Funding for the Methods Network ended March 31st 2008. The website will be preserved in its current state.

Multidimensional Visualization of Archival Finding Aids

Multidimensional Visualization of Archival Finding Aids is a focused study intending to create a ZigZag implementation of two finding aids: the Gateway to Archives of Scottish Higher Education (GASHE) and Navigational Aids for the History of Science, Technology and the Environment (NAHSTE). It also intends to provide a multidimensional user interface to these finding aids. The project is located in the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII) at the University of Glasgow and is funded under the AHRC's Speculative Research Scheme for one year (June 2006 to June 2007)

The findings of this pilot study will be published in an appropriate peer-reviewed journal.

The Project

As more finding aids, of increasing complexity, become available online, the difficulty of seeing the 'wood from the trees' increases. In part, this is caused by the inherent difficulty of navigating hierarchical structures (the need go back up and across before going down again) but it is also a symptom of the lack of innovation in visualizing archival information. This project seeks to test a novel approach to structuring and visualizing archival information by applying Ted Nelson's ZigZag™ structure to two existing EAD finding aids.

Whilst an archive's physical space, catalogue arrangement and archivist’s assistance all help to guide users' navigation in the analogue world, this paradigm does not easily translate to the electronic environment. Traditional means of browsing or displaying online search results, such as lists, trees and directories, typically restrict users’ ability to see where they are, how they got there and where they can go next. Providing ‘cross-walks’ such as subject keywords, functional descriptions, person, place and corporate names can only go so far in addressing this problem. Points at which these cross-walks intersect cannot easily be displayed and users wishing to move from one to another need to repeat searches or navigate up and down the hierarchy. This problem increases exponentially where related material is held in different series, collections or repositories. In following one path, users lose sight of others, where they cross and what their relationship is.

One potential solution to this problem is to provide a new type of visualization of this multidimensional information. For example, 'repository', 'collection', 'creator', 'person name', 'place name', 'corporate name' and 'function' could each be separate dimensions, rather like lines on the London Underground map. Unlike a conventional map however, we are not limited to two dimensions, which would restrict the representation of the multiple connections that can exist in archival finding aids.

This concept of inter-connected multidimensions is embodied in Ted Nelson’s ZigZag™ system. The ZigZag structure can represent archival finding aids as a series of linked cells, these sets of linked cells can then be represented as dimensions. This allows a visualization that combines selected dimensions (for example files by function), but also displays all other available dimensions without cluttering users current view (which can also be ranked and sorted). The beauty of the ZigZag system is that the user is always presented with a locally relevant view of the information, irrespective of how complex the structure is, and without losing the ability to navigate and view all the interconnections. The possibility to represent archival information in this way may provide enhanced functionality and usability that reflects the deep interlinked structures of today's online finding aids. If this approach is proved viable, additional dimensions could be used to provide a whole range of context specific information, such as related bibliographies, digital surrogates, users’ comments and help files. This would allow online finding aids to move from an access tool towards an expert system.

Primary Aims

To create a ZigZag implementation of GASHE and NAHSTE finding aids and a multidimensional interface to GASHE and NAHSTE finding aids.

If user evaluation is positive a simple and intuitive means to navigate archival finding aids will be provided. Users will be able to view multiple connections within and between archival collections that are currently difficult, if not impossible, to see. As a result the ZigZag structure and the visualization may well serve as a model beyond archival finding aids.

Spin-off benefits will include the creation of templates that will simplify the process of creating EAD (encoded archival description) finding aids in the first place. This will be beneficial as one of the main barriers to the use of EAD is the time it takes to create finding aids to this standard. Although the point of ZigZag is to move away from hierarchical structures as embodied by EAD, it must be acknowledged that this is what many archives are using and that manual encoding of EAD leads to too many errors that hinder any kind of machine processing. A further benefit will be the automated transformation from EAD to the ZigZag structure developed by the project.

The project is now at the stage where it has a technical proof of concept (ie: it can move from EAD to a ZigZag visualization), although this is not yet ready for user evaluation.

Establishing whether visualization of this information in 2D is successful is another matter to be investigated. It may be that 3D representation is far more appropriate, but whether the project will have time to investigate this fully is not certain at present.

The viability of JavaScript for visualizing large data sets will also be assessed as there may be limitations in the speed that client PCs may process JavaScript.

Both of the above issues may lead to the use of specific plug-ins or applications to visualize large amounts of data rather than standard web browsers.

Whilst the project directors are confident that they will be able to produce a pilot ZigZag based visualization, what the precise benefits to users will be and how viable it will be in practice are still open questions which the project team aim to resolve within the next three to six months.

Publications/Further Reading

T. H. Nelson, A Cosmology for a Different Computer Universe: Data Model, Mechinisms, Virtual Machine and Visualization Infrastructure. (<>).

Tools and Methods


Stylus Studio 2006 Professional Edition, Microsoft Command Line Transformation Utility, Microsoft Core XML Services 6.0 Parser

Method Categories

Data Capture; Data Structuring and Enhancement; Data Analysis; Data Publishing and Dissemination.

Specific Methods

XML data mapping and transformation, information visualization, user group evaluation, application benchmarking and testing

Data Formats

XML, XSLT, XHTML, JavaScript

Metadata Standards


Project Website


Staff and Advisors

Principal Staff Member

Dr Ian Anderson

Other Staff Members

Dr Steve North

External Expertise

Professor Theodore Nelson, Oxford Internet Institute

AHDS Methods Taxonomy Terms

This item has been catalogued using a discipline and methods taxonomy. Learn more here.


  • History
  • Librarianship and Museum Studies


  • Data Analysis - Content analysis
  • Data Analysis - Record linkages
  • Data Analysis - Visual analysis/visualisation
  • Data publishing and dissemination - Textual resource sharing
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - 3d modelling - vector
  • Data Structuring and enhancement - Record linkages