Lauren Bridges recently carried out a project reviewing access points in the Design Archives database, to support recent developments in best practice.  She completed her postgraduate Diploma in Archive Studies at the University of Liverpool in 2020.

When you think of archival indexing, filing cabinets and paper indexing cards may spring to mind. Times have changed since those early days of indexing cards, but the importance of accurate indexing has not. Archival indexing is integral to the control and access of collections. Indexing aids intellectual control and access to records by using controlled vocabulary from an authority record, database or thesaurus.

This project aimed to complete a review of the existing index points (also known as access points) in the Design Archives’ database and make recommendations for indexing practices moving forward based on existing guidance and best practice. The DA indexes by subject, place and personal/corporate name.  By the application of emerging thinking in the field, we hope to address inconsistencies in name indexing, and develop currently little-used subject indexing. During the project, we have balanced the archive collections, the needs of the user and the concept of linked data to inform the outcomes of the project.

There has been some disagreement about the value of indexing between archival theorists and articles on the subject have been sporadic since the late 1970s. Although some time has passed since these seminal articles were written, the threads of these arguments maintain a certain degree of relevance today. Durance concluded that authority control can be achieved in archives with management commitment, reallocation of resources, education and training and commitment to using appropriate software.[1] Dooley wrote that archival subject indexing is completed on a random and ad hoc basis and it does not appear that this has altered much in the thirty years since.[2] David Bearman is perhaps most well-known for his conclusion that consistent subject indexing is unattainable.[3] Although indexing is challenging, this project found that successful indexing is more important than ever, and better supported, in today’s digital world.

In 1992 Dooley noted that boundaries between institutions are diminishing[4]. If this was the case in the early nineties, it is even more so in our current digital age. Free-text searching will indeed return some results from the archival description. However, access points are linked to but separate from, the information contained within the description. The term ‘linked data’ was coined by Tim Berners Lee in 2006 to refer to structured machine-readable data that can be connected to form and represent relationships. Authority records, thesauri and databases assign names, subjects or places a unique ID or URI allow access points to become machine-readable. The Design Archives has already participated in a Linked Data project Exploring British Design in collaboration with the Archives Hub. The project utilised the DA’s collection to create a website that links designers through relationships connecting Britain’s design history.

Any archival document is best understood within the context of, and in relationship to, other documents in a file, and the file is comprehended in terms of its relationship to other files in a series.[5] People often think of subject access in the context of libraries, where books are written about subjects, however, when considering archival materials and the needs of users, archival collections could be about one thing but be of value to researchers in a variety of different ways. This is why linked data is essential to subject indexing, to highlight key relationships between collections.

The indexing project has been very timely for the Design Archives as it has coincided with the Archives Hub Names Project. I was fortunate to meet with Jane Stevenson, Archives Hub Manager, to gain insight into how the Hub were thinking about indexing and their goals to maximise accessibility. The DA makes its collections available to the public via the Archives Hub, so it was important to consider the aims of the Hub during this project. Through their names project the Archives Hub will create authority records by identifying and matching personal names that have already been indexed. This will provide users with additional ways to search for people and organisations, therefore bringing archive collections together and creating networks.

Based on the principles noted above the DA will now be using the following databases to index:

  • Subject – Library of Congress Subject Headings
  • Personal and Corporate Names – The Virtual Internet Authority File and Wikidata
  • Place – GeoNames

As well as researching and making recommendations for ongoing best practice, I began test them in practice to lay foundations and identify work needed for full implementation.  Indexing is challenging, but essential to enhance archival collections and maximise data ‘surfacing’ in a digital world. As an early career archivist, this project has allowed me to take a concept we studied in class and apply that theory in the ‘real world’ of archives. It has been just as valuable to me personally as I hope it will be to the Design Archives. I hope that other archives will consider their current indexing practices and whether they support a linked data environment. This will open up collections to support data-driven projects and create relationships between collections in the future. The Design Archives already has projects in mind so watch this space!



[1] Durance, Cynthia J., ‘Authority Control: Beyond a Bowl of Alphabet Soup’, Archivaria, 35 (1992), pp. 45.

[2] Dooley, Jackie M. ‘Subject Indexing in Context’, American Archivist 55 1992, pp. 347.

[3] Bearman, David, ‘Authority Control Issues and Prospects,’ American Archivist 52, 1989, pp. 298.

[4] Dooley, Jackie M. ‘Subject Indexing in Context’, American Archivist 55 1992, pp. 340.

[5] Evans, Max J., ‘Authority Control: An Alternative to the Record Group Concept’, American Archivist, 49 (1986), pp.250.