My name is Suzanne Shouesmith and I’m reflecting on my experience of recently completing a three-week internship at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). I am embarking on a postgraduate course in Archives Management in September 2017, so this placement was an invaluable experience to gain before embarking on my course.
I graduated with a BSc Honours in Creative Computing in 2015 and my dissertation focused on the history of photography and 3D photorealism. It was this research that developed my enthusiasm for photographic archives and preservation. I’m especially interested in digital preservation and how the use of digital storytelling alongside archive material can be used to promote access and engagement.
My internship was based within the Preservation and Collections Management (PCM) department at PRONI. The PCM team maintains and protects the records held at PRONI. All archival documents have a limited life and the role of PCM is to minimise the risk of loss or damage by taking proactive steps to slow the process.
I was given the project of digitising the top ten most accessed materials at PRONI from 2015-2016. The documents consisted mainly of genealogical materials, such as church records containing births, marriages and deaths from the 18th and 19thth century. The main reason for the decision to digitise these documents was due to deterioration over time and damage through being regularly handled. My first task was to retrieve the documents using the PRONI Catalogue Plus (PCP) system, learning first-hand how the search room operates. I was also able to visit the repository and was introduced to how the archive is structured and of how documents are stored.
Working with the conservator I had the opportunity to assess and stabilize some of the more fragile documents before digitization. The benefits of conservation in a digitization project are not only stabilization, but it allows for a more successful image capture. I learnt how to properly handle archival materials and carry out surface cleaning, flattening, dry pressing, and tear repairs before re-housing documents into more suitable archival sleeves. This was a very satisfying process, especially when the end result meant a document’s information was more discoverable, having been previously illegible due to damage, dirt and folds.
The pagination of documents especially loose pages required some investigatory work and I had a chance to use some basic paleography techniques. The project then involved choosing the most appropriate tool to digitise the materials to create two images, a high resolution for preservation and a low resolution copy which would be used for access. In the micrographics studio I was trained in digital image capture techniques including the use of the Book Eye Scanner. The scanner can capture flat images and is able to support more fragile books within a cradle. Correct image capture is tricky and thinking carefully about document positioning, file format and image resolution at this stage can prevent having to re-scan sections of a document or book at a later date, where the positioning and conditions will never be the same.
Having captured my documents, I was able to apply my image editing skills in Adobe Photoshop to carry out simple retouching techniques, such as adjusting the brightness and cleaning text to make the documents more readable. The documents are then quality assured to make sure all of the text is visible and pages are in the correct order before being formatted into a PDF indexed document. In order for images to be located within the system, each image needs to be given a title, subject and meta-data information. This will ensure that the digital data is retrievable and searchable online and is linked together with the physical archive item.
I also had the chance to spend some time with the Digital Preservation team to see how digitised materials are ingested into the digital preservation system. This is a complex and developing workflow which involves objects entering the quarantine and data preservation system before being stored in the digital repository, with access copies being made publicly available through the PRONI public catalogue. Like analogue objects, digital objects are also vulnerable to risks, such as media obsolescence and need to be regularly monitored.
The digitisation studio is a busy place and alongside the project I was working on I was lucky enough to handle a variety of different archival media types, including Victorian glass plate negatives of mug shots for police and prison records and photographs capturing The Belfast Blitz in 1941. I also helped prepare the space for tours, selecting and preparing displays.
The internship has been a fantastic opportunity for me to learn new skills and work alongside a multidisciplinary team of experts. I have gained a real understanding and appreciation of the work involved within conservation, digitization and digital preservation. My time at PRONI has reaffirmed my interest in photographic archive collections and I feel ready to take on the challenges that my Master’s study will bring in September. Hopefully, as a result of all my hard work, the documents that I digitized will be handled less and therefore be around for a lot longer for others to explore.
Archives Intern, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland