I’ve just completed my initial archival research for my PhD, which involved a very long trip from Australia to Ireland. After a couple of days in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin, I ventured north to Belfast. My aim in this blogpost is to provide some information about carrying out research at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland—PRONI for short.
PRONI is housed in a modern, light-filled building in the Titanic Quarter, a twenty-minute walk from City Hall in the centre of Belfast. PRONI is a repository for archives from all over Ireland, and holds a diverse collection of official and private documents.
Obtaining a reader’s card was simple – no academic reference was required, just photo ID, and the card was produced on the spot. As is the norm with archives, researchers cannot take bags, coats/jackets or pens into the reading room—a plastic bag is provided to carry in your pencils, laptop, purse etc with you. The rest can be left in a free locker for the day (although you need to insert a £1 coin which is refunded when you finish with the locker).
Most visitors to PRONI seemed to be people researching their family history, and from what I observed, the staff were enormously helpful and patient with these visitors. I heard accents from America, Canada, Australia, England and New Zealand—PRONI clearly generates a fair amount of tourist revenue for Northern Ireland.
As an academic researcher spending more than just a couple of days at PRONI, I encountered some stumbling blocks, and having chatted with others doing similar work, I realised I wasn’t alone. Time was of the essence for my trip, I couldn’t be away from home for long so a leisurely trawl through the archives was out of the question. My aim was to locate and photograph as many potentially useful documents as possible, then catalogue and review them on my return home. I hope that by writing about my experiences, I can help future researchers better prepare (logistically and financially) for research at PRONI. This is by no means a criticism of the archives or its staff, as I found them all to be friendly, welcoming and helpful. It was lovely to be greeted by name as I arrived for ‘work’ in the morning!
Bulk ordering documents: The PRONI catalogue is marvellously detailed. The online catalogue is good, but PRONI’s onsite catalogue (which cannot be accessed unless you are onsite) is far more detailed. This onsite catalogue breaks down each collection into individual items, for example, I wanted to review the collection of 18 letters exchanged between James Blair and his family in the 1770s. The collection is broken down into the 18 individual letters. As PRONI only permits readers to order 5 items at a time, this meant I was ordering 5 letters, then returning each as I finished reading or scanning, then ordering the next one—wasting precious time. The reading room staff eventually put me in touch with the manager of the document-ordering department, who gave me permission to make a ‘bulk order,’ so that I could order an entire collection. I couldn’t put that order in the system myself, this had to be done on my behalf by a member of staff. During my time at PRONI, some staff members would require me to fill out a form before placing a bulk order, others would call the head of the document-ordering department, and others just took my word for it that I had permission to do so. So while bulk ordering solved the problem of time-wasting for me, it was still a bureaucratic process.
My advice to future researchers is to contact PRONI ahead of your visit to request permission to place bulk orders, or at least to make contact so they can set you up with the necessary permissions as soon as possible.
Photographing documents: As I was in Belfast for a limited period, my aim was to photograph as many documents as possible, then catalogue and read them later. I had contacted PRONI to check I could photograph documents in the archive ahead of my visit, but I hadn’t understood the subtleties of the rules! They differ from any other archive I’ve ever visited…
Basically there are two options. Option 1 is to use your own camera. PRONI charges £10.50 per hour for camera use, and they require you to give advance notice in writing of exactly which documents you will be photographing. Your camera will be held behind the counter in the reading room until you begin using it, and then the clock will start running to calculate the price you need to pay. For example, if it takes you 10 minutes to do your photography, you will be charged £1.75. Option 2 is to use PRONI’s scanner to photograph documents. You do not need to give notice of what you will be scanning, but it does cost 30p per image. Copy cards can be purchased at the reading room, and you need to bring your own USB stick to save the scanned images to. The scanner is easy to use and the scanned images are excellent quality, but this is an expensive exercise if you wish to take a lot of pictures, which I did!
If I’d grasped the complexities of PRONI’s photographing/copying rules, I would have incorporated copying costs into my funding request from my university. I did feel rather taken advantage of in this respect, particularly as other archives and institutions (the National Library of Ireland and Linen Hall Library in Belfast, to name two) permit researchers to photograph documents with smartphones. I happily scanned a number of documents in both these places at no cost.
Eating & Drinking in the Titanic Quarter: As I already mentioned, PRONI is located in the Titanic Quarter. I didn’t take long breaks for lunch but found a couple of interesting options if you want to get out. Alternatively, if you pack your own lunch & want to stay at the archives, there are comfortable tables and chairs just inside the building’s entrance where you can eat. There is also a cafe in the building, but frankly, there are better options a short walk away!
Cast and Crew is a fairly new restaurant from well-known Belfast restauranteurs, 5 minutes walk from PRONI. It’s only open during the day, but they do great lunches (and presumably great breakfasts too). You can eat-in or take-away, and the coffee was great. The restaurant is so-named as it’s opposite the Titanic Studios where Game of Thrones is filmed. I wonder if I tag ‘game of thrones’ for this blogpost I’ll get a huge spike in readership :)
The Dock Cafe is a 2 minute walk from PRONI. It is a charity-run cafe which operates on an honesty-box system, so you pay however much (or little) you wish! They have excellent soup (after 12.30pm), tea, coffee, and the ubiquitous Irish scones & traybake offerings. They’re also more than happy for you to bring your own food to eat in the cafe.
All the best with researching at PRONI. Overall I had a great time discovering the wealth of archival material available, as well as exploring further afield in Belfast and County Antrim.
* The header image for this blogpost shows some of the glass frontage of the PRONI building, which features script from the archives. It also features some blue sky in Belfast!