Don’t get trampled in the online rush: Advice for making archive collections accessible during the shutdown

So. Here we are. There’s a lot going on and we’re all just trying to roll with the punches.

Amongst ‘all this’, one of the many things that might be happening is that your manager, who perhaps previously wasn’t that interested in digital innovation, is suddenly demanding to know where and when you will be putting every digital image of your collections that you can lay a glove on online. And could ‘when’ be now, today, immediately?

This is the entrance to your archive now. But what’s so new about that?

This is entirely understandable. But in a rush to digital, important things sometimes get forgotten. Why you’re doing what you’re doing. The needs of your audience. Who precisely you’re aiming to reach. You need to take some time to think about these things.

You will be under pressure not to do this. And there’s absolutely nothing stopping you shoving some nice scans on Instagram to buy some time (…or would Pinterest be better?). But having bought that time, take a breath and have a think.

There are tools to help you structure those thoughts. I’m quite fond of this project canvas from Clearleft, even though it’s a bit old now. Its first question is ‘what audience needs are we satisfying?’. Think about what people need right now – it’s not the same for everyone. Some people are looking for distractions, resources, teaching material, ways of contributing. Other people…not so much.

In order to move activity online, first think about the digital assets you might already have published. Does your institution have content on Art UK or Watercolour World? Have you added content to Wikimedia Commons (or has a helpful Wikipedian done it for you)? What microsites have you produced over the years? What educational resources do you have?

If you have a blog, it might be time to mine some of your favourite or most successful posts – if you don’t know what those are it’s time to revisit stats you might not have examined for a while.

Now is the time for this content to repay your investment in it and really sing for its supper. We often invest more in doing digital projects than talking about them. Now is the time to adopt the opposite approach. Your existing catalogue or collections you have in or can add to Discovery, even without scans being available, can start a conversation, whether it’s a manuscript warning about Welsh giants, astrologers predicting air raids or pirate treasure.

What sessions that you used to run on site, could you realistically run on a platform such as Gotomeeting, Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate? If you are used to using social media to regularly post some interesting image from your collection, now may be the time to step things up a bit, have more of two-way conversation with your audience and ask them what they want from you at this time. Are there transcription, tagging or creative activities they could join in with?

But if your organisation has persistently underinvested in digital for years it may be that, having looked at what you have, you feel the cupboard is comparatively bare. Now then is the time for some thoughtful experimentation.

Let’s take a platform like TED Education. Now’s there’s a brand. It’s very easy to pop in and build a resource around a YouTube video – it could be a TED talk or it could be something else. Here’s a lesson (in the language of the platform) on the Great Library of Alexandria with over a million views. The considerations here are around the constraints of the platform. Lessons consist of a video, some text, multiple choice questions and a space for discussion. And that’s it. Does that meet the need you had in mind? If it doesn’t, this isn’t the platform for you.

The same applies everywhere. Google Arts and Culture, a platform run by the not-for-profit Google Cultural Institute, offers increasingly sophisticated tools for institutions prepared to use them creatively. You can initiate the process of sign up right here. But how familiar are you with this platform? Would you, have you, used it yourself? What would your existing users make of it? Some of the content is pretty much a slide show. Does it meet your and their needs?

There are many interesting Google tools that don’t require partnering with the GCI – from maps to their virtual tour creator. If you’re looking for an open source alternative for sharing collections, then Omeka (also available as a hosted service) remains an interesting place to start. Or maybe it’s time to get your hands dirty with WordPress or Github Pages.

Of course, you already have a website. Why can’t you put content there? If you struggle with this it is perhaps because IT colleagues have not made this easy. Now is the time to send your (possibly too) enthusiastic manager off to try to resolve this. The opportunity to gain greater control over your web presence may not recur for some time. Don’t waste it.

Tools are not in short supply. You like maps? Try Historypin or Layers of London (it works north of Watford). Esri let you make storymaps (as my colleague Caroline Catchpole has described) but so does the Knight Foundation. In fact, journalists are excellent at digital storytelling and many interesting and powerful tools covering a wide range of use cases and functions can be found via Hackastory.

Above all, make sure you are writing for the platform you are working on. If we just cut and paste exhibition text on to a website, we will end up with a very strange website. We have to produce content that reflects the functions and norms of the sites we are using. Take the time to learn what these are or your approach is unlikely to succeed. More in depth consideration of access and engagement can be found in Tate’s Access Toolkit, or in our Plugged in, Powered Up strategy document.

Old fashioned Reithian principles of inform, educate and entertain can still serve us – just think, how can your collection help today? How can it put what is happening into some context? How can it make things better? And – here’s a final hint – the answer is probably not this.

Stay safe, good luck and take it slow.


  1. David William Matthew says:

    I am sure that most researchers prefer to look at original documents, not a digital one, not least because of the feel of the document. I would suggest that it is impossible to put every document onto a digital platform, not least from an economic as well as a preservation point of view. The Coronavirus will pass and as happened in the past (two World Wars; closure of the Public Record Office in the 1980s) researchers will still be able to access the records in due course.

  2. Jo Pugh says:

    Hi David. In my experience, researchers often prefer a document they can access right now from their laptop from one requiring (possibly long distance, even international) travel to an institution they might never have visited before – obviously it depends very much on the researcher and their research need. But clearly every document isn’t heading to a platform any time soon. This is just about encouraging us all to be reflective when they think about digital provision.

  3. P.Dorricott says:

    not every one can get or afford to go to London the Archive should be digitised and put online by the government and not a third party that will charge us a fortune to look at our own history

    1. Matthew de Ville (Admin) says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      Our collection is huge and covers 1,000 years of history, and it would take many years (and a lot of money) to digitise it all and make it available. That’s why we work with commercial licensing partners, as they’re able to invest money into digitising some of our most popular records on our behalf, making them available to people around the world, rather than just the few who can get to our reading rooms in Kew.

      Many of our commercial partners (including Ancestry, Findmypast and The Genealogist) offer 14-day free trials, so you can access their services (and search our collections) on a ‘try before you buy’ basis.

      As we’ve announced recently, we’re planning to make our digitised collection (digital records available on Discovery, our catalogue) available free of charge soon – we’ll provide an update on this soon.

  4. Paul Alexander Burt says:

    Well you could always move out of London? Most of us don’t live there. It’s cheaper to run any operation from outside the capital. Many of London’s residents have little connection with this country’s past. The cost of visiting and staying in London is prohibitive for most of us in the rest of the U.K. to access OUR records. If the BBC, Imperial War Museum and the Tate can realise that why not our National Archives?

  5. Alex Bromley says:

    Agree absolutely about finding out who your audience is and what they want. I’ve found the hardest thing to achieve when presenting archives is a usable version of the archival hierarchy. Although many users will want to be guided, others won’t. Presenting a hierarchy allows these users to explore an archive in their own way.

    Whatever you decide, make sure you take into account copyright and GDPR issues as these can get conveniently forgotten in the rush to put stuff online.

    Good luck!

  6. Jacqui Kirk says:

    Thanks for this helpful advice Jo. Writing this in November 2020 as we are about to enter a second lockdown after some degree of freedom for some of the population it seems clear that any hopes that it would all go away and we would get back to normal were totally unfounded. This is our new reality – for many of us (and this includes the majority of family and local history researchers) we may never feel safe enough to go to an archive for some years yet and many are shielding to keep others safe.

    Taking collections online is something that cannot be rushed. If as you say we use what we already have while working to add more in due course we can hope to educate, entertain and inform whilst remaining in the public eye so we are not forgotten. Covid-19 is an opportunity for some of us to drag our users and archives into the 21st century!

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