Digitising the peace process
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
1 September 2016
“You have to go to the archives!” an academic supervisor once advised me. At the time, this meant physically traveling to where the precious documents were stored, with your official letter requesting access permission, and spending hours transcribing (sometimes with only a pencil allowed).
You were thankful if the items were available on microfilm or microfiche, because it took less time to review more material. And if you were lucky, printing facilities were available.
Ah that sounds so archaic and quaint now.
The Northern Ireland Political Collection (NIPC) has been an invaluable resource for researchers for decades, as a depositary of key documents and ephemera from the whole spectrum of actors from The Troubles.
Previous library projects ensured that much of this was recorded onto microfiche, up to 1990.
Now, thanks to generous financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Ulster Garden Villages, and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, a ‘Divided Society’ project will digitise periodicals and posters, up to the year 2000.
This is significant, as this will include the crucial period of the multi-party talks that led to the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
Julie Andrews, Director of the Linen Hall Library, explained to the audience of a few dozen how this came about:
“Our Finance Manager told me how we might be able to update the digitisation of the Political Collection. I then had a 3am moment and thought that we should do this!”
This project is the first step in a strategy to eventually digitise the more than 350,000 items in the Political Collection.
Mr Mark Glover, from the committee of the Heritage Lottery Fund, spoke of his organisation’s support for the project, particularly liking how such heritage will be used to improve communities’ knowledge, understanding, and hopefully, shared appreciation.
Ms Fionnuala Callanan, Head of the Peace and Reconciliation Fund at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said:
“The Linen Hall Library has done a great service for researchers and academics worldwide. With this project, it will be a wonderful opportunity for local communities to learn more about their recent past.”
Speaking of recent history, the next speaker, First Minister of Northern Ireland, Ms Arlene Foster, joked how she has ended up as a name-this-person question on the Irish schools’ leaving certificate exam!
Seriously, Ms Foster said that for all our differences, “We can agree that we are fortunate to have such an invaluable resource.”
Indeed, she appeared to genuinely enjoy perusing and picking up various artefacts from a display table in the next room.
The First Minister spoke of how the Political Collection demonstrates the challenging work of improving community relations:
“This ‘Divided Society’ project is a useful reference point for others seeking to create conditions to explore divisive issues through peaceful means and to promote reconciliation.
“It shows there is so much in our history that continues to impact our present, but it can also provide important lessons and insights to help shape our future.”
The history of the library and building itself was not lost on the First Minister, acknowledging it as a site of the Enlightenment in Ireland.
This theme was repeated by Mrs Anne Davies, President of the Linen Hall Library, who concluded with a remark that this project of enhancing knowledge and learning is entirely in the spirit of this particularly 18th century institution.