Developing online access

The British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) aims to 'connect people through the evolving story of communications past and present'. Its core values are sharing, excellence, enjoyment, preservation and learning.  The BPMA is a charitable trust whose major funder is Royal Mail Ltd.

The BPMA runs a host of online services and has an active internet presence.

What were the drivers for developing BPMA's online activity?

Limited capacity for an onsite service means that BPMA aims to maximise online delivery. When the archive service was established in 2004 it was provided with robust resourcing to undertake cataloguing work which has provided the basis for giving access to collections. The development of virtual services has enabled the BPMA to show the unexpected side of British postal history such as the Suffragettes, involvement in the First World War and the Easter Rising, rather than just stamps and post boxes.

While developing online resources staff used their detailed knowledge of the collections, acquired while cataloguing the collections and developed skills in creating and managing website content.

What is the BPMA's online strategy and how was it informed?

The core theme of the collection is about communicating over long distances and therefore it is appropriate that the BPMA's activities should use the internet to talk about the communications of the past. 

Strategically this means identifying new audiences within online communities, developing an understanding of their interests and developing quality content and interpretation to appeal to these groups with particular interests, as well as developing content to appeal to a wider non-specific audience.

Crucial to developing new audiences is understanding the underlying reason for users to be online, for example people use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends but may also be interested in stamps.
The Digital Media Strategy is a four-year programme of activity, which has seen its remit expand massively beyond just the website and online catalogue.

Identifying and reaching specialist audiences using Flickr:

The BPMA adds material to web and social media sites to measure interest in the material. The BPMA identifies groups for example on Flickr who may be interested in its images, for example of pillar-boxes, and it adds its images to those groups. Group members then move on to other groups and that way audiences continue to expand as BPMA identifies new communities and their interests.

Reaching non-specialist audiences:

BPMA uses the general media as a channel for the BPMA collections to non-specialist audiences, for example making available online items from the BPMA collection which relate to historical events with media interest. BPMA featured in both the New York Times and Esquire Magazine on its fashion blog using Victorian postal uniforms, which were militaristic, but also stylish compared modern UPS outfits.

Describe the key elements of the BPMA's online services and what benefits do they deliver to users?

The website is aimed at a general audience with articles featuring a broad range of material from the collections, including many images, using topics which appeal to a wider group, for example women in the Post Office. If one of these topics relate to a current news story BPMA will add a link to Facebook or Flickr so people can access it more easily.
 
The blog has been running for four years, with three new posts every week. Regular posting means BPMA can tap into commemorative events. The blog is mix of news about collections, marketing and promoting exhibitions or new shop products. The blog is aimed at a general audience and is journalistic in style. The Great Train Robbery blog appeared in the New York Times as the blog was posted on the same day as a related event which the New York Times ran a story on and linked to the BPMA blog.

There is an online catalogue with the interface provided by the cataloguing software company. BPMA is now working with a third party which specialises in presenting heritage collections to develop this catalogue interface.

What resources are required to create and maintain this online service?

There are two full-time members of staff responsible for writing and implementing the digital media strategy. One is dedicated to maintaining and developing the online presence, both the website and social media presence, the other is dedicated to the online catalogue and creating digital content. Other BPMA staff write content and are expected to write blogs. The Director of the BPMA is responsible for driving content to the website, social media, communications, marketing, and income generation.

Funding:

  • a small maintenance budget for web-hosting, small developments, software licences, storage
  • project basis funding, for example the BPMA is currently working on a digital media strategy which is three-year project for upgrades and improvements

What are the benefits to the archive service?

Developing online services by digitising collections and adding catalogue information has allowed the archive service to continue developing awareness and appreciation of the collection more widely.

The BPMA is obliged to make collections publicly available (it is funded by public money) but was limited in developing audiences and increasing onsite visitors by its onsite facilities and staffing resources. 

People can email and request content that can be added online so people need never come to the search room, which creates a digital service. Academic audiences are particularly enthusiastic about the move to services online.

Online services also support the preservation of collections. 

Digital images are part of the mix which enables people to connect with heritage and does not replace the physical collection.

What are the issues for the archive service?

  • generating a steady flow of new content for the website
  • finding funding for developing the online presence - building and developing digital platforms is ongoing and costly 
  • tension between web developers, who want to experiment with new approaches, and the archive service with defined needs and limited budget when developing the online presence
  • technology is still developing - researching the best technology and looking at what other organisations beyond big heritage organisations are doing 
  • understanding the needs of the audience though focus groups, interviews, private messages on twitter, talking to BPMA volunteers with specific interests in collections and activities and finding out what online services will be useful to them

How has this area of activity impacted on other archive activity?

  • Changes in the nature of enquiries: following the launch of the website in 2006 there was initially a rise in the number of onsite visits but recently the numbers have stabilised. The archive service now receives more distance enquiries which often include requests for document copies. The BPMA also attracts a lot of international enquiries
  • Staff are more familiar with the stories around the collections, giving talks (published as podcasts) and researching for exhibitions, which are then made available online 
  • Expanding digital services, such online catalogues and digitised images, allows the archive service to reach both 'niche' audiences more successfully as well as a more general interested audience

How would you like to develop in the future?

  • Continue to develop online content and service including on online museum
  • Develop digital content to support the commercial offer, for example, promoting images or books as the user searches

What are the three fundamental learning points for other archives?

  • Spend time on the internet understanding what people do and what activity there is that relates to your collections. Initially you would want to target 'easy audiences'. Put content out there and see the reaction
  • Ask your own staff how they use technology and what they enjoyed about using the internet. Think about where people are not and why they are not there, for example, your website
  • Examine what you want to achieve by your activity and how you are going about it. Ultimately heritage is there for people to benefit from you should take the content to where people are

See the BPMA website.