Digital Humanities & Historic Estate Records: Project Update

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In a previous post to this blog a practical work module forming part of this students MA in Digital Humanities was introduced which seeks to integrate Digital Humanities methods with Historic Estate Records. This module is now entering its final stages which aim to incorporate what has been researched in the way of digital tools and methodologies with the data held in the Historic Estate Records.

In the process of undertaking this research a range of digital tools and methods along with several challenges have been encountered while seeking a strategy for bringing together the digital and historical record elements. In this follow up post, some of the digital tools and methods will be discussed, along with the challenges encountered in seeking to integrate the digital and historical data relating to this project.

IDENTIFYING THE INTEGRATION

As the first post relating to this practical module discussed, one of the primary goals of the project was the integration of data from an identified collection of Historic Estate Records (The Borrowes Collection) into a geo-referenced digital environment. For the supervising institution, Maynooth University Library, a selection of 17th, 18th and 19th century leases that included some hand drawn maps were of particular interest. In these maps the potential for digitally geo-referencing landholdings within the Historic Estate was considered; and the goal of identifying the land areas in a modern digital map using information from the leases became a focal point for the project.

In order to proceed with developing a strategy for the geo-referencing of these records, three phases of research began. The first phase involved analysis of any existing digital projects which were similar to the project at hand by which potential approaches could be identified. The second phase involved researching the tools and methodologies for the process of geo-referencing historical maps, records or data in a digital environment. The third and final phase would involve closer examination of the historical records in order to identify, compile and organise the historical and geographical data which could be integrated within the digital project.

A RELATED PROJECT

The first phase began by looking at similar projects which had geo-referenced historical data. Perhaps the most significant of those analysed was the Landed Estates Database, a digital project hosted by the Moore Institute at NUI Galway. This project is perhaps the most comprehensive digital resource relating to information on Historic Estate Records in Ireland, although its scope is limited to Connacht and Munster. In regards to geo-referencing, the Landed Estates Database project has identified the buildings associated with these estates as its focus. As such the project has identified and geo-referenced these buildings using location markers in a Google Map window, and in some instances included recent images of the buildings. This project does not use geo-referencing to identify the extent of the estates landholdings, but identifies those buildings historically significant to the running of the estates. The project adds to the historical understanding of these buildings and the landed estate by linking their historical function with their current state by including the more recent pictures in which many are in full or partial ruin, or performing very different functions in modern Ireland.

The examination of projects such as the Landed Estates Database allowed an understanding of what could be achieved by identifying a focus and set of data for geo-referencing and presenting it in a digital environment.

DIGITAL TOOLS & METHODS

The next phase involved researching the tools and methods for digitally manipulating, integrating and presenting the maps and data of the Borrowes Collection in a digital environment. With this in mind research began to identify tools and methods which would fulfil three important requirements.

  1. A method for aligning and overlaying a historical map with a modern digital mapping system.
  2. A method by which data beyond the historical map could be integrated in the digital version.
  3. A method by which further manipulation or customisation of the map could be implemented if deemed necessary for the final presentation of the digital resource.

To date several tools and methods have been identified which are capable of performing the above requirements, QGIS and MapWarper for integrating historical and digital mapping, GeoJSON for the integration of further data and Mapbox for further customisation of the digital map.

THE HISTORICAL DATA

The first two phases opened up the potential for what could be achieved by identifying a focus for the project and implementing a professional digital presentation of historical data using the appropriate tools and methods. The third and final phase involved the identification and compilation of data within the Borrowes Collection in order to facilitate this goal.

In the case of this project the nature of Historic Estate Records posed a significant challenge in that these materials can be very fragmented. The data and number of maps in the leases that allowed the landholdings to be adequately identified on a modern map has proved challenging. There is also the absence of an overall estate map or records such as rent books for the entire estate. As such this particular collection of records may not yield a sufficient data set to facilitate the complete geo-referencing of this particular landed estate; yet through this challenge the project has entailed a greater degree of research into further methods of understanding and identifying historical lease maps and land areas that a more complete collection of records would necessitate. This project has therefore made extensive use of digitally presented, historical mapping projects such as The Down Survey of Ireland and Griffiths Valuation in order to identify the lands referred to and illustrated in the records relating to this project.

SUMMARY

As this Digital Humanities project enters its final stages it remains on course to integrate digital tools and methods with historical data in order to present a strategy for enhancing Historic Estate Records. An interesting note however is the value which existing Digital Humanities projects such the Landed Estates Database, The Down Survey of Ireland and Griffiths Valuation have served in facilitating the understanding of the analogue source material in research for this Digital Humanities project, perhaps a sign in itself to the value of Digital Humanities projects.

REFERENCES

Groome, Noel. “Digital Humanities & Historic Estate Records.” Noel Groome Blog, 20 March 2015. Web. Accessed 09 April 2015

Prunty, Jacinta. Maps and map-making in local history (Dublin, 2004)

The Down Survey of Ireland. Web. Accessed 10 April 2015

Griffiths Valuation. Web. Accessed 10 April 2015

Landed Estates Database. Web. Accessed 09 April 2015

Digital Humanities & Historic Estate Records

The second semester of the MA in Digital Humanities at Maynooth University includes a practical work module in which the student is assigned to work with an institution or project seeking to utilise Digital Humanities in order to develop or enhance some element of its work.

The Project

The project to which I was assigned involved working with the Special Collections & Archives Department at Maynooth University Library (MU Library) and is titled ‘Strategies for enhancing historic estate records’. Working with historic estate records at the National Archives of Ireland is something I was involved in as part of my undergraduate degree and as such this project was of particular interest.

MU Library are in possession of a number of estate papers collections containing documents with historic geographical information, and so are keen to know what Digital Humanities can offer to the enhancement of this material.

The aim of this project is to use one of the Irish landed estate papers collections held by MU Library as a case study, whereby analysis of this collection and its integration with digital tools and methodologies may result in a white paper on potential strategies for the enhancement of historic estate records.

The Material

The estate records being used as the case study for this project are the Borrowes Collection, and relate to the estate of the Borrowes family who held land primarily in the parish of Gilltown, County Kildare.

The collection contains 44 items dated variously between 1720 and 1848 such as leases, mortgages, tenancies, marriage settlements and are accompanied in some cases by manuscript maps.

Initial Observations and Methodology

While there are several objectives for this project my initial approach was to identify the fundamental aspects of what the project sought to achieve, and to then complete the remaining objectives by expanding upon these primary goals.

The primary goals of my research were thus summarised into three main points:

  • Identify best practice in making material available
  • Integration of material into a geo-referenced digital environment
  • Digitally expose the historical content of these resources

As such the project began by researching these three points. The initial task was to identify existing best practice by other institutions relating to the digital presentation of historic estate records. This would be followed by close up analysis of the Borrowes Collection in MU Library so as to identify and verify the information contained which should, and could, be represented in a digital environment. Finally I aimed to research digital tools and methods which could be used to integrate the material into a geo-referenced digital environment and digitally expose any other historical content within the collection.

Research to date

The project is currently at its midway point, and following along the lines of methodology identified in this blog it has been progressing well. Yet while some research has been positive, uncovering tools and methods for the enhancement of the collection, there are an equal number of challenges being met along the way.

The research into best practice has uncovered that ‘existing best practice’ perhaps does not apply due to the current scarcity of digital work on historic estate records. Yet digital projects relating to the same theme, notably the Landed Estates Database, maintained by the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, has revealed interesting methods and approaches to the digitisation of information relating to historic landed estates. These approaches may or may not be applicable to what MU Library hope to incorporate in digitising their own collections, but are useful references as to how other institutions have sought to digitally enhance information relating to landed estates.

The close analysis of the Borrowes collection revealed an issue which is prevalent to many landed estate collections in that they can be fragmented or incomplete, leading to significant gaps in data. However enough data was identified in this instance relating to a particular time period so that digital representations of parts of the estate in that said period are currently being examined.

Summary

The project so far has encountered positives and challenges as outlined above, and the digital tools, which will be discussed in a future blog, have been accessible and adaptable so far in compiling a digital toolbox for enhancing historic estate records.

A significant challenge is the fragmented nature of the historic estate records which can span significant time periods, 128 years in the case of the Borrowes Collection, yet identifying more complete collections, or indeed more complete periods within collections may be key. If these are identifiable and digitally presented using an appropriate strategy which this project seeks to propose, they may become the accessible resources of digitally exposed valuable historical content which is the aim of this project and MU Library.

References & Further Reading:

Andrews, John Harwood. History in the ordnance map: an introduction for Irish readers (Kerry, Montgomeryshire, 1993)

Dooley, Terence. The big houses and landed estates of Ireland: a research guide (Dublin, 2007)

Landed Estates Database. Web. Accessed 19 March 2015

National Archives of Ireland. Web. Accessed 19 March 2015.

Prunty, Jacinta. Maps and map-making in local history (Dublin, 2004)

Special Collections & Archives Department. Maynooth University Library. Web. Accessed 19 March 2015.