A photograph of The National Archives building under blue skies, reflected in pond, taken at Kew in London, UK.
A photograph of The National Archives building under blue skies, reflected in pond, taken at Kew in London, UK.
The National Archives building in Kew, London.

Building an archive for everyone

It’s timely that our first post on Medium should be about Project Alpha, one of our most ambitious projects to date.

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.

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 & 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

For The National Archives’ 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.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve never used The National Archives website before, so leave us a comment below.

As we progress with Project Alpha, we’re looking to test some of the concepts with people new to The National Archives. If that sounds like you, we’d welcome your help! Register your interest here.

The National Archives Digital

Building an archive for everyone

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