The hundredth anniversary of our destruction of the Record Treasury of the Public Record Office of Ireland fell a week ago and the dust has now settled on the launch of www.virtualtreasury.ie, our response to that catastrophe. For the past few years, the project was trailed (“beyond2022.ie”) as a reconstruction of the collections burnt in 1922. The PR-fueled headlines on Irish media were that “technology” (whatever that is) was going to restore everything lost a century ago: just don your immersive headset and swim off through the 1821 census, mar dhea. Anyone with a titter of wit (a group that apparently doesn’t include many Irish news editors) could see this was just smoke-blowing.
So now that it’s live, what’s the verdict? On the Virtual Reality side, the first thing to be said is that the reconstruction of the Treasury building is superb. To be able to wander through the magnificent galleries and empty spaces that held all those records is awe-inspiring and not a little sad. The second thing is that the “Treasury View”, a VR doll’s-house view of the locations of records inside the building before 1922, is just silly. This is the part of the site closest to that blown PR smoke. For anyone trying to access records it’s useless, an online exhibition maybe, certainly not a restoration or reconstruction.
The real meat is buried away in the emphatically non-VR Browse section. Not “Browse All”, which is a dutiful and impressive listing of partner institutions and their records, the other one, “Browse PROI Catalogue”. This makes it clear that the heart of the project is to take Herbert Wood’s massive 1919 published listing of PROI holdings (helpfully included at the bottom of the page) and use it as a vast series of pigeonholes for substitutes, copies and abstracts of those destroyed holdings. The sheer chutzpah required even to attempt this is just jaw-dropping. Hats off: there are several lifetimes’ work here.
This approach creates its own problems, though. The main one is the huge warren of sub-sub-categories inside sub-categories, a large majority of which ultimately lead to a bald “Destroyed”. The rabbit-holes vastly outnumber the rabbits. Another is that Wood’s record hierarchy is deeply unintuitive for researchers a century later. “Extinct Jurisdictions” gets a top-level listing, while the giant 19th-century census holdings are stuffed away down in sub-section 9 of “Miscellaneous documents”. The priorities of Edwardian gentlemen record-keepers are emphatically not ours.
Still, there are gems all over the place: Digital copies of the National Archives of Ireland’s Church of Ireland registers (some of them, at least); The best account I’ve read of the 1766 census, with surviving transcripts all in the one place; links to the details of individual tenants under the Land Acts; A transcript of the 1831 census for Inishtioge in Kilkenny; The minute book of the Corporation of Brewers and Maltsters of Dublin; Herbert Wood’s wonderful account of Certain Registers of Irregular Marriages Celebrated by Unlicensed Clergymen, Known as Couple-Beggars.
But trying to get at the gems can be excruciating. A little less software engineering and a little more focus on the research experience would help. By which I mean a simple, regularly-updated plain text listing of all the transcripts and images on the site. Please?
More at https://youtu.be/b-FAfkJBX-o