The National Archives is probably the most well-known archive in the United States. However, most people only ever see its most famous documents on display, The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. While these are the foundational documents of our country, the archives housed thousands and thousands of other pieces that can tell us a lot about the history of our country. Most of these documents are collecting dust, only seen by a lone researcher every decade or so.
However, recent digitization efforts for the collections at the National Archives are changing this situation. Digitizing records allows greater access for researchers who may be otherwise restricted by travel and financial considerations. Additionally, digitization really opens up the archives for the general public. It allows those people who would normally only enter the National Archives through the front to digitally march through the researcher entrance and explore what they can find.
The National Archives Digital Vault allows visitors to browse their collections through tagging. Records are organized by tags and you can follow one to another through these connections. In fact, this is the premise for their pathways game, which starts with a record and provided clues to help to find a related document. It is meant to highlight the different ways that documents can be connected to one another. The site also has the option to create your own collection. Any records of personal or research interest can be dragged into a separate space and saved as a collection.
In addition to tagging, you can filter through documents for type or time period. This is helpful for visitors with specific types of documents or subjects in mind to easily find items. I also really liked this feature because it maintains some of the importance of physically visiting an archive. Oftentimes researchers stumble upon records at archives that they may not have been specifically looking for, but are relevant to their research topic. By showing a number of records related to the one someone is looking at prevents this from disappearing entirely.
The site also offers visitors the opportunity to create their own products. For example, one could create their own pathways challenge. Visitors can also create movies or posters using the documents that they have saved in their own collections.
I feel that these types of tools serve multiple purposes. They open archives up to the general public and allow them to explore records they would most likely never see otherwise. In this sense, the design is very accommodating to browsing without a specific topic in mind. However, it also has the features necessary for a more focused search, thereby allowing the utility of the digital collections to be extended to serious researchers as well.