More comprehensive Discovery

Regular readers may be aware of our continued efforts to improve Discovery, our catalogue, and make it a more comprehensive service. It currently provides access to more than 32 million descriptions of records held at The National Archives and in more than 2,500 other archives across the United Kingdom.

Prior to Discovery, The National Archives provided records information via a number of different services. These services were managed, updated and supported by different teams in different ways. Bringing these resources together means that Discovery now offers the most comprehensive overview of records held by UK archives and beyond. Its coverage of UK private and public records is unique.

To remain accurate and to become more comprehensive, Discovery needs to be continually updated to reflect new material as it is accessioned (received) and catalogued across the archives sector. In the past, initiatives to expand the content in our resources have relied on editorial staff at The National Archives, or large funded projects to generate more descriptions. With Discovery we knew that we wanted to do things differently, by starting to shift control of content over to its owners, the archives services.

Over the past year we have begun work on a set of administrative tools for Discovery which will help towards that goal by enabling us to curate data here at The National Archives and in turn allow for archives services to contribute data directly to Discovery at a time and pace that suits them.

Engaging with other archives

During that time, we had a series of conversations with other archives, to gather sample catalogue data and to learn more about current accessioning and cataloguing practice. These trials generated a lot of discussion points and we knew that we needed to meet with colleagues from across the archives sector to share our findings. Last month we held a workshop here at The National Archives to discuss the future of the Discovery service and encourage discussion.

It is very important for us to continually engage with our users, including archives professionals, because we work on a principle of user-centred design for our digital services. For more detail about how we apply this principle, you may find this blog my colleague Paul interesting.

Demonstrating prototypes to generate discussion

Demonstrating prototypes to generate discussion

The workshop was an opportunity for us to update colleagues on our progress, share prototypes of some new features, and invite discussion of themes drawn from our telephone research. Over the course of the workshop, many ideas were raised, particularly around how archives approach accessioning and description of collections, and how they see the challenge of sharing their data.

We use sticky notes to record ideas and requirements

We use sticky notes to record ideas and requirements

Ideas from the session were recorded on sticky notes. In total we wrote down more than 130 ideas, many of which will be developed into full user requirements which will shape the future form and function of Discovery.

One of the ideas discussed at the workshop was developing some kind of Discovery contributor group, a community space that would enable active contributors to Discovery to discuss their experiences sharing archival data and case studies of best practice. We are already looking at ways to make this a reality.

We received some really positive feedback from the workshop, including:

Matti Watton, Archivist, Lambeth Palace Library:

‘As we are likely to be a contributor of external data to Discovery, it was good to be able to discuss how its development can fit with our needs. Since the way archive services operate and their circumstances can differ so much, consulting them about how they might engage with Discovery has to be an important part of its development.’

David Tilsley, Collections Manager, Lancashire Archives:

‘I do think future Discovery development offers a unique opportunity to work together to significantly extend the reach of our collections information and increase access.’

As a result of this feedback, and the vibrant discussion at the workshop, we knew we needed to reach a wider audience to encourage discussion right across the archives sector. To achieve that, we have planned two further workshops in November.

The overall objective of these workshops is to develop a clear sense of what the wider archives sector would like Discovery to offer. This will help to inform our work and foster focused and transparent development of the Discovery service. As we make progress, we will publish our finding and provide regular updates on the development of Discovery.

Your feedback

If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comments section below, or send your feedback via Discovery.


  1. David Matthew says:

    Discovery still has flaws particularly over the subject indexes, for example files about the ‘Brain Drain’ are listed under sewerage! and cash limits are listed under ‘Inflation’ whereas they are about ‘government finance’ and until we have a better indexing system the issues remain. As I have said before we really do need another category for files from the 1950s onwards as it is too big and needs to be split into 1950-1978 or 1979 I think that a category than runs from 1979 or 1980 onwards is required.

  2. […] Regular readers may be aware of our continued efforts to improve Discovery, our catalogue, and make it a more comprehensive service. It currently provides access to more than 32 million… Go to Source […]

  3. Simon Fowler says:

    What used to be ‘Archon’ – the directory of UK archives – doesn’t really fit into the rest of Discovery. Indeed it is now much less useful than it was before the merger. Could you recreate it out as a standalone database?

  4. Helen C says:

    Simon, I’m not quite sure what you mean. It’s not called ARCHON any more, but as far as I can see ‘Find an archive’ looks just like it. I’ve certainly been using it in exactly the same way as I used to use ARCHON, and I actually like the style of the new contact pages better than the old ones.

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