Tuesday 22 July 2014

Comparing the UK's three national archives

This is something I have considered doing for a while, but after a trip to the NRS in Edinburgh yesterday that just about did my head in (see http://britishgenes.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/national-records-of-scotland-needs-to.html), here it comes at last. The following is my take on comparing the provisions of the UK's three leading national archives providers - the National Archives at Kew (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk), the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (www.proni.gov.uk), and the archive facility at the National Records of Scotland (www.nas.gov.uk). It should be noted that the NRS is a recently merged body comprised of the General Register Office for Scotland and the National Archives of Scotland - I am deliberately not including the GROS/ScotlandsPeople side of things in this regard, as TNA and PRONI have no similar provision, only the NRS archive service (i.e. the NAS). In my view there are some positives for the NRS, but just as many, if not more, negatives when compared to its sister institutions in England and Northern Ireland. Here goes:

TNA: Officially the United Kingdom, but predominantly the national archive for England and Wales, with some British collections involving all four nations (and from the former British Empire), and some Irish and Scottish holdings. Recently tasked with providing a strategic lead for the English and Welsh archive sector.
PRONI: Northern Ireland, with some pre-Partition southern Irish holdings also. Northern Ireland does not operate county archive centres as in Britain and the Republic of Ireland, so PRONI is a curious mixture of being both the local archive for the province and its national archive.
NRS: Scotland only. Has no strategic role in leading the Scottish archive sector in the way TNA does down south.

Centralised location?
TNA: No. About as central in London as I am in the west of Scotland! Underground stop is a few minutes walk from the archive, but long trip from central London. On site parking.
PRONI: Nearly. Buses to Titanic Quarter, but an easy 5-10 minute walk from the city centre, basically on the other side of the river. No on site parking, but large car park directly across the road, facing Odyssey.
NRS: Very. On Prince's Street in Edinburgh, hop off the train and be there in a minute. Parking in nearby St James Shopping Centre car park, few minutes walk away, and regular trams and buses in city centre.

Convenient opening hours?
TNA: Yes. TNA recently redesigned its hours so that it is now closed on Mondays, but open Tuesday to Saturdays 9am-5pm, with two late evening sessions to 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Saturdays best option for those working Mon-Fri 9-5
PRONI: Yes. Mondays to Wednesdays and Fridays 9am-4.45pm, Thursday 10am-8.45pm for those working a regular Mon-Fri 9-5. Last production orders 30 mins before closing. Occasional weekend opening of search rooms if PRONI is hosting an event.
NRS: Not really. Mondays to Fridays 9.00am-4.30pm, inconvenient for those working Mon-Fri 9-5. No evening opening; no weekend opening. Latest document ordering 3.45pm.

Wifi access?
TNA: Yes, freely available throughout the building.
PRONI: Yes, freely available throughout the building.
NRS: Why-fi? Some limited access to a pre-arranged list of vetted websites on NRS computers only. 3G tablets should pick up a signal in the search room.

Cafe facilities?
TNA: Yes, on site, ground floor.
PRONI: Yes, on site, ground floor.
NRS: Not in General Register House (which houses the archive search room), but a basic cafe facility is located in a separate building, New Register House (also part of NRS), located next door. Shopping centre across road has a food court.

Ordering documents:
TNA: Several search rooms available on site on a few floors. Once in a search room, a range of computers are available to allow you to order up documents using the internal catalogue. Panels can be consulted to see if your production is available to view, allowing you to go off for a coffee, or check emails etc, whilst keeping an eye on progress. Microfilm is now an endangered species at Kew.
PRONI: There are two main search rooms, one has a dedicated collection of computers that can be used to order documents, though worth bearing in mind the on site based catalogue is different in construction to that available online (the on site one is far superior). As with TNA, it is also possible to keep an eye on screens to see when productions are available to consult. There is a also a dedicated microfilm area with several readers available, including two printers.
NRS: Only one main public search room (a separate legal search room is on the same floor, with some microfilm access) with a series of computers at one end hosting digital resources, which although they host the on site catalogue, can not be used to order documents. To order documents, you have to go to the other end of the room to use one of two other computers to make the order - but you are not allowed to use the catalogue on those! Completely ridiculous set up. There are no screens providing progress on order deliveries, you have to just wait, though usually not for long. Unfortunately a substantial and seemingly growing amount of material is held off site on the other side of Edinburgh at Thomas Thomson House – there is no public search room access there or at West Register House (which used to offer such a provision). Only 12 items stored off site can be ordered in advance for a day's visit. And once you've gone through those? Sorry, it's tough luck.

Digitisation programme?
TNA: Almost messianic in its zeal. Some content digitised and made for sale through TNA website on pay-per-view basis. Some digitised as part of digital microfilms initiative, and made accessible for free. Umpteen number of projects with licensed partners such as Ancestry, FindmyPast and The Genealogist.
PRONI: Yes – as a small archive it tends to try for one 'big' release a year involving its own records, though other smaller releases or enhancements do go online from time to time. All records freely accessible through its own site. Has worked with FamilySearch on recent Valuation Revisions Books project, and its index to post-1858 wills calendars and wills collection is partially available through Ancestry as a free third party web linked database (search via Ancestry, but redirect to PRONI for results).
NRS: Fairly substantial digitisation programme, though access to the collections is available predominantly in its Edinburgh based search room only through its Virtual Volumes facility. Some records content is digitised for provision through its ScotlandsPlaces portal (in partnership with NLS and RCAHMS), a subscription site, at £18 for 3 months access (inc VAT). Has recently successfully adopted a limited crowdsourcing indexing programme. Wills and a few valuation rolls accessible via ScotlandsPeople.

TNA: Online access via Discovery, its relatively new Borg technology based catalogue which will seemingly soon assimilate all known catalogues that have ever been hosted on the TNA website (inc NRA, A2A etc). Takes a bit of getting used to, but does work.
PRONI: There are actually two catalogue systems for the public – the one available online (eCATNI), which is good, but nowhere near as useful as the on site version. Cataloguing is ongoing, though a current historic abuse inquiry in Northern Ireland means some staff resources are currently being redirected into that, and for the foreseeable future.
NRS: Very effective, by far the biggest success I would attribute to NRS. It has its quirks, but usually provides a good level of detail for that which has been catalogued. May be showing its age a bit though, has had a few reported problems last couple of months from online users.

Can you take photos?
TNA: Yes. Go for it! No charge. Rostrum stands available, but usually good results at your desk also, well lit search room.
PRONI: No, not with your own camera. There is a space-age scanner available that can be used, which costs 30p per image, and which saves to USB stick only. Watermarks images with PRONI logo across middle of the page, however, though usually possible to position small documents on either side of area where that would appear, as image base is A3 in size, so lots of room to play with. (UPDATE 12 FEB 2015: PRONI is now actively considering allowing photography in the near future, though a small fee may be implemented for the privilege)
NRS: Yes. No charge. Restrictions on copying some material, however, such as most Gifts and Deposits (privately deposited material indexed with GD). Not a bright search room though, so either use the rostrum stand if available, or ask for a table near the window, where you'll get more daylight, which should help with image quality.

Social media use?
TNA: Again, almost messianic in its zeal. Official blogs, Twitter account, podcasts, regular newsletters. TNA has a message that it is an archive that will help you, and it gets that message out, very effectively. Some staff tweet in a personal capacity, and Audrey Collins' unofficial blog The Family Recorder (http://thefamilyrecorder.blogspot.co.uk), although not updated in a while, is a real treat.
PRONI: Very ambitious. Regular news stories on its main site, plus a recently introduced weekly newsletter called the PRONI Express. A keen advocate of using FLICKR to share photographic resources and to gather info on the images interactively from the public, whilst PRONI's YouTube channel is a real success story for those who cannot get to Belfast to attend talks. Document of the month feature on main site. No Twitter account, though some staff tweet unofficially in a personal capacity.
NRS: Very limited use of Twitter. The occasional archive based news story every month or every other month on its own NAS website. No dedicated archive newsletter (there is a ScotlandsPeople newsletter that occasionally mentions archive events). You rarely get to hear about anything happening in the NRS archive. Almost a closed shop.

User base engagement?
TNA: There is a regular stakeholder group, which includes family historians and others, that meets at the archive. Volunteer opportunities with some programmes are also available, for example with the current war diaries project, whilst a Friends of the National Archives group raises funds to help make TNA collections accessible, as well as involved in indexing collections. Heavy use of social media to communicate archive strategy. There is an active talks and conference based programme at the facility. Disappeared from WDYTYA Live for a few years, but back in the game again. Actively beta tests online developments with users.
PRONI: A stakeholder group meets every three months to hear about developments and discuss progress on key objectives. As with TNA, the archive is almost messianic in providing a strong talks programme on site and across the province, with occasional forays to Britain (mainly WDYTYA Live). No Friends based support group.
NRS: Although there is ScotlandsPeople user group that rarely meets now, if there is a dedicated user group for the archive, I've never heard of it – and if it exists, I have absolutely no idea what it talks about. As with PRONI, there is also no Friends based support group. NRS makes little, if any, attempt to inform its user base about on site developments. It attends WDYTYA Live each year on a joint platform with ScotlandsPeople, and occasional shows in Scotland. The recent crowd sourcing project on ScotlandsPlaces is the only non-show based project I can think of where NRS has attempted to interact with its user base.

If the archive had a motto, what might it be?
TNA: “We may not be amused, but we can certainly help!”
PRONI: “We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland! Search room's just through the door love...”
NRS: “Gonnae no dae that. Just... gonnae no.”

Enjoyable to visit?
TNA: The National Archives at Kew is a huge facility, and so on any visit I rarely get a chance to know any staff or talk to them, it's more a huge machine that just happens to work brilliantly for the most part. So I never come away having enjoyed or not enjoyed a day there (unless, for example, I've been at a conference), but I do tend to come away on most occasions with a sense of satisfaction after a good day's work. And that's fine, because that's exactly what I want - it's not a tourist attraction after all!
PRONI: My favourite archive in the UK. Don't get me wrong, at times there are frustrations, some of the online help guides, for example, could do with being a bit more specific. But when you go there and have a good craic with any of the staff, including the security personnel, and achieve what you want, yes, by a long shot it is an enjoyable facility. Like TNA, PRONI knows that to flourish, it needs to deliver what is asked of it.
NRS: In short? No. There is rarely a visit I make these days where something doesn't go wrong, or some bit of insane bureaucratic rule rears its head to tell you off, or when a productive day is cut short by inadequate facilities. NRS just doesn't get it, and is by a long shot my least favourite archive in Scotland, despite having some of the country's best resources. The staff are by and large friendly and informative - but the system itself oppresses everything that can possibly help to achieve a user friendly experience. It's like spending a day out at a civil service department.

Conclusion: As I stated yesterday, I think NRS has some work to do...

Copier at PRONI. If I don't use it, I stand and admire it...

Main documents consultation room at PRONI

Main search room at PRONI - dedicated microfilm area also at far end

Census conference I attended at TNA, organised by Friends of TNA in 2013

TNA - a 21st century institution fit for purpose

NRS General Register House - and that's either Wellington or the daily dispatch rider to Thomas Thomson House...


Now available for UK research is the new second edition of the best selling Tracing Your Family History on the Internet: A Guide for Family Historians, whilst my new book British and Irish Newspapers is also now out. And FindmyPast - please reinstate the original Scottish census citations on your new site.


  1. I have not used Proni yet but a good summary of the other two

  2. PRONI scanner no longer has PRONI logo in the centre of the page so this is a great improvement.

  3. I know, I've just been using it! Hallelujah! :)

  4. Chris - are you sure PRONI's on site catalogue is superior to the online one? I have used both & not noticed much difference!

  5. I prefer the way that the onsite version displays hierarchies within fonds!