovery.

Going back to the search for ‘Jewish’, the user can filter by repository, subject, creator and date, and we have also introduced the ability to filter by those descriptions containing or linking to digital content. The user can see a brief hit list, or expand the list to show reference, location and extent.


The new tree structure shows the user where they are in the collection description.

We have also introduced an innovative tree that allows for navigation through the structure, complete expansion to open the whole structure, and an indication of size and context through a ‘mini map’ representation of the archive.

The Archives Hub is a reflection of the rich, diverse, surprising and wonderful collections of archives held across the UK. We wanted a data model and website that would enable us to bring out the best in these collections. Furthermore, we wanted a set of data that had the potential to be used in other ways, maybe in other interfaces. I believe we have achieved that aim, although it is always a work in progress and we have plenty of development goals for the coming years.

Jane Stevenson is the Service Manager of Archives Hub