Traces through time

Archives span a range of inspirational material that contains many fascinating stories.

Imagine being able to enter a single name online and, with one click, find a range of related documents from the millions of different records held at The National Archives. Traces through time is a project aiming to do that. It uses diverse data spanning years of history to link related records, to make researching and accessing history even easier.

The project will use the latest technology and historical data sets to link and suggest records that may relate to the person you are researching.  Enhancements to Discovery, our catalogue, will be seen in Spring 2016.  Initially, we’ll be linking some of our popular First World War record series.

And that’s just the beginning. Using big data, algorithms and technology, we hope to expand Traces through time to cover more of our many different file series that span the course of our rich history. As this pioneering project develops, more and more records will be linked. You will then be able to explore further and further back in time to reveal many untold stories and unsung heroes throughout history.

Phase one: Research

The first phase of the Traces through time project developed the new approaches and tools that allow researchers to trace and link individuals, with confidence, across ‘big data’. This enabled new insights from our historical collections, and allows people’s stories to emerge from the records.

This research phase of the project was successfully completed thanks to funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The National Archives partnered with the Institute of Historical Research, the University of Brighton and the University of Leiden to complete the research.

Phase two: Implementation

Building on the research done during phase one, the current phase of the project aims to apply what we learned to enhance access to our collections through Discovery.  Connections can be hard to spot within the millions of records held by The National Archives, but can be drawn together using the big data tools and methods developed by this project. Traces Through Time makes it possible to ask interesting questions of data, both ancient and modern, and to explore it in ways that were not imagined when the records were created.

Project objectives

  • to consolidate and deploy the research findings of phase one (research) into phase two (implementation)
  • build and test the data linker application and algorithms, using selected series from the First World War period
  • integrate the data linker application and algorithms into Discovery for public release
  • carry out research into optical character recognition (OCR) technology, to understand its potential to make more data available for research
  • develop an interface to further improve user experience and access to archival collections by enhancing Discovery to direct users to other records of interest across the archives.

Benefits to researchers

The project will benefit researchers across the whole spectrum of digital history, by:

  • helping genealogists find and trace the paths of their ancestors across the landscape of the official record
  • assisting historians seeking evidence of life events through a collective study of individual biographies
  • helping researchers by signposting routes between historical collections, enabling links between datasets at a deep level and creating opportunities for discovery
  • for cultural organisations, illuminating effective approaches to creation and curation of new digital datasets to optimise their potential for linking and re-use
  • providing evidence to support policy making, helping balance the demands of data protection and information assurance with those of open data and Freedom of Information
  • providing a methodology to underpin the creation of new tools and resources, supporting the digital economy

To read more about the Traces in time project, see our blog post.