Monday, 25 June 2012


Counting the gift horse's teeth


The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland opened its new premises in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast a little over a year ago, to gasps of awe and envy. But a recent visit left me feeling uneasy.

The first issue is its location. The Titanic Quarter consists of a few giant, "landmark" buildings sitting in the levelled wasteland of what used to be Belfast Docks. PRONI's move here was part of a colossal property development scheme that will now never be completed. The interior of the building reflects its origins. Property Developer chic dominates, with a giant faceless atrium more suited to an airport than an archives, hotel-style swipe-card access through every door, no expense spared and very little humanity anywhere.

But the biggest problem is the disproportion in the readers' facilities. Crammed into one end of the Search Room are twenty or so microfilm readers, almost all continuously in use for parish registers or newspapers, while the remainder of the space is occupied by a football field of 50 spanking new and completely unused PCs. The Reading Room, where actual documents are read, is huge. There is space for 80 readers, but it is never actually used by more than four or five at a time. The electronic document ordering system is as complex as air-traffic control, forcing users into convoluted processes whose main aim seems to be to cut out any human contact.

The whole thing feels like a bureaucrat's dream, the product of many, many planning-subcommittee meetings fuelled by vast amounts of public money. God knows it has its own problems, but with a quarter the space and one tenth the staff, the National Archives in Bishop Street is actually a much more pleasant space to do research in.

And if you're wondering why I'm so sour … No, I didn't find the families I was looking for.

['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

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