Online search tool ‘lifting a veil’ on Yale’s collections

An antique book, compass, and other vintage objects arranged on a table with the title “Explore”

Archives at Yale, a new software tool launched in early September, allows students, faculty, and other researchers to search more precisely across and within more than 5,000 collections held by 10 Yale libraries and museums. The new tool is based on a widely used open-source web application — which means that Yale’s investment in developing it will benefit other libraries and museums around the world. 

Yale’s collections are unusually large and diverse, with unique information management needs,” said Susan Gibbons, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian and deputy provost for collections and scholarly communication. “It took more than 18 months to adapt and enhance ArchivesSpace, the open-source application, for the complexity of Yale’s multiple repositories and collections. In the process, we’ve developed capabilities that other ArchivesSpace institutions will be able to use but do not have the resources to develop on their own.” 

The Yale project team conducted extensive user testing to make the search process more intuitive and accessible. Collection finding aids — written descriptions of collection contents — have been enhanced and standardized to address elements like inconsistent date formats and name variations that can trip up search tools and prevent relevant items from surfacing. 

Another innovation is the ability to limit searches to a date range, thus screening out irrelevant results. Additionally, when material on a research topic is spread across multiple collections, Archives at Yale can often point users to folders within collections, and sometimes even items within a folder, rather than just to the collections.

Doing archival research can be a bit of a treasure hunt, when materials are buried in big collections with lengthy finding aids,” said Ève Bourbeau-Allard, processing archivist at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “This saves a lot of time and makes the results less opaque, like lifting a veil.”

The project is a milestone in an ongoing university-wide initiative to unify the experience of working with primary source materials in repositories across campus.

In building extraordinary collections over the last three centuries, Yale has made a commitment to the creation, preservation, and dissemination of human knowledge,” Gibbons said. “Archives at Yale will make it easier for the campus community and the international research community to participate in that important, ongoing work.” 

A glimpse at Archives at Yale provides a sense of the vast amount of material available for research: a dropdown menu shows 5,296 different collections searchable with the new tool. The collections are housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Manuscripts and Archives, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Divinity School Library, the Gilmore Music Library, the Haas Arts Library, the Lewis Walpole Library, the Medical Historical Library, and two repositories at the Yale Center for British Art: the museum’s institutional archives and its rare book and manuscripts collection. Individual collections can contain hundreds or thousands of manuscripts, documents, photographs, and ephemera. 

An Archives at Yale search in progress, for records related to the keyword John Davenport, dated between 1800 and 1850.
An example Archives at Yale search in progress, displaying records related to the keyword “John Davenport” dated between 1800 and 1850.

Archives at Yale will run side-by-side with the now outmoded Yale Finding Aid Database (YFAD) until the end of the semester while the project team continues to test, fine-tune, and survey users for feedback. However, users are encouraged to move from YFAD to Archives at Yale as soon as possible to access the enhanced search capabilities and to ensure that their initial experiences are incorporated into the ongoing development.

Once the transition is completed, Archives at Yale will continue to evolve with help from diligent users and staff. 

The culmination of this project is a modern technical platform for archives and special collections that will not only improve discovery and use of Yale’s rich collections but will also bring forward additional service integrations and comprehensive collections management for our cultural heritage,” said IT portfolio manager Melissa Wisner, who led the project team.

To begin exploring the collections, visit archives.yale.edu.

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Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548