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Building a new online catalogue for the Parliamentary Archives

Screenshot of the Parliamentary Archives homepage

Working with the Parliamentary Archives and a third party supplier, we recently completed a project to create a new website with an improved catalogue search. The site makes it easier to find and access our vast collections and showcase this resource. One of the recommendations that we came away with was to celebrate success and consider the lessons we learned so that’s what this blog post is for.

Lots of disciplines, lots of collaboration

We’ve written previously about what the Archives are for and why they needed a new online service. As the website build was a big project, it meant a lot of collaboration between the Archives and various teams in PDS: delivery people, technologists, security people, user researchers, and content designers to name a few.

This project is part of a wider programme of work, which will eventually see more features being released. We’re planning on improving the accessibility of the site so we can be more inclusive. Users will be able to use self-service features to book visits to the Archives to research and review our collections.

It goes further than this as users will also be able to order high quality digital prints more easily and pay online. No need to phone or email us – although they can still do that if they prefer.

We’re also working on a tracking management solution to track assets in our collection in real time (reducing paper based processes) and a suite of online services for appointment booking, document ordering, and so on. The website and online catalogue will sit at the heart of this system, making it vital that this project delivered on all our requirements.

So how did we get here?

One of the successes of this project was that we did lots of planning as it involved so many different disciplines across Parliament. It was invaluable to have so much work done before we started building the new service.

Having access to a breadth of expertise in one project group was useful at resolving problems and understanding the different users of this service. Having people from the Archives was particularly helpful as they know everything about their service and could provide context and specific knowledge that we might otherwise miss.

Focusing on testing was another advantage as we decided at the start of the project that it would be an essential element of the work, not something that’s nice to do if we have time. Working with user researchers helped us to test the service for usability and accessibility issues and meant that a lot of issues had been resolved by the time we went live.

We also had an extensive communications plan which helped explain to everyone with an interest in the project what was happening at any given time, if there were delays or issues, and so on.

Working with “knowns” and “unknowns”

With any project, there are going to be difficulties and things that don’t go as well as you’d like. Our project was no different.

We struggled to find the right people to test this service and produce a backup plan for no shows. The Archives service is valuable for a lot of people but we found it difficult to find them and get them to participate in the testing.

We should have given more time to think about what would affect the project deadline. This could have saved us time when issues did arise.

In PDS, our delivery framework is quite fluid and can sometimes make things more complex when managing projects and working with teams that are outside of our department.

It takes a village

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child” and digital projects are no different.

Some of the other lessons we learned on this project was to work in partnership with everyone who’s interested and involved in the project. Only in this way can you make sure that everyone knows what to expect and what’s happening.

Have a checklist in place of everything that needs to be done so that you have a strong idea of when things should happen and if you’re on track. We had daily standups with all the teams, an implementation plan for when we went live, and a communications plan to let everyone know about the changes.

Agree as a team what the bare minimum of “good” looks like and what should happen in an ideal world. This would have saved us some time by not having to explain this to people.

Increasing communication before something’s going live helps people understand the decisions you’ve made and the reasons behind them.

Most importantly, celebrate your success. This is a great way to build team morale and share the good news that as a team, we made it work!

Take a look at the new Archives website and let us know what you think.

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