IDP User Survey

Summary Report

Published by the International Dunhuang Project (UK), March 2013.

This document is available to download as a PDF (151 KB).

See a full list of survey responses.


In February 2012 IDP received an AHRC grant for work including initial redevelopment of its database and website. An online user survey to obtain feedback to inform this redevelopment was planned for the same year. The survey was prepared in consultation with the British Library HE and Marketing teams and with the IDP UK Academic Advisory Committee, who met on 2 April 2012 to discuss the initial design.

The survey was available from 23 May to 29 June 2012. The results were published online in August 2012. They formed the basis for discussion with the Academic Advisory Group in November 2012. Website redesign started following these discussions.


The survey received 112 submissions. It was targetted at UK students and academics but was open to all. 21.2% of respondents identified themselves as undergraduates or postgraduates, 38.8% as academics and a further 7.1% as librarians or curators. Independent researchers formed 21.2%. Other respondents included conservators, digitisation specialists, architects, artists and those with an interest in Buddhism or travel.

The diversity of respondents matched the profile we have of IDP users, namely a majority being academics or students, but with a significant minority of non-academics.

Students and academics were asked to name their institution. These included universities in UK and elsewhere in Europe (Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Austria), the USA, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and South Africa. This again matched the existing profile we had in terms of the location of English-language IDP users.

Respondents were asked to list their subject area or specialism. History, art history, archaeology and religious studies were the most popular with two thirds of participants in these areas, but there was also a significant number of respondents in geography, language and literature, linguistics, anthropology, social sciences and history of science.

Over the past five years IDP had concentrated on widening its initial user base of historians and art historians, targetting religious studies and archaeology, with some promotion among historians of science as well. It was gratifying to see that the respondents reflected a widened user base. There were no significant gaps.

As would be expected, most respondents had previously used the IDP website, for research and teaching but also for general interest, and most were users of the UK English-language site.

The Website

A series of questions were posed to gauge the users’ responses to the website’s functionality, design and speed. This was the key to the user survey. Respondents were asked to make a choice for most questions on a 5-point scale: excellent, good, neutral, fair or poor, with an additional ‘don’t know’ option.

53–78% responded with good or excellent to all questions. The lower percentages were for the two questions on the search functionality (53-55%). This had been previously identified as an area needing the most attention in the redesign and it was anticipated that there would be no ‘excellent’ and few ‘good’ in the responses. Surprisingly only 11% responded negatively to these two questions (‘fair’ or ‘poor’). One explanation for this is that many IDP users, as is evidenced from comments and other feedback, are simply grateful to having access to images of the collections and therefore disposed to be positive about the website.

There were no respondents selecting ‘poor’ to 3 of the other 7 questions and only 6% selecting either poor or fair.

Users were given the opportunity to comment on the specific search functionalities offered on IDP in more detail. The results were similar, with most rating the different search pages as excellent or good.

Respondents were given the opportunity to add a comment. Of the 23 comments received, four directly addressed the issues with the search. These were all issues already identified by IDP as needing urgent attention:

I cannot figure out, and it is not specified anywhere I could find, how to locate whether, for instance, there is a MS of a specific text with a Taisho number (Chinese) or Peking/Derge etc number (Tibetan), or by text title, or any other way I could figure out except a catalogue number, but even trying to use a Giles number I could not find the entry for an item I knew to exist! I once found something in the La Vallee Poussin catalogue (for which however there was no photo) but it did not come up by title. This makes it virtually impossible for me to try to use the database. Maybe all of this is possible, but at least where I looked I found no guidance as to how to use the tools provided. :(
I have used the manuscripts frequently, and would enjoy an improvement to the search results (perhaps with improved metadata, such as period (Tibetan Administration, Guiyijin, etc.) and language(s)), though I recognize the large cost associated. Bibliographic links are sometimes broken, and it can be difficult to use some of the bibliographic citations (particularly those which are abbreviations or short forms) to find the associated articles or books. That said, IDP is an invaluable resource, and one that I return to constantly. In addition to the manuscripts (and their incredibly useful associated catalogue entries), several teaching tools and research are excellent. My favourites are Chinnery's article on book formats (invaluable!), the online catalogue “The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith,” which has a beautiful design, and the various maps, esp. regarding the spread of different forms of Buddhism.
Search tool seems very powerful, but finding simple things seems very difficult, e.g. “Uighur Manichaeism” or “contracts”. This is the kind of search I'd expect to be able to do to find a selection of items that I could put in a powerpoint for teaching a class. I'd also like to be able to point students to that whole selection so that they can explore it for themselves outside class.
The search function is the key weakness. It could be far more intuitive. Even after probably 50 hours using the site I still struggle -- despite considerable tech skills.

The remainder reinforced the generally positive attitude of IDP users, for example:

IDP is great! A wonderful resource, though it could have more undergrad/ public resources for use in Silk Road and other general courses. Also, would be great to visit partner sites like The Hermitage, but they are so strict. If the website could facilitate arranging visiting fellowships/ access or the like it would be great.
Please continue your excellent work!!! Sometimes one would wish either to have more issues of IDP per year, or larger issues of it!!!
please go on, you're doing great work
Thank you for news letter and mail service!
Thank you for running this site and for all the valuable materials you gather there. Keep up the good work please!
Thanks for your work!
The website is very useful/excellent. But I wish more picture of original literature can be shared. We need these resources to help our study.
Your project is vital to the general understanding between western and Asia countries
your site is very useful as I visit the area every year

These results were far more positive than anticipated, while also confirming the concerns that we had identified as key issues for the redevelopment of the database and website.

Users were also asked for their assessment of the display pages for items, catalogues and other results. These were overwhelmingly positive with 74% rating the item overview page as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. There were no respondents selecting poor for any of the questions in this section and only four selecting ‘fair’ from the 435 replies in total.


The next set of questions concerned awareness and use of the range of resources offered by IDP. We expected many users to think of IDP offering images only of manuscripts from Dunhuang. In fact, over the past decade our scope has expanded to include all artefacts from all archaeological sites on the Eastern Silk Road, along with many contextual resources.

As expected, the majority of respondents were aware of the manuscripts but the percentage aware of other material available on IDP — paintings, artefacts, photographs, archaeological archives and maps — did not fall below 50%. This was higher than expected. The same trend was observed in terms of the resources offered, catalogues, research papers and educational sites. There is still some work to be done to broaden public awareness of the breadth of resources but the situation is better than predicted.

There was also good awareness of the social networking pages, although only one third of respondents replied to this question.

As expected, when asked what they would like more of, most respondents (90%) said more images of primary resources.

52% of respondents used resources for teaching/education, but 81% answered ‘for personal/scholarly interest’. There was one business user. Respondents were asked to name the courses on which they used IDP resources for teaching: the list was as follows:

There is certainly scope for expanding this list as it is currently very heavily weighted to religion and East Asia. The potential for using IDP in other fields is shown by the inclusion of the Graduate Earth Science course.

The importance of IDP for research was then assessed. 64% of respondents said that without IDP they would not have achieved all of their research aims and a further 19% said that it would have taken them longer.


The final section of the survey aimed to gather information on the range of systems used by the respondents. Interestingly, the whole range of devices from smartphones to desktop PCs were listed. Users listed a wide range of other tools.

Follow Up

58 respondents agreed that they would be happy to provide further feedback and provided their email address.