Project Alpha: Building an archive for everyone

Project Alpha is about The National Archives envisaging what we would create if we were to start completely anew with our website, as part of our new strategy, Archives for Everyone.

We have some big, interesting challenges. With 34 million descriptions of records, our online catalogue is vast and it is easy for people to feel lost. Not everyone who might benefit from the archive has a well-formed research question or knows how to use our services. The experience can feel intimidating and confusing. In part this is because archival catalogues are very different to other types of catalogue.

This is an enormous topic, but through its catalogue the archive aims both to aid people to discover records of interest and also to help users know what a given record is evidence of (by explaining who created the record and what were they doing). Our catalogue is an amazing and elaborate information system. It is just nothing like a Google search, which is how most people go about finding things on the web. We believe archives are for everyone, so we are having a rethink.

Photograph of the exterior of The National Archives buildings and waterfront at Kew.

A blank sheet of paper

Working in an archive we have long memories. Taking inspiration from alpha.gov.uk (which led to GOV.UK), we’re aiming to build and test, in public, a prototype of a new website for The National Archives. It will be shaped by user needs, follow service design principles and make the best use of modern technologies.

We’re taking a ‘blank sheet of paper’ approach to Project Alpha, challenging ourselves to look beyond our current technological and cultural limitations, to define what a modern, accessible archive should and could be for all our users.

Importantly, Project Alpha is not intended to be an instant replacement for our existing website. Our aim is to complete the Explore and Alpha phases (not Beta and Live) by the end of the financial year.

Exploring the possibilities

To help us achieve this we’re collaborating with content and service design experts Digirati. We’re really excited to be working with the team at Digirati, who have a formidable track record of delivering large scale, user-focused development projects, helping organisations unlock content and data.

During the next six months we’re going to focus on the following key areas:

  • Exploring prototypes with new technologies
  • Simplifying user journeys and transactions
  • Making our collection more accessible and inclusive for all users
  • Opening up The National Archives to new audiences, both online and on site

For the Digital Services team, Project Alpha is an exciting opportunity to address many of the frustrations our users have with our current website. We want everyone to have an accessible, inclusive and, above all, enjoyable experience, while meeting our responsibilities of being the UK Government’s official archive.

Project Alpha has only just begun, and we still have a long way to go. In the coming months we’ll be sharing insights and experiments as we begin prototyping our ideas. We’ll also be inviting you to get involved.

This post is also available on our new Medium blog.

0 comments

  1. Jacqui Kirk says:

    I don’t think the gov.uk website as a model is a point in your favour John.

    However making TNA’s more functional is a good idea as it is really difficult to find things since its move to a kind of “newsletter” format. Most people have no idea about the red button menu and what it contains for instance. Most are searching for what exactly you hold and yet have no idea how brilliant and user-friendly and sophisticated Discovery is in relation to other online archive catalogues.

    But a plea – we have taken a long time to get used to Discovery and it has been a traumatic process at times as we adjusted. Please don’t ignore your existing users and their needs and expectation in the rush to embrace the new and attract new users.

  2. Anne Samson says:

    I agree completely with Jacqui.
    The new onsite discovery front page is most helpful too. Would be nice to have it on the external search.

  3. Ann Bennett says:

    I still type ‘a2a’ into Google to access the beginning of a TNA catalogue search. It is so easy to type and remember.

  4. Barbara Casson says:

    I will be so happy to see the new catalogue setup. Have always had problems finding what I want.
    I live in US and our National Archives is making their possessions more online accessible. The
    driver is partly every family’s desire to find their ancestors as far make as possible. Thank you
    for your work.

  5. Richard says:

    An interesting post and one that – prompted by Jacqui’s comments above – made me not just read the blog posts (the area I have my shortcut set to) but once at the blog, explore the groupings under the ‘Red Button’ menu, something I haven’t done previously. ‘Red Button’ is a simple but very useful one stop shortcut to Discovery and more.

    Also agree with the Discovery comments by Anne and Jacqui – be gentle with us regarding changes! National Archives staff will have chances to be briefed and comment.that we users can never have and so whatever changes are made it may be us users and not the system that are ‘clunky’.

    Oh.. and as Jacqui implies please use your creativity and avoid the desert-dry ‘gov.uk’ pages.

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