On archive searches, subjects and places

Lise Summers Thursday, May 15, 2014 - 16:29

Last time I wrote about this exciting project, I said that one of the key differences between archival and library description was the fact that we rarely, if ever, use subject classification. As I read more about archival description, and in particular, the International Standard on Archival Description (ISAD), I realised that the situation is more complex than that.  Archivists working in library institutions and cataloguing with library software, both here and internationally, may describe material at a very broad level and use subject headings to help researchers find their way into the collection.  Government archivists, relying on the contextualised information in their catalogues and finding aids, tend not to do this, and so it is with the State Records Office of WA. However, because our new system is very closely aligned with ISAD (which caters for private archives and manuscript collections as well as government archives), it does allow for subjects to be included. It also allows for places to be specifically identified and associated with records at either series or item level.

What does this mean for SRO and our archival description practices? Initially, not a lot. What sorts of subject headings we would use and where we would use them? Who would do the indexing? Should we adopt the Library of Congress Subject Headings, or should we allow users to create their own terms (generally known as a folksonomy) or should we choose some sort of specialist thesaurus, such as the Australian Public Affairs Indexing System (APAIS)? Or something in between?  With places, we could use the Australian Gazetteer - http://www.ga.gov.au/place-names/, but how well does this cover historic names of places? Should indexing be a professional task for the archivists, or is it something where a citizen archivist program could be developed? All these questions and more mean that it may be some time before we can make full use of these additional functions, but the very fact that they exist means that we are having to look very closely at our practices and think about what improvements we could make, when resourcing is available.

Despite not being able to introduce these refinements, the new searching capability that AtoM will provide is very impressive.  The system allows users to browse or search for terms used in file titles and series descriptions and in organisational and people descriptions, much as we do with simple search now.  You can refine the search to just an organisation, or a series, as in advanced search, and you can search within series as well. You can use a wildcard (*) search, using shortened forms of terms to find everything which has a common root phrase, for example, Aboriginal or aborigines (aborig*) or to find a file reference for which you only have part of the number 1979/01* (useful when searching for volumes or part files).You can also undertake a Boolean search (and, or, not), and the system will even suggest possible search terms using an elastic search which makes data easy to explore.


One possible look for our new catalogue, showing the browse function:

One possible version of the new search and browse pages.



We are moving closer to finalising the new system, and moving all our content over.  There are still some steps to go before we go live, but we think you’ll like it a lot.  As we get nearer our ‘go live’ date we will be undertaking information and training sessions for government users and public clients. 

For more information on the AtoM project, please contact sro@sro.wa.gov.au or phone 9427 3600.One possible version of the new catalogue search features