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The future of the past – transforming the Archives

Parliamentary Acts on vellum in the Archives
Parliamentary Acts on vellum in the Archives

The Parliamentary Archives stores more than four million records dating back to 1497, making it the oldest Parliamentary archive in the world. They store documents from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The Archives recently started work on a transformation project which will potentially see them move to a new space. The collections need to be better protected to preserve the documents and need to be more accessible to the public.

The records are valuable resources for historians – with both professional and personal interests. Moving the archive means a potential increase in the number of visitors and opening it up to new types of visitors.

The Archives are also planning on building a new website, which is where we come in. It'll need to let people view digitised records online, book visits, and request items to view or download. We got involved by doing some user research to find out how people use the archive and what they need from it.

Who uses the Archives

The research aimed to find out what people need from an archives service. We interviewed current users to find out about their searches and interests.

We recruited members of the public and Parliamentary staff for the research. They included online and offline users of different archive services. Some were family historians, with a personal interest in history, others were professionals, interested in architecture, art and political history.

Members of the Archives team and other colleagues from PDS also got involved in the research process. Many of them listened in on phone interviews and took part in a collaborative analysis workshop.

Things we found

The Archive researchers we talked to fell into two types:

  1. looking for an answer. People who’re looking for a specific resource or answer to a question. For example, looking for maps or plans, finding information on legal precedent, looking up information about building work, confirming references, or looking for images of a specific thing
  2. exploring a topic. People exploring a specific topic to find relevant information. This includes genealogists, people writing books or doing PhD research, and those looking for information to include in other publications

Booking visits

We learned that the public are unaware of the Archives. This wasn't surprising since visitor capacity is limited, and there isn’t widespread promotion. Also, the current audience is quite niche.

Most of the people who visited said that viewing historical artefacts in person is an enjoyable part of their research. People who had visited other archives talked about how they find archive content and how they book visits. These insights help us understand how to design an online service. The website needs to let people find what they need, book a time to visit, and then view the items that they need.

Searching the catalogue

Finding resources and working out if they're the right ones are essential user needs. The user research helped us understand the way people look for historical materials. They're generally based on varying interests, but share things like author, date, location and title. These factors are also used for looking within search results to pinpoint the right thing.

When searching, people want to see good summaries, descriptive information and images to help identify the correct materials. Google has a big influence on user expectations of online searches so the search needs to meet user needs.

Viewing and ordering items

People reported a certain satisfaction in finding items and uncovering new information. For professional searchers, this is an essential need.

Having found the right resources, people will want to view them online and sometimes download or make copies of them. They also want to keep track of their discoveries and may share them with other people.

Future online service

We sketched potential user journey maps based on the insights. The Archives development team will now use these findings to develop the requirements of their service.

We now have a good picture of what our online users and potential visitors need. The research we've done should help to transform the online Archives service.

Leave a comment below or get in touch with the User Research Team to find out more about their work.

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