Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Welcome to 21st century PRONI

Today the new Public Record Office of Northern Ireland building in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter opened to the general public after an eight month closure for its relocation from Balmoral Avenue. Yours truly was very kindly invited to attend a stakeholders’ event of the new facilities yesterday, and armed with curiosity, and both stills and video cameras, I made my way in.

A wee note to the wise first! I flew over from Glasgow Airport to Belfast, arriving at 7.30am. Although fortuitous, in that I arrived at my destination bang on time, it wasn’t quite as successful on the location front! Having worked out that it was Glasgow I was flying from and not Prestwick, it never occurred to me to think about the other end. Suffice to say that the City Airport, next door to PRONI is brilliantly located for PRONI, but sadly Ryanair no longer flies there. I had assumed that Easyjet did. It didn’t. I can confirm though that the International Airport at Aldergrove was a sight to behold at 7.30am, and you certainly can’t beat that fresh smell of the country. Neither can you beat the £40 taxi fair or £7 bus trip 40 minutes down the road to ‘actual Belfast’ i.e. Belfast International Airport is as much in Belfast as Glasgow Prestwick is in Glasgow!

Anyway, the event was not due to start until 12.30pm, and so I had a cunning plan. I decided that over yesterday and today I would go grave hunting in three different city based cemeteries to look for some of my lot, thanks to the fact that Belfast City Council now has a database online listing all burials for City Cemetery, Roselawn and Dundonald. I had intended to do Roselawn first thing, then PRONI and Dundonald in the afternoon, and then City Cemetery today. I arrived at Roselawn at 8.30am and for this had fortunately been a bit more successful on the planning front, having phoned ahead to ask if the cemetery staff could provide any additional info on who may be in the lairs I had identified of interest. They did me proud, and having checked in at the gatehouse I was given a great deal of information and exact details to the individual lairs. Unbelievably I managed to find all four of interest within 25 minutes, and also managed to get some religion in, by paying my respects to a football God, George Best, buried nearby. Having finished so early I popped back to the office and asked how long they thought it might take to walk to Dundonald Cemetery. “An hour”, I was told by staff member Kay, “but sure I’m heading over there now anyway, so hop in!” Ulster does a great line on friendly people! Ten minutes later I was at Dundonald, and once again the staff had information waiting for me, and I successfully located another plot. All accomplished by 11am.

At 12.00 I arrived early at PRONI and got chatting to someone from Northern Ireland Libraries, who told me that Carrickfergus Library in my home town had just been renovated and that there was some digitisation work being taken by the authority (no further details on that, but I have the contacts and will chase up!). At 12.30 crowds of Belfast’s finest on the genie and archives front arrived. Whilst talking to Janet Hancock from PRONI, who I had recently interviewed at WDYTYA in London, I was approached by Stephen Scarth, PRONI’s Head of Communications. It turns out Stephen reads this blog, and no sooner had I said “So Stephen, what’s the craic?”, than I was being whisked off on a very welcome personalised tour of the place! Stephen showed me the lecture rooms, the information area, and then the reading rooms, and allowed me to video a chat with him explaining it all (which will go online tomorrow).

It’s difficult to describe just how 21st century new PRONI is. It is like TNA at Kew but with bells on. It isn't TNA of course in terms of size - it's only a wee Province! - but it is certainly as fit for purpose. (Think of it as TNA's "Mini-me!") Perhaps I can put it like this – I absolutely and utterly hated visiting old PRONI, so much so that my last trip there must have been about 7 years ago, after which I decided to concentrate on my Scottish ancestry instead. Old PRONI was very wooden, dark and dreary, I never found it that inviting, and it was a pain in the neck to get to. New PRONI, on the other hand, is quite simply ‘les testicles du chien’. I will definitely be returning…!

When you arrive at PRONI you will need to get a readers ticket, which will allow you to go between the search rooms (you need to swipe your card to gain entry to a room). Details on what you need to obtain a ticket can be found on the facility’s website at
www.proni.gov.uk. There are three computers in a dedicated information area by reception to orientate you about the premises. The reading rooms are on the first floor, and there is WiFi access in the building in the café on the ground floor (possibly elsewhere also, didn’t quite get the detail on that). The café does Bewleys Coffee.

(Sorry, just to repeat that - the café does Bewleys Coffee. This is important to the returning Ulster emigrant!)

Throughout the premises are screens with a welcome ticker tape running along the bottom stating when certain ordered documents and microfilms are ready per table (similar but different to TNA’s system for checking order progress). In one of the reading rooms there is a scanner you can use yourself to photograph documents, which can be saved to a USB stick. There is a fee of 30p per scan, and discount for a larger block, and you will need to sign a disclaimer copyright form (as you do at NAS). The images can be used for private research but cannot be used for publication without consent from PRONI – in fact the images bear a PRONI watermark, so that you will need to contact them if you need an image for a professional purpose. Steven told me PRONI will be selling its own PRONI own brand USB sticks (I think we may be one ahead on that front though with ScotlandsPeople producing its own chocolate bars!). Unfortunately, the one downside is that you cannot take your own photos with a digital camera in the way that the National Archives at Kew and the NAS allow you to do. In time I hope that might be something PRONI could perhaps have another look at, for the simple reason that whatever concerns there may be on that have been addressed in the rest of the UK to the respective institutions’ satisfaction. At NAS the only restrictions are on private papers deposited in the GD collections (Gifts and Deposits), that may well serve as a potentially useful model if there are concerns on that front in Northern Ireland.

Now for the building itself. It has light. That is fundamental for me. The place is bright, modern and you feel that you are going to achieve something just by taking in the atmosphere before you even start. Even on a dreich day like yesterday, it felt extremely vibrant inside. Disabled access is superb – as well as a lift, the height of the tables themselves can be adjusted by the push of a button to suit wheelchair access or those who prefer to stand and have the table higher.

To summarise, for the first time in years I’ve actually become homesick – I want to be able to stay in Belfast just so I can go into this facility and plunder its archives. Belfast itself has changed also. The bad boys don't shoot each other any more, and there is a giant fish statue beside the Lagan. And a few other wee developments!

Just to finish, I left PRONI at 1.45pm, and so headed up the Falls to City Cemetery and was again able to receive some prepared information from the gate lodge. I checked about ten plots (and the cemetery is seriously massive), and managed to get back to Carrickfergus for 6.30pm, meaning that today I was able to do some research at the new library (finding an old photo of my brother and I in the primary school choir we were members of and several photos of my mad golf-mad aunt winning competitions all over the shop!), and even caught up with an old friend and neighbour before flying back. The moral of the story – I was able to visit PRONI and Belfast’s three municipal cemeteries in one day, with time to spare. It is possible to get a full day’s research in and head over and back from Scotland early morning and late evening. I intend to do so again very soon, and may even offer PRONI research into my offerings on the research front in a couple of months time. I always believed the facilities for Northern Irish research would catch up with the rest of the UK - I never once for a moment thought it would equal or better it!

(With thanks to Stephen Scarth and Deborah Duffy at PRONI)

And now a few wee pics...! (For the video see http://scottishancestry.blogspot.com/2011/03/new-proni-search-room-in-belfast.html)















Chris

7 comments:

Rosemary Morgan said...

Thanks for this great review Chris. You certainly packed a lot into your day, and it's good to see other archives matching up to those at Kew. Sadly I don't have northern Irish roots (as far as I know), otherwise after reading about your experience I think I'd be there in a flash.

Fiona said...

Thanks you for such a detailed description. So it seems that the new PRONI really was worth waiting for!

I look forward to visiting in June.

Fiona.
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Anonymous said...

What a lovely review. Im a Belfast girl myself,now living in Moneyreagh and like you detested my visits to the old PRONI--drab, dark and very uncomfortable to work at the microfishe. Made full use of their temporary premises in the Library on Cregagh Road--only 8 miles from me and was actually not looking forward to their relocation.Now after reading your comments Im rescheduling and juggling appointments in the hope of getting down there early next week.I know i am biased,but I always knew when Velfast caught up with the rest of the world it would be good!!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Chris. Your description and above all the photos are so encouraging. Having spent many difficult hours in the dark and not always user-friendly old PRONI over the years I now wish that I still had some Belfast research left to do. Do they have a section for all the missing or lost documents which turned up in the move;)?

John Waugh said...

Hi Chris thanks for the review. Would love to know how you got a personal tour? I have been going to PRONI regulary for the last 4 years and would have loved an invite. Cant wait to get next week.

Love the Photos its just a pitty PRONI could not have put more information and photos on their website.
John

Beverly Brown said...

I love the photos of PRONI, Chris.
I got a tour of the new building last Wednesday and, like you say, it's really stunning.
Since then, I have spent 2 days researching in PRONI and I'm still impressed!
The staff are friendly, helpful and efficient.
Documents are brought out much more quickly than they were at Balmoral and the self-service microfilm system speeds things up at that end as well.

Beverly

P.S. For anyone travelling over here to spend a few days on research, there is a Premier Inn right beside PRONI.

Chris Paton said...

Isn't it great?!! Just wishing I wasn't so busy at present, I'm desperate to get back over!

Sorry, should have mentioned the Premier Inn - it is literally 20 secs across the road from the main entrance - and Odyssey is next door, so no shortage of entertainment!

Chris