Saturday 21 September 2013

PRONI September user forum meeting

Yesterday I attended the third user forum meeting this year in Belfast for the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (, and once again there is a lot happening in good aul' Norn Iron!

Just before the meeting I had a quick chance to say hi to the new heid yin of the archive, Maggie Collins, who had just been in post for a few days, and who I learned had previously worked at OFM/DFM (Office of the First Minister/Deputy First Minister). I was amused to learn in the meeting that she had managed to meet some of her colleagues prior to turning up, thanks to some interviews I carried out with various members of the archive which I had placed on this blog and on YouTube. So there you have it, this genie's humble offerings have been viewed at Stormont...! lol :)

There's a lot currently underway at PRONI. Joy Carey revealed that a new digitisation strategy has been created by PRONI, which includes new digitisation standards such as those for the creation of metadata (embedded information about digitised resources), image resolutions, archiving practice and all that kind of stuff. It was interesting to note that there seems to be no set standards across the archive sector in the UK as a whole on how such resources are created, hence the new strategic guideline. The proposal is still in draft form, so I will hold off for now in discussing in more detail. It was announced that PRONI will no longer be microfilming permanent deposits or deposits on loan, they will be digitised from now on.

It was also noted that a small pilot project is underway to digitise some parish records resources that have been microfilmed, for which the microfilms themselves have been damaged, or which suffered from poor photography when first compiled. I asked if these digitised surrogates would ever go online - the short answer is it is unlikely, as some of the materials are held by permission of various agencies. Nevertheless, it is great news that digitised formats may be available - but to emphasise, it is just a pilot project for now, and how it will develop after this is still up for discussion.

Joy also provided some stats on the FLICKR channel for PRONI. There are some 2000 images now online, including the Allison Collection, the Cooper Collection, and lots of glass plates. Many of these have no corresponding paperwork, and so the site has acted as a great crowdsourcing project to attract information from the public with images they may recognise.

We then heard about the current Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry from Graham Jackson and Maggie Smith. Essentially this has been set up as a three year inquiry which will look into abuse from 1922-1995 at various institutions (see and for background). It's quite a grim subject area, and a lot was discussed, but to summarise, the key point really for researchers (from any discipline) is that access to material for the inquiry will be prioritised by the inquiry team over any Freedom of Information requests, so don't be too surprised if a request gets put onto the back burner for a bit (normally FOI has to be turned around in 28 days). Maggie also mentioned that for anyone wishing to follow the inquiry's proceedings from January 2014, there is a site at which will have coverage of daily proceedings.

Janet Hancock gave us a round up of the recent Family and Local History Day held at PRONI during the recent World Police and Fire Games in Belfast, the first time the archive has ever held such an event. Several hundred visitors turned up, though the surprise was that they were more locally based than from out of town, but it was a huge success - not least for which for many of the vendors and societies, who expressed how brilliant it was in particular to be able to network with each other at an event in the north. Nothing has been fixed up yet, but there's already talk about a possible follow up at some point next year, so watch this space!

Stephen Scarth mentioned a new video on PRONI which recently went live on YouTube - I blogged about this last week, but here it is again in case you missed it!

On cataloguing, Wesley Geddis explained that the Londonderry Papers continues to be a major project. The internal catalogue at PRONI will be updated at the start of next week, whilst the online catalogue is to get a major update in the next fortnight (I mentioned this from the last user forum meeting, but it has been delayed for a few reasons). Big cataloguing projects coming soon include coroners inquests from 1969-1999 to cover the Troubles period (some 8500 reports), and next year a further 150,000-160,000 wills abstracts will be going online via the PRONI website to take coverage up to 1965, with a few previous gaps in the current coverage also due to be plugged. Brilliant! During the discussion of this we learned that the National Archives of Ireland is also digitising some locally held copy books from 19th century original wills, which will cover some probate from Northern Ireland also.

There are several forthcoming events, including a new series of family history based talks and events which will be happening at Titanic Belfast from November 4th-10th - PRONI will be involved, as will FindmyPast Ireland, and I believe also the Ulster Historical Foundation. The event is called Festival of Family and Friends - more in due course. Some other quickies - Belfast Central Library will be celebrating 125 years with an anniversary event in October, and the Ulster Historical Foundation will be running another summer school in the first week of June 2014. There will also be a half day Second World War event in PRONI on November 21st 2013 to tie in with a book launch.

And finally - the latest on the General Register Office for Northern Ireland's new digital platform was mentioned by a GRO rep in attendance. It looks like it will now be March 2014 at the earliest before both indexes and images go online. I asked again if the prices have been confirmed yet - the short answer is no, but they have an idea of what they hope to charge, and that it will be "no dearer than at present". When I asked if it would be any cheaper than at present, not a lot more was given away! We can but hope that the GRONI follows the ScotlandsPeople lead on this...

Another great meeting. And once again, it had great coffee and mega-scones. They need to digitise the recipe for the mega-scones - so huge, they don't have currants in them, but in orbit around them! :)

(With thanks to everyone at PRONI)


My latest book, Discover Scottish Civil Registration Records, is now available from (print) and (ebook), whilst Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet is available at My next Pharos Scottish course, Scotland 1750-1850: Beyond the OPRs, starts Nov 13th - see

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