25 Oct 2012

Guest Post: Irish Studies: Current Collections & Future Directions, DIAS, 12th October 2012

Guest post by Sarah Connolly, Information Officer, St Audoen's Church.

The one day conference on current Irish / Celtic collections and their resources was held recently at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, organised by Margaret Irons the librarian for the School of Celtic Studies. These are my thoughts on the day and the speakers…

Siobhán Fitzpatrick – As the Royal Academy Librarian and a former president of the LAI, Siobhán is a librarian ‘hero’ of mine. So it is always a pleasure to listen to her wealth of knowledge and insights, within the field and the Academy itself. Siobhán began what proved to be an inspiring paper, beginning with an overview of the Academy history and the collection. In a country with as rich and varied a history as ours, the Academy has managed through turbulent times to maintain, preserve, and illuminate earlier and current generations with its vast storehouse of material relating to the sciences and humanities. With the careful guardianship of Siobhán and her team, the collections are being catalogued, digitised and disseminated to a wider audience of scholars, local historians and family history enthusiasts. (Before I wax too lyrically, my interest was heightened by the prospect of the digitisation of the deeds of St. Anne’s Guild – one of the three long-term projects Siobhán wishes to address. This will be a huge addition to the corpus of knowledge for scholars focusing on the medieval history of Dublin.)

Ulrike Hogg – This paper gave us all an insight into the National Library of Scotland and it’s inception, collections and current resources and collaborations. The non law collection from the Advocates library (similar to the Kings Inns here in Dublin) was established in 1925. The Gaelic collection was of particular focus in this paper, and it is surprising or maybe not so surprising that there are similar issues with the collection, preservation and digitisation of the Gaelic material. Of interest were the insights provided on the Irish manuscripts within the collection.

Nicholas Carolan – ITMA and its exhaustive multimedia collection was the last of the morning papers, and this proved to be the junior of the group – only 25 years young as an archival collection. What became apparent through the paper, was the keen attention and stewardship of the archive, with great emphasis on keeping as technologically savvy as possible throughout it’s short but eventful presence. One phrase that struck me was the emphasis on the fact that ‘culture doesn’t recognise political borders’, and this archive encompasses the island of Ireland. As a resource for Irish Studies the music archive is an untapped fountain of knowledge and as Nicholas remarked is a ‘new frontier’ for scholarship.

Marie Boran – First speaker after the lunch break on a lovely sunny autumnal day in Dublin. This paper explored the special collections based at NUI Galway – an unknown territory for myself as I’ve not yet been fortunate to visit it. I was particularly taken with the Bairead collection, as it was from the first treasurer of the Gaelic League. Sometimes the ephemera of our various collections can provide much more information than the more formal printed material. I would imagine this collection would provide a greater depth of understanding for social historians for this period. The other highlight for me from this paper would be the OS map collection from 1838 onwards, particularly those that illustrate Ireland prior to the completion of the railways.

Gerard Long – The National Library of Ireland is a particular favourite of mine, and I’m sure of every reader who has entered its hallowed halls. So I welcomed this insightful and amusing tour through its history conducted by Gerard. From its beginnings as the library of the Royal Dublin Society to its current status as the premier library within Ireland. It was interesting to learn of the vagaries of Joly, Best and Hayes including along the way the realisation that in the 19th century collecting manuscripts was not high on the agenda for the library and it’s collection policy. The NLI is spearheading the use of social media within libraries/archives in Ireland, continuing to acquire new material and also has some superb digitisation projects in the pipeline – the Harry Clarke collection to name but one.

Deirdre Wildy – The final paper of the day was that on the JSTOR Ireland project completed in conjunction with Queen’s University Belfast. This was a thoroughly honest appraisal of how difficult and rewarding such a large-scale collaborative project can become. It was fascinating to learn how QUB approached and developed the project initially, and then proposed it to JSTOR with learning curves all round for both the University and JSTOR once they had reached the end. Deirdre’s honesty and her good humour throughout her delivery ensured that the audience were left in no doubt of how valuable this resource will be for current and future scholars.

In summation, a totally enjoyable panel of papers, and the breath and depth of knowledge explored throughout the day was inspiring. The library and archival collections within the sphere of Irish Studies is in robust health – yes there is funding, staffing and time constraints. But each of our colleagues illustrated their ability to effectively plan, resource and innovate within their core roles of preservation, digitisation and dissemination.


  1. That's a great account of the event Sarah. I had meant to write up something myself but starting back to college meant that I put it on the (too) long finger.

    I was especially interested in what the speakers had to say about digitisation, how they prioritised what to do and where they published. Its worth noting that many of the digitisation projects mentioned from the different institutions are part of the Irish Script on Screen (http://www.isos.dias.ie/) project. An initiative of the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies to create digital images of Irish manuscripts and make them available online.

    Digitisation projects in the Royal Irish Academy included Irish Script on Screen and the Doegen Collection. These make resources available for example scraps of manuscript held in the RIA which have been stored away from view for over 30 years due to its fragile condition. The RIA also publishes on AskAboutIreland (http://askaboutireland.ie/reading-room/digital-book-collection/).
    When asked how digitisation projects are prioritised Siobhán Fitzpatrick stated that opportunities are taken (such as ISOS) and after that, 'it depends'. Unique collections may be prioritised, the condition of the material may also drive decisions, as might demand. Two examples of this were given - one an Icelandic manuscript digitised on request from their National Library, the other was a specific manuscript for an individual scholar producing a diplomatic version of a text. (http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic453618.files/Central/editions/edition_types.html#diplomatic_edition)

    The first digitisation project in the National Library of Scotland was a mass digitisation project of 2,000 items undertaken with the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). This consisted of the entire contents of 5 special collections. The texts were OCR'd with haphazard results and the online versions are linked to from the NLS' OPAC. Manuscripts were unsuitable for the mass digitisation and these had to be done in house. Ulrike Hogg also described the difficulties of digitising vellum (it is not level like paper is, and the colour is not uniform).

    I thought that Nicholas Carolan's presentation was fascinating, because of the work the ITMA do, their particular setup and philosophy and the fact that it was all new to me. In the ITMA " All staff are practitioners, some virtuoso and this is a prerequisite to being employed there". They also have a different outlook in that their function is to provide archive access and access of experience - i.e. the material is there for scholars and also for those who just want to come in and listen to a particular LP or tune. Digitisation is carried out in-house by staff for the purposes of surrogate creation and publishing (on the ITMA website, YouTube, dissemination via Europeana etc. Publishing is done thematically, so material is added contextually. All files are put online with interactive notation (i.e. the computer can play the tune).

    When asked how digitisation projects are prioritised Nicholas said that priorities depend on media format and associated fragility. Old cylinders were digitised first, then 78's. LPs won't generally be digitised because they are neither unique or vulnerable. Priority may also be given to material if it is on loan rather than donated to the ITMA.

    I thought it was interesting that NUIG have a Digitisation Librarian who does the work in-house. [http://www.library.nuigalway.ie/support/supportforresearchers/digitisationcentre/] No doubt the recent announcement that NUIG will be digitising the archives of the Abbey Theatre will keep everyone in the Digitisation Centre busy for the foreseeable future.

    I would agree with Sarah that it was an inspiring day, congratulations to Margaret irons and the team for organising it.

  2. Thanks a million for the comment Padraic as always, worthy of a blog post in itself! :)

  3. Thanks Sarah and Padraic for your reviews and comments.
    It is always great to get feedback and insightful to hear the views of delegates.
    At the end of the day, that is what it is all about - what delegates can gain from attending such conferences.

    Margaret Irons