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Tim Powell, Senior Assistant Archivist, National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists

"The national archive network online and the archives of contemporary science. Recent advances and future directions"

In the 1950s, Sir Hilary Jenkinson, the Father of British archival studies suggested ‘If common methods were anything like universal, copies of descriptive lists of documents…might be assembled from scattered repositories and sorted together at a single centre of reference’.
He went on to envisage the possibilities that would be opened up by

‘…an enormous single Descriptive List, infinitely more valuable, because of the opportunities it offered for comparative study, than its component parts would be’

So, some five or more decades ago, the advantages of networking were being considered at a time when anything resembling the internet that we now use every day, every hour, was scarcely conceivable.
I’m going to give a brief introduction to the emerging national online archives network in this country.  I hope to show how networking technology is transforming the accessibility of archives in Britain, with particular reference to access to archives of science and technology.  I shall be concentrating on developments south of the border, but much of what I shall say is applicable to the other nations of the United Kingdom not least because they exist within the context of this UK-wide archival network.   As I think following speakers will show, in some areas Scotland has been ahead of England.  I shall be looking at collaborative online information sources. This means I shall not be showing you individual institutional websites. I do recognise this is a serious omission.

So where, in networking terms, are we now?  What we are seeing is the rapid construction of an archives information web, with many strands coming together.

The oldest strand is the National Register of Archives, established in 1945.  This is hosted by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, now incorporated into the National Archives, with the Public Record Office.   It is at

The National Register of Archives contains information about the location of historical records that have been created by some 46,000 individuals, 9,000 families, 29,000 businesses and 75,000 organisations. It began life as a huge card index but it is now online and you can do a variety of Name searches on its 150,000 index entries

A search for the Cambridge-based biochemist Malcolm Dixon.  We get two references, the principal one being to his own papers in Cambridge University Library, with a link to a related database called ARCHON, also run by the Historical Manuscripts Commission.

ARCHON gives repository information and a direct link to the Cambridge University Library website.

The National Register of Archives is still the best point to begin an enquiry.  It gives index entries allowing you to find whether papers survive and if so where.  It can be seen as the starting strand in the construction of our national online archives network.   Looking for more detailed information, drilling down, the next step is to find what is now usually called the collection level description, meta-level information about the whole archive.  We have found that Malcolm Dixon’s archives are in Cambridge University Library but do they contain the information we are looking for?

This next strand is illustrated by the Higher Education Archives Hub. The Archives Hub provides a single point of access to descriptions, primarily at collection-level, of archives held in UK universities and colleges.  We are drilling down deeper into the information.

A search for ‘Malcolm Dixon’ produces collection level information on his archive in Cambridge, including a biographical outline and a description of the papers.  A further search facility at the bottom of the page allows narrowing down.  The Hub is particularly useful not only for the collection level entries but for the indexing of significant authority terms, or access points as it terms them.  There are eight for Dixon, 5 personal names and 3 subjects.  Please note, a judgement is made here as to which terms are worth including and this is best done by those who know the archives in question, in this case, us.

A large proportion of Britain’s science and technology archives, particularly those of individuals, are held by university archives, so the Hub is a crucial information resource.  As the NCUACS was among the initial contributors of data to the Hub, we know that there is good representation of scientists and engineers in the collections it covers and we are adding collection level descriptions of the archives we catalogue to it as a matter of routine.

The Hub provides coverage of a particular archival sector, the higher education institution.  The next strand I will look at, AIM25, similarly offers coverage of higher educational establishments but also includes other academic research libraries and archives, over 50 institutions in all.  In contrast to the Hub, AIM25 covers a geographical area, greater London.   Like the Hub, it does not have a particular focus on archives for the history of science, technology and medicine, but because it includes Imperial College London and a number of leading scientific institutions and medical colleges, it is an extremely significant research resource for this area.

Again, it is offering collection level descriptions.  Entering the term ‘biochemist’ brings up 44 matches and the range of collections covered is greater than a similar search on the Hub.  No Malcolm Dixon here, as his papers are in Cambridge, so let’s go to the second page of the resulting matches to the entry for Ernest Baldwin, whose papers are at University College London.  Following the link we get, again, a collection level description of the papers. 

So, to return to the web, we now have a number of networks up and running; different strands of the national network doing different jobs and covering different areas but nevertheless complementary.  The National Register of Archives, the Hub and AIM25 are three of them. These allow you to locate the repository in which the papers are held and find a description of them.  So you know, firstly where to go, and secondly that the collection is likely be useful.  But it could still easily be a wasted visit or enquiry.  Wouldn’t it be good if you could now access the full text of the archival catalogue itself?
The answer is Access to Archives, or A2A, for short

A2A, which is hosted by the National Archives, which used to be the Public Record Office, allows you to search or browse full text catalogues from repositories in England. As of February 2003 the A2A database contained over 4 million catalogue entries and from over 300 record repositories.   If I search for ‘Malcolm Dixon’ in A2A I get a reference to the full-text catalogue of his archives in Cambridge University Library, together with references to those of the biochemists P.D. Mitchell and Dorothy Needham, both of which contain correspondence and joint research with Dixon.

A2A is designed, I think it’s fair to say, first and foremost for searching. You can download the full-text catalogue and browse but it’s not a particularly user-friendly experience; there is little in the way of navigation.  But it does offer new remote access to a volume of detailed archival information in a way never seen before.  The NCUACS was a partner in one of the first round projects to provide content to A2A in a Web of Science Archives consortium led by the Royal Society and including the Natural History Museum, Imperial College London, the Geological Society, the Institutions of Civil and Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Institution.  This delivered over 27,000 catalogue pages (that’s getting on for quarter of a million catalogue entries) to A2A, ensuring the good representation of science and technology archives in this resource, to which we continue to contribute.

I hope I have shown how different collaborative networking strands have transformed access to archives in England.  Given that science and technology have traditionally fared rather poorly in archival provision in England, I think the NCUACS can take some pride in noting that these areas are now well represented.

To complete the web metaphor, the strands increasingly are cross-linking and referring to each other within the overall framework of the UK’s online national archival network.  Is there a danger of duplication of information?  Yes.  Does this matter. No.  The memory capacity and processing speed of computers is so great, and still increasing, that the worries we had only one or two years ago that we might overload computer systems are becoming less and less significant. In a few years time I expect to see essentially the same information available through four or five different portals.  Thus access to identical archival information about an Imperial College physicist might be through the Imperial College Archives website, AIM25, the Archives Hub, A2A and, internationally, the American Institute of Physics’ Center for History of Physics International Catalog of Sources.

I’ll mention yet another strand in the web, the Janus project in Cambridge, which is an online resource for the archival holdings of the university and its colleges.  It is still in its early days and only a small proportion of the extensive holdings, particularly in the area of science and technology are yet online.

Janus allows for the location of archives, calling up the collection level description and then, if you wish, going on to the full-text catalogue.  Surely this is the complete all-in-one package?  Well, perhaps not. You could see archival information retrieval as a four-stage process of drilling down. You first find whether there are any surviving archives and if so where they are deposited; then you inspect the collection level description; you then call up the catalogue to identify what it is you want to look at; and finally, it would seem, the next logical step is that you should be able to view digital images of the archives themselves.  Is not digitisation the next stage in the national online network?

There is a superb example of what can be achieved in the online Alan Turing archive.

But I don’t think digitisation is going to be the general way forward.  The Turing archive is a rather small and, even for the history of science, highly specialised archive that is much researched.  The online archive was a specially funded prestige project.  It was not intended to be the start of a larger programme but a unique resource.

Despite its cutting-edge image, digitisation is a very labour intensive process.  In archival terms, it is expensive.   In judging between comparative gains in accessibility, I am sure in most - not all - cases archivists and researchers would prefer the resources to be spent on ensuring that archives are catalogued and preserved and their existence and essential information about them made known on the web.  My view is that in the short and medium term we will be building on the web already in place.  There will be more information on the web – it will be broader - and better information – it will be more densely woven.  But is that all?

What I find exciting is the prospect of being able to make fuller use of the internet’s ability to create new networks.

So far I have talked entirely in terms of enhancing access to an individual archives collection. Networking technology potentially allows us to do more.   Remember the quotations from Sir Hilary Jenkinson with which I began?  He saw the importance of building linkages between archives even when the only means of doing this was through a room full of index cards.  Further, he saw that networking and standards go together.

As we in Britain are encouraged to adopt common international and national archival standards ISAD(G), ISAAR etc; as we more slowly agree on a common thesaurus, as we are in fact made to adopt standards by use of software which already has those standards built in and has been designed for the incorporation of data into online networks, we are creating an environment in which the structure of archival information is assuming a standardised form.  Now there are a number of advantages arising from this, but one I wish to mark up here is that it should allow completely new virtual catalogues to be created from existing data.  To return to Malcolm Dixon, for example, in the not too distant future I believe a single online catalogue could be created which brings together his own archives and archival material relating to him in the collections of fellow biochemists Dorothy and Joseph Needham, Peter Mitchell, Robin Hill and others.  And moving further on, we not only might bring together a number of references to one person from a number of discrete catalogues, we may be able to bring together archives of members of a research team from a particular period.

I’ll conclude by suggesting that this isn’t just a practical way of enhancing access, it will affect how we work.  It will affect how we approach provenance, it will affect how we see dispersed material.  Not only is networking radically transforming traditional ways of accessing archives in England and the UK generally, but how it should also, in the not too distant future, enable us to access them in new ways.  I believe that for the archives of science and technology in particular, given their nature and the method of their creation, this will be of profound significance.