NARA brings online collections together

New Online Public Access portal lets users search three databases in one fell swoop to access 13 million records. Archives responded to customer complaints that...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The National Archives and Records Administration has heard the complaints of researchers, historians and many others: finding documents and other historical materials of the United States online was just too difficult.

So buttressed by the Obama administration’s open government initiative, NARA developed and launched Dec. 27 a new portal to make its growing online catalog of more than 13 million records more easily accessible.

“We surveyed thousands of our users and the one comment that really knocked me back was from someone who said ‘if I can’t find what I need, then there is not best thing about the system,'” said Pam Wright, NARA’s chief digital access strategist. “We used that as our rallying cry.”

NARA’s Online Public Access (OPA) website makes searching the Archives’ holdings much easier and more straightforward because it brings together three disparate databases and returns results that include all relevant information.

“It’s no longer enough to just provide records,” Wright said. “What we are talking about is how people want to interact with our records. This is a first step, an initial prototype. It has everything from our current online catalog, but not all the functionalities.”

NARA implemented a search engine from Vivisimo to crawl the, Archival Research Catalog and Access to Archival Databases. The results include all the contextual information of the records including date, type of material whether picture or document or movie and the physical location of the material. Users can click on the picture or movie and view it right there on the screen, which was another common complaint from researchers that they couldn’t view the movie or picture, said Carol Lagundo, NARA’s services technical lead for OPA.

“The search engine learns from past searches and brings the most popular results to the top,” Lagundo said. “The search engine also lets you preview documents without having to click on them.”

Users can export the results as a HTML, a XML or a text file.

Wright added OPA gives users only a taste of where NARA wants to go over the next year.

NARA will make public the 1940 Census data and receive about 40 terabytes of electronic records from agencies in 2011 significantly increasing their electronic holdings.

“We want to add a zoom function to make it easier to see hand written documents,” Wright said. “We also want to add the ability to share information through social media sites like FaceBook or Twitter.”

She added that NARA also will need more storage, and will look to cloud computing as a possible option.

But expansion may depend on whether Congress provides funding for the upgrades.

Wright said they have a prioritization plan in case the lawmakers cut their budget, and, if necessary, could stay in maintenance mode in 2011.

“This is a robust prototype,” Wright said. “My staff used it over the past six months and didn’t want to go back to the old way.”

(Copyright 2011 by All Rights Reserved.)

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