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National Library and Archives of the UAE

Arabian Gulf Digital Archive

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

  • The online archive reimagined for a world of machine learning and mobile devices
  • Multilingual, large scale and dynamic
  • Innovative interface allows deep engagement with content

The Arabian Gulf Digital Archive (AGDA) is the result of a collaboration between two national archives, the UK and the UAE. It brings to life two centuries of the history of the Gulf region and delivers unprecedented access to primary source material for historical research.

Videos, photographs, and documents for study and research provide unique insights as the UAE prepares to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2021. Most of the material has never been published before. It is now accessible to anyone in the world with a web browser and an internet connection.

Screenshot of AGDA on a tablet device

Building a better online world for scholars and researchers

This innovative online archive uses machine learning to deliver high-quality OCR (Optical Character Recognition), enabling researchers to search the text within the documents as well as via archival catalogue information. Optical character recognition and full text search now extends to handwritten and Arabic documents.

The OCR extends to downloadable, searchable PDFs enabling offline research and study.

Screenshot of AGDA on a mobile device demonstrating English search term highlighting on archival images
English search term highlighting on archival images

AGDA uses modern web technology to deliver an app-like experience in the browser. The mobile presentation of the site uses a bespoke layout to provide desktop functionality on a small screen, in English and Arabic.

We designed an innovative viewer to support what archivists told us would be most helpful. Users can quickly and intuitively drill down from a full record, through topics, people and places, to page level.

Grid of archival images from AGDA
Grid overview of archival images from AGDA

User testing of early prototypes helped us refine the final viewer. Evidence since launch shows that users are engaging with the site for significantly longer than comparable sites elsewhere. This is particularly pleasing given that it is being accessed primarily on small screens and mobile devices which would normally make extended engagement harder.

Building a better online world for our client

AGDA gives The National Archives of UAE a high-profile outlet for their content, and the ability to add more as it is digitised and catalogued.

The online archive delivers their organisational objective to provide integrated intellectual research and services and enhance the accessibility of their holdings.

Screenshot of AGDA on a mobile device demonstrating Arabic search term highlighting on archival images
Arabic search term highlighting on archival images

The system is easy for the internal team to update. For example, to create an online exhibition, content editors use a simple online interface. The same facilities are also available for general public visitors.

The back-end Drupal 8 content management system includes automated quality control to ensure that only archive items meeting specified criteria will be published.

Moving our industry forward

AGDA is a large-scale Drupal 8 website with hundreds of thousands of pages (and more to come) in Arabic and English. We have demonstrated that Drupal 8 is up to the task.

Applying machine learning to an archival corpus at scale is not a common practice. Our work on AGDA proves that it is both possible and effective. We plan to speak about what we have learned at upcoming conferences.

AGDA’s viewer extends ideas from Universal Viewer, Mirador, and other leading IIIF systems. It should serve as a model for the next generation of online viewers.

Creating an environment where everyone can do their best work

Communication is key to the success of a project. In this instance, our respective teams were in London, Brighton and Abu Dhabi. We ran face-to-face workshops and meetings as often as practical. Over the course of the project, most of our development team and all senior staff travelled to Abu Dhabi and London for face-to-face sessions.

Agile development also relies on good communication. We used shared project management tools, regular calls, and progress demos every two weeks. This ensured our clients were able to input throughout the process and review progress every step of the way.

We devised a workflow that prioritised making the cataloguing and translation work as simple as possible, without reducing quality of the website content (and in some cases enhancing it). Automated and person-powered quality assurance, editorial support, and technical guidance provided by Cogapp made the significant work of the content teams more straightforward.

Ongoing research through the project, in the UAE and the UK, validated decisions as they were made, ensuring we could build the site with confidence and without having to undo development work.