Creating electronic finding aids using the Archivists' Toolkit

Summary of the project

The Ballast Trust is a charitable foundation that provides a rescue, sorting and cataloguing service for business archives with an emphasis on technical records such as shipbuilding, railway and engineering plans, drawings and photographs.

The project used the Archivists' Toolkit (AT) to create electronic catalogues at the Trust, which enables its client repositories to provide their users with access to catalogues online more quickly. The AT is an open source archival data management system that allowed the Trust to improve collection management and provide catalogues in Encoded Archival Description (EAD) xml format, the sector standard, making it much easier for the catalogues to be made available online.

AT supports the accessioning and describing of archival materials; establishing names and subjects associated with archival materials; managing locations for the materials; and exporting finding aids. To support this work, the AT had first to be implemented on the Trust's IT system and used to create accession records for backlog collections, which involved the training of the archivists and three volunteers.

How were people encouraged to use the archive service and have access to new ways of engaging with archives?

The Trust itself does not provide a service to the public directly. Ultimately the main beneficiaries of the project will be users of the archive collections that the Trust process on behalf of other owning organisations. These users will be able to access online versions of the catalogue, enabling them to make use of the information in the collections in a more flexible and accessible manner.

What impact did the project have on the records and collections it aimed to improve?

Creating electronic catalogues in EAD xml format benefits the custodians of the archive collections that Trust process on their behalf. They are presented with a processed collection and a catalogue that they can import directly into their databases and upload to their online catalogues. This reduces the amount of work the services have to do to make collections accessible and improves the turnaround time for making information about collections available to the public.

How did the results differ from those that the Trust had achieved previously?

By making use of the AT, the Trust has been able to capture and store processing information accessioning information and catalogues for collections in a central database. This means that all staff and volunteers can at any time see the status of a collection and access the catalogue, which represents a great improvement on past practices. Procedures for accessioning collections were formalised which assisted in the prioritising of backlog collections for processing.

How did the project demonstrate good practice in relation to project planning, management and evaluation?

The process of planning the project using a standard project management template was a new experience for the Trust. It allowed staff to see clearly the trajectory of the project and the stages to reach at which time and subsequent achievements. Although it later had to be adapted, the Trust considered its implementation a very beneficial experience which improved organisational skills, and the process of developing a project brief for future projects is being adapted as a consequence.

As a result of the project, the Trust's overall confidence in planning similar work has risen significantly.

At the time of writing, formal evaluation is not yet complete as there has been a delay of five to six months in cataloguing the pilot collection and seeing it imported into the custodial repository's database and then made available online. The delay occurred as the original brief provided to the Trust required amendment resulting in the cataloguing of further elements.

How did the project help staff and any volunteers improve their skills and knowledge?

As a result of the project three new volunteers, all young women seeking pre- or post-archivist course experience with a very different profile from the Trust's established volunteers, were introduced to the Trust's method of processing collections and gained experience in cataloguing, contributing about 150 hours of time. This helped the volunteers by:

  • improving their understanding of cataloguing theory and practice
  • instilling the importance and benefit of creating finding aids in a flexible format (EAD xml)
  • providing them with the skills to work independently on a collection

Existing staff gained:

  • new skills and experience in using a database to create electronic catalogues
  • an understanding of how online finding aids worked 
  • an understanding of the importance of the Trust producing resources that can be shared, easily imported and made available online

The project also gave the Trust a practical reason to document its procedures for processing technical collections for training purposes. This has been a new skill for all staff to learn and has made the Trust realise how much knowledge is not documented. Therefore a new knowledge capture project is planned as a result.

What has been the value of the project to your organisation?

'I think we have realised that much of what we do would be better accomplished if documented and planned as proper projects rather than ongoing work for different collections. The process of planning this project has made me realise that a clear list of objectives and timetable really benefits a project and ensures it is accomplished and carried out.

Having been through this process, I am now more confident in planning smaller projects to help break down our overall workload and take on new projects.' Kiara King, Archivist, The Ballast Trust

Further information

Blog at the Ballast: understanding technical archives