Day One, and A1

So after signing the contracts at the Archives thismorning, I can declare this Day One, and the project has officially started. The contract revealed some good stuff. The project will focus, as proposed, on two levels, visualising high level structures in the entire collection (series, agencies and functions); and within an individual series. Even better, that individual series will be A1, a huge collection dating from Federation up to WWII - more than 20,000 records that occupy over 450 metres of shelf space! I understand that this series is also very highly digitised - which raises the prospect of working with not only the catalogue data, but the digitised records themselves.

Can't wait to get my hands on the data; I'll be meeting with the Archives again soon to discuss starting points, data formats, and so on.

Meantime, welcome to the brand new project blog. Your comments and thoughts are always welcome - for now I'm especially interested in related work in the visualisation of cultural datasets and digital archives. I'll be posting some of my own research in those areas soon, but if you have any pointers, send them along. Here's a short outline of the project, for starters.

Project Outline

This outline, presented to the Archives as a refinement of the original proposal, summarises the context, aims and outcomes of the project.

As archives are increasingly digitised, so their collections become available as rich, and very large, datasets. Individual records in these datasets are readily accessible through search interfaces, such as those the Archives already provides. However it is more difficult to gain any wider sense of these cultural datasets, due to their sheer scale. Conventional text-based displays are unable to offer us any overall impression of the millions of items contained in modern collections such as the National Archives. Searching the collection is something like wandering through narrow paths in a forest: what we need is a map.

This proposal is to research and develop techniques for visualising, or mapping, archival collections in a way that supports their management, administration and use. The specific aim is to develop techniques for revealing context: the patterns, high-level structures and connections
between items in a collection.

The practical outcomes of the project will be prototype interactive, browsable maps of the National Archives collection that apply these techniques at different structural levels:

  1. A map of the whole collection, at Series level, will show the "big picture": the size, scope and historical distribution of different series, the relations between series, and their corresponding Agencies and functions.
  2. A more detailed map will focus, as a test case, on a single series (A1), accumulating data from individual records to reveal the distinctive "shape" of that series.
The issue of navigating large digital collections is current and significant; interestingly some
prominent American researchers have recently announced a broadly related project. This project is highly innovative; by supporting it, the Archives would take a leading position in the field. The project would be extensively documented and well disseminated, drawing an international audience.


  • A prototype browsable map showing the structure of the whole National Archives collection at a Series level, including the relationships between Series, collecting and controlling Agencies, and functions.
  • A prototype map of a single series, linking to and contextualising individual items in the series.
  • A set of sketches: static and dynamic visualisations that demonstrate a range of different approaches.
  • A set of techniques and approaches for creating interactive maps of archival datasets. These will be applicable across the archives sector, and among other institutions dealing with digital collections.
  • Documentation and dissemination of the project to an international audience.

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