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Putting 1,000 Years of Archives Online for Learners and Communities

At a time when so many arts and culture organisations were looking to digitise their assets to keep their audience engaged during the pandemic, the National Archives faced the opposite problem.  Demand for their digital education resources skyrocketed as students and educators switched to home schooling during the Covid-19 lockdowns. 

At the MuseumNext Digital Summit in June 2022, Rosie Morris and Ellen Oredsson from the online education team at the National Archives talked about how they responded to the increased demand, making 11 million documents and 1,000 years of archives more searchable and accessible.

From the classroom to home 

The National Archives has over 11 million documents available for the public to view. It is the job of the individual teams of the Education and Outreach department to engage with the differing audiences for onsite, online, family and outreach services. For Rosie Morris and Ellen Oredsson, their work within the online education team provides workshops and learning resources to school-aged learners from key stage one to five.

One advantage of the pandemic has been that the standard of online resources has improved immeasurably thanks to a focus on better quality document photography – even when faced with unwieldy items such as medieval rolls. The National Archives team has over 200 classroom resources which are constantly being added to and are now even easier to search by time period or key stage.

When the pandemic hit, the education webpages of the National Archives saw over 90,000 additional page views as teachers sought to download resources in preparation for home schooling.  By the end of 2020, the social media audience for the education team had grown by a third.

Whilst the growth in online engagement for existing classroom resources was promising, it became apparent that the style of the content didn’t work as well for independent learners at home and the decision was made to switch to video provide more guided learning content. The team responded to this by introducing Time Travel TV – a series for families – and History Hook, to complement online lessons. The inquiry-based approach of the series proved very successful and both were viewed collectively over 87,000 times by the at-home audience.

Resource experimentation

The success of the video content inspired the team to experiment further. Their next step was to film content that could replace the in-person workshop format that would historically have been delivered by an education officer. These efforts also helped to grow engagement and enable a broad range of people to access valuable content.

The success of the videos and eventually the return to on-site access allowed the team to invest in a range of quality equipment to support improvements in editing, lighting and green screens.  In addition to video material, the team used their growing proficiency to experiment with other sorts of online media. For example, hired actors recorded transcripts of documents as a way to improve accessibility, but also to help bring content to life in a way that reading a transcript doesn’t.

Creating accessible routes to resources

As a non-ministerial government department, The National Archives must be compliant with WCAG 2.1 AA standards. The online team have been creating resources specifically aimed at special education needs audiences for a number of years and, during the pandemic they ensured that all video content was subtitled. Similarly, all images either had alt text, visual descriptions placed in the alt attribute within the code of an image or, in the case of text-based documents, transcripts right next to them as needed (Find out more about making your museum website more accessible here).

Future development

If the past two years have taught the team anything, it’s that taking creative approaches to presenting documents held in the archives is an important way to reach the digital student and educator audience.  They are now working to improve engagement through innovative use of technology – experimenting with photogrammetry and 3D imagery to display further materiality of documents beyond the flat image. The team are also exploring the potential of tools such as GIS maps to display the collection in a geographical context to add a new layer of understanding to collections that could benefit from this type of technology.

Rosie Morris and Ellen Oredsson from the online education team at the National Archives spoke at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in June 2022. To find out how you can get on-demand access to this event click here.

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