Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The AHDS Is Evolving: Changes at the Arts and Humanities Data Service

Alastair Dunning describes the changes afoot at the AHDS and how it intends to adapt to the changes in both technology and the needs of its stakeholders.

Established in 1995, the Arts and Humanities Data Service [1] was created with the objective of developing an infrastructure to manage the growing number of digital resources being created within the arts and humanities.

One medium for discussing this initial development was Ariadne, and Daniel Greenstein and Jennifer Trant's 1996 article [2] gave a detailed account of the aims and organisation of the AHDS.

Since the publication of that article, there has been little deviation in the key aims of the AHDS - collecting, describing, disseminating and preserving digital resources related to the arts and humanities, and helping develop a culture of common standards to ensure this happens within as wide a framework as possible.

With the seemingly exponential interest in digital resources, the AHDS has grown and achieved successes in all these areas. It now delivers collections that comprise almost 20,000 images, over 600 datasets and several thousand electronic texts. Through Guides to Good Practice, workshops and other media, the AHDS has helped inculcate common standards in data creation. And, perhaps most importantly, the AHDS has mechanisms in place that ensure the long-term preservation of the scholarly heritage that is being continuously developed within the U.K.

This work has continued to attract the interest of funding bodies. The AHDS is in the midst of a three-year funding cycle, the responsibility for which is split equally between the JISC and the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB).

However there is no intention of standing still. Progress in technology and research, as well as the development of the strategic needs of funding bodies, demands organisational adaptation. In the past few years, there has been a proliferation of quality digital resources available on the Internet. And in terms of research, there has been a push towards cross-disciplinary research, but also greater exploration of digital resources within particular subject areas. The result is that there is now a much greater need to provide users with a coherent way to exploit the full breadth of the arts and humanities, whilst also responding to their particular needs at a subject level.

Therefore the AHDS has recently undergone some changes. The changes should be seen very much in an evolutionary light - adapting to the shifting environment outlined above - rather than revolutionary ones which adjust the key aims of the AHDS. The changes outlined below are meant to build on its previous work.

Fewer acronyms, no more barcode

This evolution has partially been a matter of re-branding. One might justly criticise the AHDS for the profusion of acronyms it has generated; six in total, when you count the AHDS and its five Service Providers. The new names for the AHDS Centres (which replace the generic description of the constituent parts of the AHDS as Service Providers) go some way to ending this confusion, as well providing a much more focussed service for the particular subject communities within the arts and humanities. The names for the new AHDS Centres are as follows:

Figure 1 Screenshot (62KB): The new names of the AHDS Centres

Figure 1: The new names and logos of the AHDS Centres

Readers will also spot the new logo; the unloved barcode having been replaced by a less mechanical oval, extensible according to the subject area that is being catered for.

The adoption of new names for the various components of the AHDS has also resulted in the development of a single unified Web site. A general area remains containing all generic AHDS information; but each of the AHDS Centres has its own section, providing information specific to those working within that subject area. On reaching the AHDS Web site [1] one click on the subject names in the banner at the top of the page allows users to obtain access to the specific subject areas.

Figure 2 Screenshot (52KB): new AHDS Web site homepage

Figure 2: Screenshot of new AHDS Web site homepage

Development of a Cross-search Catalogue

Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks the AHDS has faced in the past eight years has been to try and provide a mechanism to allow users to search through the full breadth of its collections. Specifications for the original AHDS Gateway did not anticipate the increasing disparity of collections held by the AHDS (nor the different ways of describing them), and thus the Gateway could not always guarantee to give users a working means for making useful cross-disciplinary searches of AHDS resources.

The AHDS has therefore begun work on a cross-search catalogue, formulating coherent collection descriptions for each of its resources, regardless of subject area. The AHDS cross-search catalogue [3] currently allows users to search across these descriptions. Users can then proceed to explore the selected collections in much greater depth.

The cross-search catalogue is very much a work in progress, and many improvements will be made over the next two years. The search facilities will be expanded to offer cross-searching at the level of individual text, image, recording and so on. Much work will also be done on the standardisation of subject terminologies and developing a more user-friendly interface.

Future Work for the AHDS

The AHDS is aware of the need to keep expanding. One area in which the AHDS wishes to do so is in making a firmer commitment to subjects such as philosophy, classics and religious studies. Currently, the AHDS only caters for these subjects on a best effort basis, but the feasibility of separate AHDS Centres for these subjects is being explored.

Recent events at the AHRB should also aid the AHDS. The AHRB's announcement that it is establishing a funding strand for ICT will increase the involvement of the AHDS in research activities funded by the AHRB. Specifically, the AHDS will be contributing to the development of a database of research methods and projects in humanities computing; it is hoped that the contents of the database will give both researchers and funding bodies a clearer idea of the direction humanities computing is currently taking. Projects such as these will not only assist the AHDS in its work with the AHRB, but will allow it to keep evolving as a service that responds to the wide and varied needs of those undertaking digital research in the arts and humanities.


  1. The Arts and Humanities Data Service Web site http://ahds.ac.uk/
  2. AHDS: Arts and Humanities Data Service, Greenstein D,and Trant J.,Ariadne issue 4, July 1996. http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue4/ahds/
  3. Search AHDS Collections http://ahds.ac.uk/collections/

Author Details

Alastair Dunning
Communications Manager
Arts and Humanities Data Service
King's College

Email: alastair.dunning@ahds.ac.uk
Web site: http://ahds.ac.uk/

Return to top