Friday, 5 December 2014

Latest news from PRONI (user forum update)

I was in Belfast today to attend the latest user forum meeting of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (www.proni.gov.uk), and to do a little bit of client research also. It’s been a busy day, in a festive city, but here’s a summary of the latest key developments from Northern Ireland’s national archive.

The session opened with an update by Wesley Geddis on the Irish Archive Resource platform (www.iar.ie), Ireland’s embryonic but rapidly growing equivalent to Scotland’s SCAN catalogue, and England’s Access to Archives catalogue (at least, that is before it was assimilated by the Borg, sorry, Discovery!). The all Ireland based site has been up and running for a few years, and indeed we had a presentation about it earlier in the year, but there has been something of a big push and relaunch with the platform in the last couple of months, which has seen it grow considerably.

There are currently 75 archive services contributing catalogue content to the platform, with some 500 collections now available to search – of these, 50 are from PRONI, though that is a still a drop in the ocean compared to the 10,000 collections that PRONI’s own website’s cataloguing efforts details. It was explained, however, that in this regard, IAR is not quite following the same remit as SCAN and A2A – whilst for some of the archives involved, IAR provides the only online catalogue, for PRONI the platform offers more of a sampler of content from the archive. When I asked about the nature of the material comprising the PRONI contribution, it was explained that some of the content is material that PRONI holds that is cross border in nature. Whilst Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are today separate countries, each of their national archives actually holds a great deal of content concerning the other’s jurisdiction, with, for example, some estates papers collections involving landowners who had territory and property in the north and the south when Ireland was a single country. Most of the archives represented on the site are located in the Republic, with only Derry City Council offering additional material from Northern Ireland at present.

Next up we had a digital preservation session from Hugh Campbell, who showed us the latest update to the online catalogue that will be happening when new digital content is added in the near future. The revised catalogue function will be very similar to its current incarnation, with an additional column offering a ‘digital record’ link if an image is available, whether a photo, Word document, PDF, etc. Hugh provided an interesting overview of how the archive processes digital contributions now, with most local council submissions to the archive from the early to mid 2000s now very much supplied in that format. There are five stages – 1) quarantine, where nothing is trusted until debugged etc!; 2) data preparation, the stage where metadata is added; 3) archival storage, 4) a back up created and replicated to a secondary data store; and then 5) access – first to the PCP internal catalogue (staff only acess), and then onwards to the CALM catalogue (PRONI’s search room based catalogue), and the online eCatalogue for home users.

Gavin McMahon then discussed a new online payment system that will hopefully be introduced by the end of this current financial year, to help facilitate payments handled by the archive’s enquiries unit. Gavin explained that last year PRONI received 3316 enquiries, 884 of which involved searches and document copying. I wasn’t aware that PRONI offered such a copying service, having assumed their wasn’t one, as the catalogue offers no links to purchase documents noted. But at present there is indeed a system where you can request PRONI to perform a search, for a fee, and to have any documents forwarded. This at present involves having to send forms to folk to which they then add their credit card details, but the new system will hopefully make the service a bit more 21st century friendly by offering a secure online payment platform.

Linking on from this, Glynn Kelso gave us a quick update on some welcome new developments coming through soon for search room users. PRONI is currently revising its fees schedules and its statutory rules, now that the archive is well and truly bedded in now at Titanic Quarter. The first change announced will be a simple one, but it is planned that mobile phones will be allowed in the search room, handy if you keep your family tree on an app! The caveat is that the ringer must be set to silent, and you still cannot use cameras on your phones or tablets. On that front though, a major development is also intended. Subject to a few t’s to be crossed and i’s to be dotted, PRONI is hoping to introduce a permit system to allow researchers to use cameras (inc tablets and phones) in the search rooms. Unlike the provision on this at TNA and at NRS, there will be a charge at PRONI, as Glynn explained that they have a statutory obligation to reclaim some income – however, we’ve been assured that any fees, when agreed, and if all issues concerning copyright and other similar matters are satisfactorily resolved, will be minimal. This is going to be a great development, and will add another useful document copying option in addition to the scanner already available in the productions area. All of these changes are hoped to be in place by the end of this financial year to mid 2015.

Sticking with the search rooms, another new addition to the archive is a new Registry of Deeds archive from 1923-1989, courtesy of Northern Ireland’s Land Property Services department. There are now two dedicated desks in the search room offering access, with searches on the database permitted by name of the grantor, and I think it was stated that there are three members of LPS now based at PRONI, so there should be someone on hand to help facilitate searches ands to retrieve the relevant memorials. I didn’t have time today to explore this further, but this sounds a potentially useful facility, not just for the legal fraternity, but for genealogists also.

Forthcoming events announced to be happening at PRONI include:

3 FEB 2015 – Seeking Refuge: Germany and Ireland in the 1930s – a half day Holocaust themed conference

18 MAR 2015 – first of a new ten part lunchtime family history lecture series to be held each Wednesday at PRONI, with PRONI staff and guest speakers offering talks on various subjects

30 APR 2015 – Gallipoli conference – a half day event in conjunction with the Western Front Association.

Other developments – one of the great things about the PRONI user forum is that you get to catch up with folk from other areas of the genealogy world. Gillian Hunt was at the meeting, and mentioned that the Ulster Historical Foundation (www.ancestryireland.com) now has a new publication out, Ballymena and the First World War, which is available from the organisation and at Ballymena Library – I think Gillian said it was free, but don’t quote me on that!

Also present at the meeting was Alison McQueen from GRONI. I asked her if the new GENI platform (www.geni.nidirect.gov.uk), which offers online access to images of NI based civil registration birth, marriage and death certificates, will receive an annual update, as ScotlandsPeople does each year, in January? In fact, that’s not how the GENI platform is set up – the closure periods for births (100 years), marriages (75 years) and deaths (50 years) that are implemented on the site to restrict access to more recent records, in fact move forward each week by a week (with occasional exceptions). So there is no need for an annual update – in this regard, that’s actually an improvement on the Scottish equivalent from NRS. Useful to know! GRONI will be exhibiting at WDYTYA Live next year in Birmingham, as will NIFHS (www.nifhs.org), but PRONI confirmed that it unfortunately will not be there.

Thanks to NIFHS’s Ann Robinson, there was one final bit of info that I gleaned, which I did not know about previously, which concerns the calendars for wills and probate materials as supplied by the probate service in NI. Apparently the authority is supposed to supply calendars up to four years ago on an annual rolling basis, but the most recent calendar available at PRONI is in fact for 2005. That may be useful to know if you are searching for a more recent will at the archive.

(With thanks to all at the meeting)


Chris

Stuck for a Christmas gift?! I have a series of genealogy books available in the UK, Australia and Canada, on Scottish, Irish and British based subject areas. Further details at http://britishgenes.blogspot.co.uk/p/my-books.html. Santa approves!

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