Most of us understand an archive as a place where our past is preserved, in collections of documents, pictures, films and sound recordings. Keeping a physical collection in an organised way, so that items can be easily retrieved, is the first step to creating access. Digitising a collection opens up new possibilities. In this resource we’ll be looking at ways collections can be organised so that communities can engage in the online environment.
It can seem daunting to create a new online archive, it’s best to divide the project into manageable chunks, which are outlined below. Keeping the user front and centre through this process will ensure that your online archive reflects the engagement you want for your users.
How are other archives engaging their audiences?
A useful initial exercise for people managing collections is to review how other archives are presenting their content online. Which sites have good user-friendly features and accessible design? Which of those features could you use for your archive? This will give you a vision for the kind of online archive you may want, and you can refine the vision to fit your resources at a later stage.
Here’s a list of features you may want to check.
- Shop window – how is the content showcased?
- Information about your content
- Ways of finding content
- Telling stories
- User engagement features
- Links to other sites and resources
- Accessibility for people with disabilities
Keeping the user front and centre through this process will ensure that your online archive reflects the engagement you want for your users.
What do people see on your website’s home page? Are you giving them a glimpse into the scope of your content? Imagine arriving at a library and being asked at the door: “What do you want?” without being able to browse the shelves. Most of us want to saunter around looking at what’s there so that we can get ideas of what we’d like to read. The same is true for online archives. You need a shop window displaying examples of the material you hold, to excite and entice users. The old style archive with only a search box on the front page is off-putting for most people.
How you describe your archive on the home page is important. A good tagline next to the title of the archive can go a long way to explaining the overall contents. For example, Luton Heritage Forum and Mixed Museum’s website home pages.
You can create a shop window by displaying galleries on topics that represent the scope of the library. You can assign broad categories to your content that can be used as filters in the search. And you can curate galleries on topics you find in your collection. For example, the Luton Heritage Forum’s online archive organises content into subject areas.
It is useful to think ahead when planning your data. The ‘data structure‘ describes the type of data you hold on each item, such as description, creator, location, copyright and other data.
Think about what information you want the user to see, and make sure your data can deliver that. Do you want, for example, to see a thumbnail of an image with text like this beneath it ‘CAT 35673. Repos 004’ or would you rather they saw this ‘Daylight Cinema in Croydon, 1936’ ? When you think about this you have started to create what we call a metadata workflow.
How much information do you want the user to see when they click on a thumbnail and view a larger preview image? You may want a shortened text or headline under the thumbnail with a longer description next to a larger preview. You will ideally want to choose the order in which the data appears.
If you think about these things at the outset, it may affect the software you use. Some standard display options offered by software providers fall short of what is best for users. Planning in advance will allow you to be more assertive when looking at your software options.
Users need to be able to find items quickly and accurately. There are various ways of creating data to aid retrieval. These include:
Free-text search on descriptions
This is the standard text search used by many archives, but used alone can create problems for retrieval. Take this description for example: ‘Cat.no 0362. Man ploughing field in 1960’s.’ A search for ‘cat’ may retrieve this content although there are no cats to be seen. Other methods can help drill down to more accurate search results.
Use of broad categories
Use of category filters to help the user drill down to more relevant search results, and these can be used as filters.
Item tagging — keywords
Individual items can be tagged with relevant words to aid search. The rule for tagging is: will the term you are adding be used to search? Would the user want this item to appear in the search results?
Advanced search fields
Specific fields like ‘Location’ or ‘Person in the Image’ can help to distinguish between, for example, images of Paris Hilton (person in the image) and images of Paris (location).
Signposting other content
Visitors to your archive will enjoy finding routes to content they may not know about. Linking mechanisms can do a good job here, displaying content with the same tag, or in the same series. These aids help users make a journey through the content and find the unexpected.
Timelines and maps work well because they offer visual routes through content. Clicking on a time period or location links to stories or archive items items associated with a time period or place.
You can bring your archive to life by telling stories using archive content. You may want to invite people to create stories and present their own take on parts of your collection. Contributors may be subject specialists or local people with a connection to your archive, including people who have provided images and memories to the collection in the first place. See also How can my online collection help me tell our heritage organisation’s story?
Think about a design that will attract your users and make sure the process is streamlined so that deliberations don’t hold back the project. It can be productive for small and medium-sized archives to find suppliers who can deliver both database features and design templates. Whichever path you take be aware that the interface between technology and design can be a stress point for an online archive project.
The type of design you choose will depend on the nature of your organisation and your target users, but you will most likely want an open inviting design. How you use images is key to this. Make sure they are displayed in ways that create impact, and remember that although your archive may consist mainly of images of buildings, or of wildlife, what attracts people in the first instance are images of people.
Some of the questions to ask of any design you are considering is:
- Does this design address the user in an engaging way?
- Is there scope for easy changing of home page images?
- Does the design create obstacles like tiny text and images, a rigid structure, or unreadable text colours?
- Can you control the content yourself from the backend?
The online environment is perfect for inviting people to get involved in the work you are doing, by volunteering, subscribing or adding their own content to the site. It is important to emphasise on your home page that the collection forms part of a living archive that offers options for people to get involved.
If you are offering users the ability to comment on content, or to upload content of their own, make sure you have a method of mediating that content to screen out irrelevant, illegal or negative content.
Your archive is probably part of a growing network of online resources. You can enhance the user experience by creating and maintaining links to news, events, exhibitions, and other online archives and resources.
It is important that your site can engage everyone, including those with disabilities. There are guidelines for creation of websites, which your designers should use. See How can I improve my website to make it more user friendly, accessible and fit for purpose? and also the Accessible Marketing Guide.
Government guidance Understanding WCAG 2.1 states that websites should be available for people who:
- use a keyboard instead of a mouse
- change browser settings to make content easier to read
- use a screen reader to ‘read’ (speak) content out loud
- use a screen magnifier to enlarge part or all of a screen
- use voice commands to navigate a website
People managing collections should be particularly aware that screen reader users need images to be described in text form. How to write good Alt Text is a useful guide for writing suitable descriptive text — alt text — for screen readers. Thinking about this at an early stage of your archive project can help streamline your work and give the best experience possible to your users.
Please attribute as: "How to increase the opportunities for our visitors to engage more deeply with our online archive (2022) by Sarah Saunders supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0