ACROSS THE DECADES - 40 years of data archiving
 

Support - going out to users

Open Day at the ESRC Data Archive

The services offered by the Archive have always been more than simply data in - data out. In addition to all the data processing and ingest activities, the support of researchers in their use of the data, together with the promotion of the collection has always been central for the Archive over its 40-year history.

Indeed, when the Archive was established there was a clear emphasis on the provision of data analyses to researchers who were not in a position to conduct the analyses themselves. (In fact, it was originally hoped that this service would generate revenue to support other in-house tasks - an expectation never realised.)

UKDA 40 logo Comments received from participants at the Health Data Workshop on 12 March 1998

Up until the mid-1970s support for users was rather limited by today's standards, and efforts in some respects were concentrated on designing and producing detailed bespoke user guides rather than promoting the data directly. This changed with the appointment of Ivor Crewe as Director in 1974, who, keen to increase the number of users, made concerted efforts to, as he later put it, "take the Archive out on the road". Talks were given up and down the country about what the Archive did and in 1975 the first issue of the Bulletin was produced, replacing the much shorter, ad hoc and infrequent newsletter. The Archive and its holdings were also promoted through the annual Summer School in Quantitative Methods held at the University of Essex.

In the 1980s, as the collection of major government surveys held by the Archive began to grow, attention turned to organising regular User Group meetings focusing on such series as the General Household Survey (GHS), Family Expenditure Survey (FES) and Labour Force Survey (LFS). These User Group meetings played a major role in supporting the needs of researchers by providing substantive and technical support as well as bringing together both government data providers and users to share information, ideas and experiences.

Under ESDS, these continue to be a major component in researcher support and are heavily subscribed to both from within and outside the academic community. In 1986 the first weekend workshop was held (for the extra-keen) on 'Teaching Quantitative Data Analysis'. Although the experiment was short-lived, the spirit which prompted it still lives on and flourishes in the now highly successful ESRC-funded Research Methods Festival!

Research Methods Festival

Although it has been high on the Archive's agenda for a long time, since the formation of the specialist History Data Service in 1996 and the Economic and Social Data Service in 2003, the Archive has placed an even higher priority on targeted, focused user support.

This has taken multiple forms: events for general awareness raising, workshops focusing on specific themes or datasets, user groups, and training on methodology relating to the use of Archive-held data. The Archive equally collaborates with other expert groups, centres and information providers to host days of interest. In 2006 alone, the Archive organised or contributed to over 160 user-support events - as many in a single year as in the first twenty years!

UKDA 40 logo
"Contacting the Data Archive 'On-Line'
The SSRC Data Archive has established a 'postbox' on the University of Essex DEC-System 10 computer to enable people with access to the Essex computer either via PSS or the telephone to send 'electronic mail' directly to the Archive."

Bulletin 21 February 1982

The Archive has also devoted attention to harnessing the enthusiasm of data professionals, computing staff and librarians across the UK who provide a useful service as local agents on behalf of the Archive.

This was particularly important in the days when punch cards and magnetic tapes holding data had to be sent somewhere, and forms had to be signed and collated. These were the network of Official Representatives or ORs. Although the original purpose and role of the OR has changed, such contacts still provide an important function in promoting the work of the Archive locally and helping local researchers with any queries.

The Archive continues to support local representatives and work closely with data librarians in universities.

Communication

The Archive produced its first Newsletter in 1968, shortly after being founded. This was little more than a broadsheet, typed onto a single page and copied.

UKDA Bulletin UKDA Bulletin

This was replaced in 1975 with the production of a fuller length Bulletin (all back copies of which are available in PDF format from the Archive web site). Its main purpose was "to provide a continuing source of up-to-date information about the Archive and to act as an informal supplement to the Inventory". Indeed, of the 32 pages of the first issue, 26 were taken up with listing names and institutional details of Organisational Representatives, new holdings and collections held in foreign data archives. The Bulletin was a tri-annual publication which included longer articles on methodology in the use of data materials held by the Archive, book reviews and news items.

UK Databytes

Due to increased use of email, mailbase lists and the web for disseminating information the last issue was produced in September 2000. From 1984 the Archive also produced a regular GHS Newsletter to help support the user group. This ceased in the 1990s.

The Bulletin was replaced in 2001 by a quarterly newsletter, UKDAtabytes (renamed ESDS News in 2010) focusing on news items providing readers with an alternative way of keeping abreast of developments. ESDS News currently has a postal circulation list of approximately 2,750, with many more readers accessing it online.

Branding

web design

The outward image of the Archive has changed quite dramatically over its lifetime with a transition right through the colour spectrum from red to blue via purple and green! Logos have also morphed radically reflecting the input from new directors and teams as they impose their own style and vision to fit the intended profile of the organisation, or just to keep up to date with emerging styles.

User guides

guides

Helping users to get started has always been one of the Archive's challenges. In the 1980s paper guides were prepared on the use of data in teaching and learning. The 2000s have seen the development of a series of user-friendly searchable online guides that both introduce and give step-by-step advice on how to use various services. These are also used in hands-on workshops.

Other guides provide a more in-depth exploration of issues pertaining to using data by research themes, software packages or data analysis techniques. Thematic or subject-based help in finding data are always popular, where an overview of the subject, examples of key datasets, and links to UK centres of expertise in the respective areas, are collated. The Archive has also prepared guides to good practice in the areas of data usage and sharing, data documentation and preservation, and case studies of secondary analysis.

Help desk

The Archive provides a dedicated help desk for general questions about finding, accessing and using data, including help with the most popular data handling and analysis software. There are currently over 45,000 registered users and in 2005-06 the help desk answered over 3,000 queries.