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  • Digitally expose the historical content of these resources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.

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