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Current good practice in search and discovery: your help invited

With a view to informing the search and discovery strategy for the Georgian Papers Programme, Chris Olver, Metadata Coordinator for the GPP at King’s College London,  has surveyed over 40 historical sites variously developed in the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand Canada, Germany and. The Netherlands The survey included examples of manuscript transcription projects, historical databases, meta-aggregators, on line finding aids and electronic printed editions. A majority of the sites surveyed included a significant quantity of eighteenth century material but good practice in subject indexing, use of authority files and linked data was also of interest where it was likely that approaches were applicable to the Programme. Sites had variously been compiled by teams of academics, librarians and archivists and some predated the internet.

All suggestions about well-regarded and used sites have been followed up and further suggestions and thoughts will be very welcome. Do please tell us about which sites you find useful and why or indeed what you would like to do on a site but can’t.

Below is a list of the sites surveyed to date:

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Our conclusions to date from the survey about what makes a good site are:

– Websites need to be simple to use and easy to navigate and allow users to filter results in a number of different ways.

– The most effective browsing options navigate through authority files.
– The use of international standards based authority files facilitates cross searching other databases.
– Subject headings (hierarchically arranged) provide more focused search terms than keywords.

– The provision of open access to datasets allows researchers the ability to download records and preform textual and visual analyses that may not be possible within the site.

To these we would add some of the key conclusions of work undertaken in developing the Wellcome Medical Heritage Library:

– The need to provide an explanation of the corpus- what is and what is not on or covered by the site
– Sites should be capable of revealing networks of people, places, practices, suppliers, thoughts etc.
– Browsing/discovery through serendipity remains essential-the lightbulb idea that springs from chance discovery
– The integrity of the digital object must be preserved. Wellcome describe this as the ‘bookishness of the book’. For archivists this is about preserving the provenance of the object and associated contextual information.

These ideas were shared at the recent Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture annual conference in Worcester, MA and valuable feedback obtained. Colleagues in attendance suggested the following additional sites were important for their work:

  • Brieven als buit [Letters are Loot]: research database constructed by Leiden University allowing access to 40,000 Dutch letters from 17-early 19th century gathered from British archives. The website is extremely well indexed and allows visitors to search using Corpus Query language.
  • Documenting the American South: DocSouth provides access to a range of digital records of the American South run by the University of North Carolina. Site is very well indexed with multiple search pathways including browsing by Libary of Congress Subject Headings. 
  • Empire Online: a digital repository created by Adam Matthews, publishers. The site was recommended for having excellent contextual essays relating to the site content.
  • The digital library of the Franke Foundations was recommended for having great search features, including faced navigation and indexing. The library also has incorporated an adjustable document viewer and includes full text transcriptions.
  • Gallica (National Library of France): The Digital Library of the National Library of France, originally created in 1997 but recently overhauled, has a very impressive interface with multiple search pathways and a very sophisticated image viewer. 
  • Marine Lives: provides substantial amount of transcribed mid-17th century content from the English Admiralty Court. 
  • Massachusetts Historical Society: The oldest historical society in USA has a vast collection of digital resources, teaching aids, blogs and current events. 
  • MEAD (The Magazine for Early American Datasets): This online repository for historians’ datasets is a fantastic concept. The datasets are free to download with the metadata capturing donor information, context of work and place of origin. 
  • Nines (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship): is a meta-aggregator that collects information from 139 nineteenth century sources.  
  • Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: remarkable series of databases that was originally published on CD-ROM in 1999. The project has been running for decades and provides information on voyages undertaken, estimates for numbers of slaves and an African names database. 

We will be following up these suggestions and look forward to hearing your thoughts on search and discovery.

Patricia Methven, GPP Programme Manager, King’s College London

Georgian Papers Programme 2015/16: Beginning the transformation

It is now just over a year since HM The Queen formally launched the Georgian Papers Programme at Windsor Castle. That event marked the culmination of numbers of conversations with potentially interested parties and supporters and detailed work on scoping and costing. What would it take in person power, building works and academic investment to transform access to the uncatalogued 18th century Royal Archives, to unlock their potential for academic research and public engagement?

Well, where are we now? At Windsor the creation of a joint King’s College London- Royal Archives post of project Coordinator has supported the completion of the scoping and costing of digitisation and enhanced physical access and allowed some toes to be dipped in the water about the potential richness of the content. With the appointment of new posts at King’s and the Royal Archives in February-March 2016, digitisation has begun and cataloguing is underway in Windsor while at King’s the focus is on requirements gathering on search strategies or the stuff under the bonnet that will allow you to be confident that your search terms really are locating the material which is of interest. Work is equally underway in testing the potential of handwritten transcription and how best to support microsite development and innovative interrogation of available text.

Building work now in progress inside Windsor’s tower will result by early July 2016 in a modern archive facility. Regular five day access is also planned with the caveat that the Castle is the home of the Monarch and some work day closures are to be expected.

The academic challenge for the Programme is perhaps no less complex than adapting an iconic tower. How do you begin to secure interest and support for a research strategy when you are not confident about what is there? We began by speculating on the basis of the known-knowns and in a variety of exploratory seminars we have shared ideas about potentially rich lines of enquiries on subjects as diverse as breeding stocks, social networks, diet and the impact of female patronage. In this we have been fortunate to benefit from the leadership of King’s Centre for Enlightenment Studies and the input of colleagues from the British Museum, the Science Museum, the National Maritime Museum, Yale, Harvard and, of course, the Royal Archives and Royal Library. Just how much value the Royal Archives might add to our understanding was hinted at in the joint Centre and Programme public lecture by Professor Amanda Vickery on ‘The Political Day’ which reflected a painstaking compilation of the detail of political and influence networks around Westminster.

The move to testing the known-unknowns has been informed by the approach suggested by King’s primary US Programme partners, The Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture and the College of William and Mary. In 2015 the Omohundro funded two month long fellowships for researchers willing to explore the potential of the archives for their own research and to feedback on their findings to the Programme. Two fellowships were equally funded by King’s, and although the value for specific lines of enquiry has inevitably varied, researchers all reported back on the potential richness of the untapped archives .In 2016 the Omohundro, in a fantastic vote of confidence, has committed to funding up to eight fellowships a year for the duration of the Programme to 2020 through its Lapidus Initiative.

What next for 2016? First digital content is now being made digitally available in King’s Archives Services and the Swem Library of the College of William and Mary to allow professional librarians, archivists and information scientists to test strategies for enhancement and access. In June, at the annual Omohundro conference in Worcester, MA, existing ideas on access and discovery were shared and tested. Already, the first of a succession of Omohundro and King’s supported fellows planned for this year, has spent time in the Royal Archives continuing to transform our understanding of the potential of the Royal Archives while undertaking their own research. They will be soon joined by the first of five fellows to be appointed annually by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. In November the Programme will welcome Professor Andrew O’ Shaughnessy, the first Sons of the American Revolution supported visiting professor to King’s and the Royal Archives.

For news on the progress of digitisation and access, opportunities for fellowships and engagement with the Programme please keep an eye on this site which mirrors the Omohundro site, which can be found here:


Patricia Methven, Programme Manager

Georgian Papers Programme, King’s College London