Modern Software Experience


real change

new site: archives 2.0

Tomorrow, the Regional Archive Leiden will introduce its new website. This is not some superficial make-over, the differences are more than skin deep. There are real changes. The archive advertises the new site is as a web 2.0 site, mostly because it supports user-generated content. Few will recognise the site as web 2.0; it does not have a typical web 2.0 design, it does not integrate with FaceBook or Twitter, and it does not seem to have its own social community either. The new site does set out to create one, but that is not immediately obvious.

The new site has a few web 2.0 features, which is advanced for an archive, but does not have a web 2.0 character. The site is not really web 2.0, but archives 2.0, and that is only partially visible. That the site shows links to sites of other archives is immediately visible, but a large part of archives 2.0 is organisational culture. The Regional Archive Leiden looked beyond their own organisation and worked together with other archives to create the new site, take advantage of the experiences of other archives and their best ideas for its own site. In turn, other archives now look to this site as an example for their own.

visible changes

Regional Archive Leiden Home Page 2010 Old

This is what site currently looks like. There is a menu with links to information about the archive along the left with address information below it, a menu links to major collections in the centre, a sidebar with news on the right, and a marquee along the top. The menu includes links to three other sites about Leiden; Pilgrim Archives, Jan van Hout and Leidse Canon.

Regional Archive Leiden Home Page 2010 New

This is what the new site looks like. A large part of the home page is used to show an image. There are four different images, and the text in the yellow box - sadly overlaying the image - provides a brief description. The marquee is gone. The home page still provides the email and phone number. The contact page provides the full address. News items are in the red box.
The home page is a bit of an exception, but the use of the blue, red and yellow is fairly consistent throughout the site; blue for the collections, red for the Regional Archives Leiden, and yellow for user-provided content.

Most of the menus are gone from the home page. Instead there are three buttons along the bottom now.  The Het RAL button leads to an about page that has information about the archive. There is more information here than on the old site. For example, there are separate pages for each town covered by the regional archive, and those pages have links to local museums and organisations.

Regional Archive Leiden: City of Leiden

Notice the bread crumbs menu above the content that shows the menu choices made to arrive at this page. This show you how you arrived at this page and can arrive at it again. The browser back button works as well.

searching collections

The old site put the major collection at the centre of the home page. You could click through for brief descriptions and specialised search for that particular collection.

Regional Archive Leiden Image Bank 2010 Old

The old search page for the image bank. Notice that it immediately shows a lot of search options. That is handy, but also a bit overwhelming. The new search page keeps things deliberately simple; there are options, but new site design encourages you to start searching by merely entering a search term in the search box.

Regional Archive Leiden Image Bank 2010 New

The new info page for the image bank.

On the new site, the Collections button leads to an overview page that offers the same information as the old home page, but the links no longer lead to brief descriptions and specialised search pages. The links lead to information pages with more extensive descriptions, an a simple search box on the right. That simple search box leads to the same search as the search box on the home page. There are no specialised search engines anymore.


The new site is technologically dated. The navigation works without JavaScript, but the search results look horrible unless you decide to surf unsafely and turn JavaScript on; the site does use CSS for layout, but apparently not for the entire site.

Like the old site, the new site has been created using Joomla! Content Management System (CMS). The Joomla! system allows liquid layout, yet it is a fixed-sized design that looks good at a resolution of 1024 x 768 only. The site does not adapt to the browser window size. The result on larger monitors is the so-called postage stamp effect; a very small site in the middle of an ocean of wasted space.

Regional Archive Leiden widescreen

What the site looks like when the browser window is maximised on a 1920 x 1080 widescreen display like most people buy nowadays; a fixed-size postage stamp against a huge grey background.

The new site isn't technologically perfect, but it isn't a step backwards either. On the contrary, it is several steps forward.

These observations are a bit disappointing, but the old site suffered the same problems. The new site isn't technologically perfect, but it isn't a step backwards either. On the contrary, it is several steps forward. The new site gets several things right that the old did not.

The old site used XHTML 1.0 Transitional and did not validate; the W3C Mark-up Validator Service reported 31 errors and 22 warnings. The new site uses XHTML 1.0 Strict and the home page actually validates; there are no errors and no warnings. I tried a few random pages, and most do have a few validations errors, so there is still some work to be done, but the new site seems an improvement on the old one; the pages are of a higher technical quality.
While the old site still encoded pages in ISO 8859-1 (ISO Latin 1), the new site uses UTF-8.

scan on demand

The new site puts an emphasis on delivering data digitally, so that you can research the archive without having the visit. It attempts to deliver much of the most often requested information in digital form.
The idea is that you will often find a scan at a reasonable resolution, but can order higher quality scans for a price. If there is no scan, you can opt to commission the scan; the archive will scan the item on your demand, you will pay for the scan, and the next visitor will find a reasonable resolution of that scan.


Another option is to make a reservation to view the original document. When you create a user account, you can indicate a date and time you want to visit the archive to view a particular document. The archivists will fetch it the day before, to have it ready and waiting for you when you arrive.

Regional Archive Leiden: reservation

I seem to recall from a demonstration of the still unfinished site a few weeks ago that it should be possible to undo a registration, but this screenshot shows no control to do so. I am pretty sure that there are some controls missing, and hope this gets fixed soon.
What this screenshot does show is that the archive is closed this week because of renovation.


Regional Archive Leiden: MijnRAL

Once you are registered, you get a profile. That profile has a lot of buttons along the right side. One of these is a button Reservering that leads to page with an overview of all your reservations and the possibility to undo these reservations. Other buttons lead to scans, translations and transcriptions. You can store searches, see the stories you uploaded and the comments you left. You can join interest groups, and indicate your interests in some predefined categories (towns, periods, buildings and genealogy) on your profile and can subscribe to an RSS feed based on those interests.

unified search

The big technological change between the old and the new site that a regular user will immediately notice is that the old site had various specialised search engines, while the new site has a single unified search engine.

Regional Archive Leiden Unified Search: Robinson

The illustration shows the results of searching for Robinson. The results page is divided into nine boxes. In this screenshot, three are complete visible, three are partially visible, and three are below the window bottom; you have to scroll to see these. If the site had used a fluid layout instead of a postage stamp design, all nine boxes would easily have fitted on a widescreen display.

Each of the nine boxes shows a different type of result. From left to right, top to bottom, these are images, newspapers, archives (the Leiden Archive keeps archives), persons, places, library, stories, external websites and pages on the RAL website itself. You can click on the links of the header in each to focus on just the results from that box.


On this particular result page are multiple images of the John Robinson memorial plaque on the Pieterskerk. Although several of the Robinson mentions in the newspapers are advertisements for Robinson shoes, quite a few of the links on the results page relate to John Robinson.
The person tab shows three hits for the baptism of Roosje Jennings, daughter of Johan Jennings and Faer Sijnhuijs; This record shows up because the comment field states that Faer Robinson is the daughter of John Robinson. The places box shows the same result, perhaps because anything in a comment field might be a place name.
The library box lists several articles about John Robinson, and the unveiling of the John Robinson memorial in particular.

user generated content

The external websites box looks for hits on such external websites such as the National Archive, the Leiden University Library, the newspapers in Royal Library and the Institute for Dutch History. That's the archives 2.0 approach. The web 2.0 approach is that the site also links to unofficial third parties such as the Dutch genealogy site Genealogy Online and the local history society Oud Leiden.

Another new web 2.0 feature of the website is that users can upload their own stories. This box scans several related websites that have stories as well. Unsurprisingly, there were no user stories about John Robinson, or in fact about anything at all before the official introduction of the site.

Regional Archive Leiden: Uw Verhaal

The alderman for culture opened the website by uploading a picture and description of the current mayor and aldermen. Ariela Netiv, the director of the Regional Archive Leiden, uploaded a short history of the Prinsenhof, a building on the Rapenburg, and a story about the visit of Prince Maurits in 1594. Other already prepared articles quickly followed.

The user-provided content is likely to vary widely in both nature and quality of content, and archivists will have to monitor the content to some extent. All the uploaded content is included in search results, and the user of the website will have to judge accuracy and reliability of the provided information themselves.


The search results page for Robinson shows more than 11.000 hits in newspapers. Some searches results in millions of hits, but the performance remains excellent. A search for the Dutch definite article, quite probably the slowest search, takes about fifteen seconds; but there are more than 200 million results, so that is still impressive performance.

vital and marriage records

The big news for genealogist is that the new website will offer a full index on all birth, death and marriage records (up until legal restrictions of course), complete with scans of the original records.
The current site offers a full index of some the vital and marriage records, without scans.

I've been trying this functionality for the past weeks, and it was working, but I had reason to doubt that the index was complete yet; for various searches, the old system returns more hits. It seemed to me that the new system still offers the same data as the old one, and the systems just counted the hits differently.
Ariela Netiv has confirmed this impression. The site current offers the same index as the old site. The site will offer all scans within a few weeks. Completion of the index on these scans is likely to take years, but visitors can already search through the scans themselves.

The baptism record the Robinson search turned up is one of the records that has not been scanned yet.

Regional Archive Leiden a marriage in 1621

This screenshot shows a marriage which took place in 1621. The pop-up window appears when you click the Inzien van de akte (viewing the record) link. Sadly, the pop-up window opens on the frontispiece of the marriage book, and you have to links along the bottom of the image to navigate through it. As this screenshot shows, the displayed resolution is too to read the image, and there are no zoom controls. Thus, it is nearly impossible to find the right page.

This is odd, as the site does include functionality for zooming and scrolling through images, but somehow, that functionality is missing here. As the screenshots show, I've been using Google Chrome for exploring the site, but a quick test in Firefox confirmed that this is not problem with Google Chrome.

I looked at several more recent records, but the resolution of this image is typical. Even birth certificates as recent as 1908 are practically unreadable. As it is now, the scans offer little or no added value to the index.

The site should automatically navigate to the right record and display that original records in a readable resolution. There will be quite some interest in these records, so I expect these issues to receive high priority and to be addressed soon after the introduction of the new site.

Creative Commons

Very web 2.0 is that the Regional Archive Leiden allows a lot of its material to be used under a Creative Commons license, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license to be precise. The archive may charge for high resolution images, but generally, a the lower resolution of the same image is provided free of any charge. Whether any particular falls under this Creative Commons license is indicated in the Copyright field of the details.


update 2010-10-14 official opening

Article updated after official opening of the site. Several site issues have been fixed, and article now includes information provided by Ariela Netiv, the director of the Regional Archive Leiden.

2011-12-21: Leiden records

Scans of the baptisation, marriage and burial records of Leiden are on the site, and there is an index, but the index entries are not linked to the scans; clicking an entry brings up the entire book, not a page, and you then have to find the source page yourself. Today, the Regional Archive Leiden announced that it will take advantage of the new Vele Handen (Many Hands) crowd-sourcing site to fix this. The crowd-sourcing project is expected to become available in February.

2012-06-04: Leiden Missing Links project

The Leiden Missing Links project has started.