Keep Asking Questions: Catalogue searching – the three prongs of optimisation

In a previous blog post Abby Wharne, the Asa Briggs intern at The Keep, explained how searching our archive catalogue can be different to searching on Google or other popular search engines.  Abby mentioned some of the ways that we have tried to improve our catalogue to make it more accessible and I want to elaborate more on this in this post.

The process of optimising our catalogues is three-fold:

  1. Optimise descriptions in catalogue records
  2. Improve the mechanics of the search engine
  3. Create curated content on the website.

The first is really an extension of one of the archivists’ core roles – to describe archival documents in an easy to understand fashion so that people can find them.   Most of our records have been catalogued with the aim of having them published in a printed hand-list, but this is problematic now that the records are online.

As an example, let’s take a look at Baptism registers for the Parish of Glynde:  If you wanted to find these using a hand list you would pick up the Parish of Glynde hand list and find the series called “Incumbent Registers (1558-1994)”, within this series there would be a sub-series called “Baptism registers (1813-1899)”, within this you would see the record “Baptism register (Jan 1813-Jun 1899)” and note the reference number to order it.   When this hand list is transferred to an online environment it is represented by separate records in a hierarchy:

Parish of Glynde (record representing the hand list)

Incumbent Registers (1558-1994) (record representing the series)

Baptism registers (1813-1899) (record representing the sub-series)

Baptism register (Jan 1813-Jun 1899) (record representing the physical register)

See our FAQ :What is the hierarchy? for a more detailed explanation of the hierarchy.

If a researcher finds this record by browsing the Parish of Glynde hierarchy they know the register belongs to this parish, but if they do a search for “Glynde register”, they won’t find it because there is no record in the hierarchy with the words “Glynde” and “register” in it.  The researcher must go to the top level of the hierarchy and then browse to the register.  Browsing the hierarchy depends on the researcher being familiar with the hierarchy in the first place.  Not so difficult for the seasoned researcher, but certainly very different from the immediacy of a Google search that an archive novice might be used to.

To improve this, we need to change the lowest level catalogue record to read “Parish of Glynde Baptism register (Jan 1813-Jun 1899)” to make the record show up in a search for “Glynde registers”.

The second job is to optimise the mechanics of the search engine and as an example we have improved its ability to recognise dates and date ranges.

Before the optimisation a search for records with a date range of “1850-1870” would only bring up records that specifically had “1850-1870” in them.  After the optimisation, the search engine delivers records with any date in that range e.g. 1859 or 1869 and also from 1874 as there is a 5 year buffer on either side of the date range.  A search for “Early 17th cent” would only find records with the specific text “Early 17th cent”, after optimisation this search also find records with specific dates such as 21st March 1603 or 21/03/1603.

The third job of optimisation is related to curated content.

Curated content is new content that we have added to our web pages that sums up a particular subject, person or place and provides links to related catalogue records.  As Abby mentioned in her post we are in the process of creating Places pages for every parish in East Sussex.  So rather than doing a search for a place you can look the place up on the places page that can lead you into a particular area of research relating to that place.  We also have other pages such as Leonard Woolf Papers and German Jewish Collections that explain more about the person or subject area and can lead you into related catalogue records.  We aim to create much more curated content like this in the future to offer researchers a more targeted way to conduct their research.

These three methods of catalogue optimisation will over time make our catalogues easier to use and bring more useful search results to the top of the results page.  Having just over a million records to deal with means that this is a large job and as we learn more about how researchers search our catalogues we can make changes to the search engine to improve their experience.  Google has been going since 1998 and are a multi-billion dollar company; our resources don’t stretch that far so it might take us a little while to catch up!



Keep Asking Questions: How do I find First World War resources at The Keep?

23rd January 2015

By Dr Chris Kempshall

The Keep has a huge range of sources that relate to the First World War but knowing where to begin can be tricky. The sensible starting point would be to type ‘First World War’ into the search bar on our website and this will bring up a lot of different resources and material. However, it is not a conclusive set of results. Such is the wealth of material that is held in The Keep’s archives we have not yet labelled everything that relates to the war with ‘First World War’ so it appears in the catalogue. We are constantly building this aspect though so give us time and we’ll get it all!Example of an Advanced Search

In the meantime there are alternative ways of searching. In many ways, anything that happened between the years 1914-1918 relates to the First World War. With this in mind searching for particular dates or places (such as ‘Hastings’ AND ‘1917’) within that timeframe will bring up records relating to the war effort that may have slipped through the net on a general ‘First World War’ search. You can also use the advanced-search option, where you can add a single date or range (for example, 1914-1918) and other more specific search terms.

In the Reference Room we also have access to the databases of through which you can find the surviving military records and medal rolls for soldiers who served in the World Wars. This can be a particularly useful source of information when trying to work out where a soldier was deployed, which regiment and battalion they served with, and any awards or decorations they received.

If you find items of interest regarding the First World War in East Sussex then please also consider contributing them to the East Sussex WW1 website: The website showcases the County’s many different stories and experiences during the war.



Keep Asking Questions: what happens to mouldy and infested documents when they arrive at The Keep?

14th January 2015                                                                                                                                                    

By Emma Johnson

From leading guided tours around The Keep, one of the rooms which groups show the most interest in is the quarantine room. Members of the public will often ask questions such as ‘how do you treat a mouldy document?’ or ‘how cold do  those giant freezers get?’ After spending a couple of days working on some documents in the quarantine room and pondering over this, I thought that this room would make an excellent topic for a blog post. So, what happens to mouldy and pest-infested documents when they arrive at The Keep?

The quarantine room has been designed so that these documents can be treated  with minimal chance of contaminating other documents housed here at The Keep. There is a separate entrance at the side of the building so that these documents can be brought in, treated, and then sent on their way to be catalogued and stored.

Last week, Melissa myself and a volunteer began working on some books that had been identified as needing conservation treatment. Dressed in aprons, masks and gloves and armed with our museum vacuums, we set about tackling the infestations.  There was evidence of pest infestation with tiny bore holes in the spine of the book and, before being placed in the freezer, they needed hoovering with a museum vacuum to remove dirt and debris that had collected over the years. Pest infestations can usually be found within the spine of the book, as pests such as carpet and spider beetles are attracted to the high content of animal glue that is used on older books. We firstly tapped the case bound books to loosen any frass (insect faeces) that we couldn’t reach with the Museum vacuum. We then carefully hoovered the front and back pages and intermittently along the spines of the book, as this is where the majority of insect matter collects. However, it is not just pests of the creepy crawly variety that can harm documents; bird droppings are also very harmful to documents and human health. One book was so badly covered that Melissa decided to remove the front board of the affected book, but was extremely careful to preserve the stitching, so that the physical structure of the book was left intact. Luckily, we did not find any live infestations, just their remains, but it was interesting to see the trail of little holes where insects had burrowed into the book and eaten their way along the paper.

Evidence of pests                    Frass

The books were then labelled, bagged up in freezer bags, vacuum packed and placed in the freezer, to ensure that any pest or mould had been completely dealt with.  The freezers can reach up to -40 degrees centigrade, so there would be no chance of any pests or mould surviving as this process kills the entire life cycle of the pest and the mould spores.


Working in the quarantine room has made me much more aware that the conditions these documents had previously been kept in were not ideal.  Mould and pests thrive in damp and humid environments, so it is important for documents to be housed in a cool environment, with a low level of relative humidity. The conditions and facilities here at The Keep are much more suitable for the documents and support their long term preservation and care.

If you would like to take a look behind-the-scenes at The Keep, join us for a tour. Additionally, if you are interested in learning about historical bookbinding structures, The Keep Conservator Melissa Williams  is running a book-binding workshop on 31st January.




Keep Asking Questions: How does The Keep’s catalogue differ from a search engine?

5th December 2014

By Abby Wharne

This is the first in a series of blog posts designed to answer frequently asked questions. I thought I’d start the ball rolling by looking at a tricky one – how does an online archive catalogue differ from a search engine?

I first encountered an archive catalogue when I was writing my undergraduate dissertation. My research had led me to the National Archives website, and I soon realised that their search feature was no Google. Since working in the Reading and Reference Room at The Keep, I now know that I’m not alone; many users are thrown by initial search results. So, to understand more, I asked several members of The Keep team: why is an online archive catalogue different from a search engine? I hope their responses, listed below, will be helpful:

  • The Keep’s catalogue doesn’t use predictive text, so users really need to make sure they enter an exact spelling, wording or document reference.
  • Unlike Google, the search results are not listed by popularity.
  • The title and description of a file level document is all a user can see – not what is contained within (generally!) However, there is often much more information listed in the series or fonds/collection level (see below to find out how to get to this level). Clicking ‘read more’ will only reveal a little more information about the record.
  • Archives are arranged according to the person, or organisation, creating them. Consequently, our users may need to use the ‘browse by hierarchy’ tab to look up or down the ‘tree’ to find discover more details about a document.

It was also noted that:

  • Cataloguing is an ongoing process – it takes time to list an archive, so what the user sees online could be a work-in-progress.

Finally, the company who designed our website commented:

  • It’s mainly about context: the hierarchy, browse and serendipity of an archive catalogue are hard to reproduce in a straight search-engine listing.

So … it’s complicated. For people who have never used an archive before, a few of the responses in themselves might require more explanation. When I first started working at The Keep, I used some of the excellent resources on The Archives Hub, which explain many of the challenges involved in using and searching archives; they are well worth a read.

rudyard lockwood kiplingBut, don’t fear, there’s good news. As you can tell from the responses above, the Keep team are aware of the complexities in using the catalogue, and are constantly working hard to make it more accessible. The University of Sussex, for instance, has removed a lot of initials and abbreviations, and replaced these with full descriptions and names – making it easier for users to find information. They have also added detailed pages to the website, which focus on some of their larger collections. The great thing about our website is that these introductory pages appear in search results. For example, someone looking for more information about Rudyard Kipling’s personal papers can find an introductory page by simply searching Rudyard Kipling.

East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) has recently relisted some of their records, making it easier for users to find detailed information. A good example is a sample* of pre-1857 Registry of Shipping and Seamen records for vessels registered at Newhaven and Rye. They include merchant ships’ agreements, crew lists and official log books required under the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1835, 1862-1914, and crew agreements for fishing boats over 25 tons required under the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1835 and later, 1884-1915.

RSS_1_87_1Previously, someone looking at these records on the online catalogue would have had no idea whether or not details of their ancestor might be found within. To improve the catalogue listing, ESRO added the names of the crew, their ages, place of birth and rank, and also the details of the voyages undertaken.The Record Office are also creating place-themed pages, which include links to The Keep’s online catalogue, scanned images and historical information about local parishes.

We hope that our new ‘question-themed’ blog posts will be another way of supporting our visitors. And, if you ever have any questions, please ask a member of staff in person, over the phone, or email us at – we are very helpful! You never know, your question might inspire a blog post …


*The pre-1857 Registry of Shipping and Seamen records are held by The National Archives. The agreements, crew lists and logbooks dating from 1857 onwards have been dispersed to various locations: the bulk of the records were sent to the Memorial University of Newfoundland, while a number of samples were retained by The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum and local record offices.