Last week, RTÉ TV news ran a piece of techno-utopianism that really got my attention. A group based in Trinity College are going to create a digital 3-D model of the old Public Record Office that was destroyed in 1922.
Fair enough. The centenary of that ignominious act is approaching and it certainly needs remembering.
Then the report went on to say that the group was also going to digitally reconstruct the records that had been destroyed, thus retrieving seven lost centuries of history and genealogy. Say again? They’re going to magic back into existence the ten million or so returns from the lost censuses of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851? How? By closing their eyes and clicking their heels together three times?
The group’s website tells a more nuanced story. Yes, there will indeed be a shiny, walk-through digital model, but the approach to reconstructing records is modest enough. It centres on using Herbert Wood’s A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin, 1919) to identify substitutes for what was destroyed, much as the National Archives of Ireland has been doing since 1922 with, for example, its testamentary record substitutes. The difference is that copies of, or links to, the substitute material will be organised within the virtual model, thus recreating (kind of) the experience of using the old PRO.
It’s a good idea. Any opportunity to digitise and publicise surviving fragments and substitutes is very welcome. And it should also shine a light into a few areas that don’t get enough attention – the seven volumes of thirteenth to sixteenth-century excerpts from plea rolls, patent rolls and pipe rolls in the National Library Genealogical Office collection (GO 189-95), for one.
But I think that the end result is likely to be more dystopian than utopian. At last we’ll get to see, perfectly-rendered, the size and shape of the black hole at the heart of Irish history and genealogy.
The project site has a news page that links to all the attention they got last week. It wasn’t just RTE, nearly every other news outlet got the story wrong and reported the imminent return out of digital thin air of all the lost records. The team need to be a bit more careful about how they attract attention to what they’re doing. Some of those news reports look distinctly fake.