Prologue Magazine
Winter 2001, Vol. 33, No. 4

Spotlight on NARA
A New Look for NARA's Web Site: Friendlier, Easier, More Helpful

The online face of the National Archives and Records Administration is changing.

What lies behind that face on the World Wide Web will remain the same: ten thousand electronic pages of information about the documents, records, and images in our holdings.

By visiting us online, you can find everything from images of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to photographs that capture key moments in our nation's history. The Digital Classroom has lesson plans on famous documents and records. The Research Room tells you how you can conduct genealogy research at NARA and provides online resources. Links take you to the web sites of the presidential libraries, which have information about the presidencies and the records of the last twelve Presidents. And the site will include the initial version of the agency's new Archival Research Catalog, the future online catalog of all of the agency's archival holdings.

But some change is at hand. First of all, there will be a new address: www.archives.gov is replacing our old URL. If you go to the old address, you'll be automatically rerouted to the new one. The new-look web pages that were posted in June under www.archives.gov, which were key features of our July 4 observances in 2001, will be linked from the new home page and their web page addresses will remain the same.

And at the new address, we are posting a redesigned web site that will be more attractive and easier for you— whether you're a casual visitor or dogged researcher— to find what you're looking for.

"Our redesigned web site will offer the same main topics it always has— such as the Research Room, the Exhibit Hall, and the Digital Classroom," said Jennifer Nelson, manager of the Web Program Staff. "What will be new will be the uniformity and improved look and navigation of the site. And we hope this will better highlight our products and services to the public."

Nelson said there are several new user-friendly features to the web site:

  • A drop-down feature on every page, called "Where Is?/How Do I?," which will allow you to go directly to some of the most-used pages, such as genealogy, exhibits, what's new, etc.
  • An alphabetical index, much like a book index, to the most frequently used pages and topics, which will be available and will be separate from the usual site map
  • An FAQ feature— Frequently Asked Questions— which will pose the most-asked questions about NARA, along with answers provided by agency experts
  • Easier viewing of all online exhibits, which feature some of NARA's most famous holdings, such as the Constitution and photographic collections
  • Compliance with new accessibility guidelines, often referred to as Section 508, that support the use of screen-readers and other technologies needed by disabled persons to use federal web sites

NARA's web site, which began in 1996, has not changed its look since it adopted the current design in 1998. The site is organized for a wide variety of visitors: records officers, amateur and professional genealogists, classroom teachers, researchers of all kinds, veterans seeking to document their military service, government officials and members of Congress, historians and journalists, and casual visitors just dropping in to learn about NARA. Since 1998, the number of visitors to NARA's web site has grown by 240 percent, and during the last year alone, the figure has risen by 66 percent.

The site's Online Exhibit Hall offers images of select documents and records in NARA holdings in the Washington area and in regional archives and presidential libraries around the country. This includes the Constitution and other milestone documents in U.S. history as well as records such as U.S. casualty lists from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Our web site also offers guidance to users on where to find records that are in NARA's holdings but not available on the web site itself. And it contains information about NARA's various governmental activities and our role as the lead federal agency for records management.

The site will also be home to our Archival Research Catalog (ARC), the future online catalog of all our archival holdings. It will replace the NAIL prototype that has been online since 1996. (See "Online Catalog.")

Our new user-friendly design is but one of many improvements that will be in the offing for the web site. Recent budget increases have allowed us to hire more individuals with professional web site experience to guide and manage development of NARA's public and internal sites.

In addition, we have worked with outside contractors in redesigning the site. The contractors have provided NARA the needed web design and programming support as well as consultation about current design and online information delivery trends. NARA has identified and delivered content and also has done most of the work in maintaining completed designs.

During fiscal year 2001, NARA's web site received more than sixteen million "unique visits," or the number of times that visitors came to the web site, from individuals looking for everything from genealogy records to school classroom work to records management information.

Nelson said that NARA isn't adding much new material in the redesign right away, but will be concentrating on making it easier for users to navigate the site itself. The main headings on the site will remain the same, but there will be improved relationships between the subdirectories so that users won't get caught in situations where they seem to go in circles or get boxed in.

Nelson also said that nearly all of the URLs (Uniform Resource Locator)— web page addresses— within the site are being changed. This is to comply with the new accessibility guidelines for federal web sites so that URLs are named to better reflect the content on the pages. The web addresses will be more descriptive, rather than cryptic. NARA plans to allow old high-use URLs to be automatically redirected to the new URLs for a year until visitors to the site are accustomed to the new addresses. This will allow time for users who regularly visit pages on the site to change their electronic bookmarks. Old URLs that are not high-use web pages will be automatically redirected to the new NARA home page.

The new look on our web site was previewed over the summer, with the opening of www.archives.gov as a special portal to the site beginning in mid-June. It had two major features, both of which are being integrated into our new design.

One part describes the "National Archives Experience," the various programs and exhibits that will be available to visitors to the National Archives Building in Washington after the current renovation is finished in 2003. The other part allows visitors to "Join the Signers" by temporarily affixing their name to an image of the Declaration of Independence, then printing it out. There's also a link called "Make Your Signature Count," where visitors can make contributions to the Foundation for the National Archives.

NARA's web site is an integral part of our strategic goals for 2007— to make available online 70 percent of all NARA services and to provide descriptions, at the series or collection level, of 95 percent of all the agency's archival holdings in ARC.

"As the nation's record keeper, we want to make our agency's holdings accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere," said John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States. "An improved and expanded web site will improve our ability to provide 'ready access to essential evidence.'"

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.
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