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Online archives move on

Tiffany Hore, Library and Archives Director, reports on essential work to make our online archives fit for the future

The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library is preparing to launch a new website, including a revamped archives and indexes search tool. This is something we have been working on for many months, borne of absolute necessity rather than any attempt to reinvent a serviceable wheel.

For many years the VWML website has been run by one developer, separately from the EFDSS site. Over time, the code needed to support the archive catalogue has become ever more complicated, and major problems began to arise with uploading new records and versions of the indexes. In addition, the developer had warned us that he could no longer be available to work on any improvements that we might want or need to make. This was unsustainable, and we began researching possible solutions. Urgent action then became a sudden imperative when our developer gave us notice that he intended to shut down his server and cease supporting the code. Without the only person who knew how the extremely complex system operated, we would need to find an alternative.

We scoured the market for the best solution, seeking a respected professional company rather than one individual to ensure the long-term viability of the online archive. We understand how precious it is to the many people who rely on it, and we cannot risk losing our data irretrievably. Our problem was that our web of databases and indexes needs a level of complexity far beyond what most libraries and archives require; there were no off-the-shelf products which could give us even close to what we needed.

After extensive research we found Epexio, a relatively new company who have already picked up an impressive roster of clients, including Dorset, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire County Councils; Southampton, Reading, De Montfort and Edge Hill Universities; Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and Bristol Archives. Epexio is run by librarians and archivists who understand what institutions need – and, crucially, it is extremely flexible. Over the past months they have worked to fulfil our every request.

In partnership with Epexio we aim to launch a new system which is more user-friendly, but without compromising more than absolutely necessary on the complexity needed by experienced folk researchers. This is the enduring challenge for all libraries and is an exceptionally difficult balancing act to pull off. We know that many new users are put off by the obtuse nature of what we have now, unable (understandably!) to penetrate the dizzying number of options available. We also understand how serious researchers use the tools, and how critical all these options are. There will be more explanation and more guided pathways into the material, but those who do not require these can bypass them. The layout of the records will be clearer.

The VWML website itself will also be better integrated into the EFDSS site, which will make maintenance much easier and technical glitches less likely. The nature of our links with the other EFDSS departments will also be clearer.

Another key benefit is that newly added records will appear immediately rather than having to go through a complex ingestion process from various separate systems for indexes, archive records and thesauri. In the past, users sometimes had to wait weeks before each bulk upload.

We cannot yet give an accurate launch date as we are still working with Epexio and our web developer on the multiple pieces of the jigsaw which need to be in place. We will give notice through VWML newsletters and social media. Initially we will launch the new site in a beta version, alongside the current site, until we are sure everything is working as it should be. User feedback will be crucial in this time and we hope that you will work with us in constructive dialogue as we aim to serve your needs as best we can. We see this as an opportunity to deliver better to a greater range of people.

There are always teething problems, especially when a project is this complex. It is difficult to state how daunting an undertaking this is, so we crave your patience as we carry out the critical work of safeguarding our folk heritage for future generations.

No new versions of indexes will be uploaded until the Epexio system has been launched. We apologise for the inconvenience this may cause, but any update to the current site may result in issues with code which is no longer supported.