At the launch of Connected Histories yesterday (more to follow on that next week), David Thomas, Director of Technology at The National Archives (TNA) unveiled in public for the first time the beta version of the new TNA catalogue. At the moment you can access the ‘Discovery service‘ via the excellent TNA Labs rather than finding it on the main TNA pages. As the description indicates, this is a first release, and it will be some time before it replaces the existing catalogue. Now is the time for researchers to experiment with the new service and feed in their comments (there is a feedback form for exactly this purpose).

There is a handy browse facility, by government department, but the search is where things really begin to get interesting. A quick search for the term ‘beggars’ (suggested when David bravely asked for audience requests!) produced 104 results, with the term clearly highlighted in a snippet view. On clicking through to a particular record, the full description is given along with an option immediately to order a digital or printed copy of the record. Far more information is immediately apparent than with the current search, where it may take several clicks before arriving at a page which actually makes visible your search term.

Another enhancement is the option to refine the search by subject, date and/or collection. For example, two instances of the term ‘beggars’ appeared in records relating to ‘Privacy and privateering’. The first of these turned out to be a report on one William Caines, a ‘man of colour’, former (presumably not very successful) privateer and now beggar. The ‘Discovery service’ does precisely that, exposing the depth and richness of the collections to an unprecedented extent.

Finally, when searching for a place-name – ‘Stamford’ was the example used – it becomes possible to display the results on a map. Geo-referencing all of the information in the catalogue is, if course, a huge task, and there is a long way to go, but it opens up a range of exciting options for the future.