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The National Archives Labs

Improving your search experience

Please note, as we are no longer continuing to develop this tool, we intend to remove it from Labs by the end of March 2014.

In today’s blog, I’d like to share our plans for improving our search facility

As part of Rediscovering the Record we are planning to improve the ways in which you can search. The National Archives can search for about 30 million records. These include the 11 million descriptions of documents we hold at Kew and records held locally by other archives, which are described in the National Register of Archives. We know that it’s tricky to find what you need in such a large volume of rich and diverse material.

We’ve looked at whether we can adopt a more Google-style approach to searching the archives, but have come to the conclusion that we can’t. Major search engines rank the relevance of a website using complex algorithms. One factor in this is a measure of how many other websites link to it. This approach doesn’t translate well to our archival records.

Instead, we are doing two things.

First, we are building a subject classification to group all records into topics. We think this will help you filter your results based on the intent of your search. For example if you type in Wellington, it will sort the results into different categories depending on whether they relate to: the hero of Waterloo, or a pub named after him; the bomber; the place in Somerset; or the boot. The topics vary from suffragettes to sewerage, from food and drink to farming. Have a look at our initial topic list – it will be available on Labs soon – and let us know what you think. We hope it will help you find the pearls among the seaweed much faster!

Secondly, we are producing a list of prominent historical people – essentially everyone we can identify from standard reference books, so that if you type in Churchill, it will distinguish between the hero of Blenheim, the Prime Minister and the journalist. So far we have about 40,000 people in this list and plan to expand it further.

We also plan, in time, to develop more accurate lists of historical place names to resolve complications around some descriptions, for example to account for the spelling of place names that have evolved or changed completely (starting with an online index to Domesday Book).

If you have any comments or questions, please use the Comment facility below.

Director of Technology and Chief Information Officer – David Thomas

As a senior archivist and records specialist at The National Archives, David’s career has focused on developing access to archives and information in both government and the archive sector.

David is responsible for information technology services at The National Archives, and is leading on the major cross-government project to develop a shared service for preserving digital records.

Comments (9)

  • Audrey (Australia)

    I lived in Looe, Cornwall during WW11. I would love to see photographs of this little town during that period, if indeed any exist. Alternatively, photos taken in the 1930s would be wonderful.
    I will check back on this site from time to time.
    Best wishes,

  • Gerry

    While exploring the pictures the search box suddenly started reporting that it couldn’t find places – such as London!


  • M Siraut

    Two errors in Somerset photos
    1. Doone Country is not near Bridgwater but is Badgeworthy, Exmoor [SS795445]
    2. Exmoor photos are not near Simonsbath but in NW Exmoor, best choice would be site of 1st photo [Dunkery SS892415]

  • Walter

    Just tried searching for first time and all searches result in message that location cannot be found, including Birmingham, which I know from an earlier post should be available. Using Mac + Safari

  • Bryan Howling

    The photographs are interesting but are useless as they are not able to be enlarged due to pixalation. I presume that they are not available on direct download but you would like punters to pay for them?

  • sean griffin

    I cant seem to find any photos of Ireland Why

  • mary carey

    I found this most interesting, looking back at all these lovely old pictures, however if you were able to find some of Sunderland in North East England that would make my day.

  • A Jones

    Strongly agree with others’ comments about names produced which aren’t people’s names – but also have further suggestions. Sorry – this got rather longer than you probably want!

    I tried an uncommon surname (Swindin) which worked fine, then added a christian name based on results found. Entering *an (for NormAN) produced the Norman Swindin already seen, but also another result, because the summary for the Swindin concerned happened to include the unrelated surname MerrymAN. A valid result if looking for Swindin alone, but totally irrelevant as a christian name.

    With common names this would be a nightmare, so searches using both christian and surname fields should produce ONLY those two names in combination; and as others have said, christian and surnames should be just that and not something else, like placenames.

    I agree a county filter would be really helpful, though it would only work where the record mentioned one. Many don’t (e.g. medal record cards) but that’s no reason not to have one. Search fields don’t have to be used just because they’re there, but not to have them available severely limits valuable flexibility and a truly versatile and useful search system.

    Country options could be useful too, e.g. if you knew there were connections with India, America etc (even for references to England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to narrow down a search where county isn’t known), but for this and many other things the way to go could be a series of keyword fields with operators, where terms can be entered appropriate to the person and/or the type of record sought.

    These can work pretty well: for instance, see the London Gazette advanced search, the ‘Words’ section down at the bottom. This gives freedom to try different words, phrases and spellings to produce matches for anything appearing in the record. For common surnames, topics and large datasets this would be a real boon. (While it is excellent, the downside of the Gazette search is it returns results from any given printed page, where each page is likely to contain many items relating to different individuals. A search for ‘William Smith’ and ‘London’ may produce a page with items on a William Smith from Leeds and a Joe Bloggs in London because they happen to share a page — but if a similar NA search was linked to individual records, it could be very good indeed.)

    It would be important – if possible – to build into the system a means of identifying and bringing together results with recognised synonyms for the same thing. For instance:
    Leicestershire can be Leics or in older records often Lester etc;
    Caernarvonshire-Carnarvonshire-Caerns-Caernarfon etc;
    Scotland-North Britain-N.B.;
    America-US-USA-United States;
    India-East Indies.
    Many other examples, not least with names themselves:
    Wm/William/Gulielmus/Willielmus/Willm, and endless others.

    I note deliberations about a Google-style search, and see the problem. A different type of NA search is no bad thing anyway, but a good and comprehensive one is essential – far better and more flexible than the example seen so far in beta. Also, as a followup step when there may be 100s or 1000s of results, a ’search within results’ facility for further filtering would be useful.

    Good luck anyway – look forward to developments with interest!

  • June Hawkins

    I was searching for Lambeth London, as I wanted to view St Mary’s Church, Lambeth, where I was Christened, it says that Lambeth couldn’t be found I then typed in Kennington Lambeth Bingo!! but thats it, no pictures, most disapointing.

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