Developing an online catalogue

Summary

The Bank of England undertook work to make its existing electronic archive catalogue available online for the first time to meet user demand for increased accessibility. Publishing the catalogue online was a project. An electronic archive catalogue has been available to researchers in the Bank's search-room since 2003, and since then it has been an aim to make it available online. After many years work editing and improving the content, structure and descriptions of the catalogue, the project was initiated in 2010.

Date of project: 2010 to 2012

Challenges and opportunities

Creation of the online catalogue was in response to identified needs for increased accessibility: to help researchers find relevant material in advance of a physical visit and to minimise the amount of staff time spent dealing with initial enquiries about material held. Archive staff saw an opportunity to make the online catalogue a dynamic resource that could link to more context (the 'Name Search' feature) and a resource that could reach out to new users (through web search engines). It was also a chance to update the intranet version of the catalogue and to raise its profile within the Bank by having a launch and promotional events. In making the internal version more user-friendly and accessible and in raising awareness of its value, the expectation is that there will be an increased use of archives to support business needs. 

More broadly the online catalogue ties into the Bank's key objectives, particularly its aims for accountability, international debate, and public understanding.

The main challenge was the complexity of the project. It involved many specialist skills and therefore many people within the Bank (Archive, IT Application Development and Security, and Web teams), all with different priorities and time tables. The project therefore took longer than anticipated and required careful management.

Responding to challenges and opportunities

To prepare and ascertain what could be achieved with the resources available and with the chosen software, Archive staff undertook significant research into existing online catalogues and their features. This identified the opportunity to add context to the catalogue using the 'Name search' feature, which required the creation of a database of authority name terms linked to all the relevant records.

The response to the complexity of the project was to appoint an internal Project Manager who was better able to co-ordinate the people and the varied work that was involved.

To mitigate faults with the online catalogue, it was tested by internal users and published on the Bank intranet several months before the website publication. The testing did raise issues that were fixed prior to the catalogue's external publication.

The creation of the catalogue was an opportunity to promote the archives. The catalogue was well publicised internally, which increased awareness of the Archive service. External publicity was carefully targeted, mainly as a way of managing demand. This initial promotion was picked up by other organisations, particularly family history publications, so there was still a high level of public interest.

What were the outcomes?

The Bank has monitored the success of the online catalogue through a feedback form on the home page of the catalogue, via email contact with regular users, through participation in the Public Services Quality Group survey of visitors to UK archives 2012, via web surveying software, and via enquiries that come from people who have used it.

All the feedback received has been extremely positive and the evidence to date shows that the catalogue is being used regularly and increasingly by a significant number of researchers, and that it is reaching new users. Responses from some users display a belief that the Bank has published a larger catalogue than was previously available, which is not true, but seems to suggest that without time constraint and perhaps in the comfort of one's own home, people search the catalogue more effectively. Staff have also noticed a difference in the enquiries received - approximately a sixth of all enquiries since the catalogue was published online have quoted the catalogue - and those who ask whether the Bank holds archives relevant to their research, can be directed to the catalogue. It has therefore been successful in enabling users to undertake their own initial research.

What went well? What didn't go quite as well?

Creating accessible pages was not straightforward. A great deal of time was spent designing the pages, but there were factors that affected what was possible. Options were limited by the software and this affected accessibility by determining how information could be presented and navigated to. With IT assistance, staff were able to design and configure the pages so that they are more intuitive.

Staff saw great potential for raising awareness of the archives through web search engines. Unfortunately there are issues with how some search engines harvest data that would seriously affect the online catalogue's ability to process searches, or at worst, cause it to crash frequently. The descriptions in the catalogue are therefore not able to be searched externally at present.

Staff have learnt that in spite of best efforts to make instructions simple, concise, and clearly visible, they are often overlooked, which can lead to ineffective searches and incorrect expectations. It is therefore important to make a catalogue as easy to use as possible and not rely on instructions, and to be aware of expectations so that they can be mitigated, or where possible, met.

Promoting the catalogue, in contrast, was relatively simple.

How will this work be developed in the future?

The catalogue is a work in progress. It will be updated every quarter when additional records will be added. The 'Name search' feature will be developed to include all the Bank departments throughout its history to compliment an administrative history of the Bank.

A programme to develop digital archive content will open the collection further, enabling selected series of records to be viewed online. And if in the future the catalogue can be scanned by search engines, even more users will have access to the variety and breadth of information that is held within the Bank's Archive.

 Search the Bank of England Archive Catalogue .