Research in a time of COVID

Tim Murtagh, Beyond 2022 Research Fellow at PRONITim Murtagh, Beyond 2022 Research Fellow at PRONITim Murtagh, Beyond 2022 Research Fellow at PRONI

The current pandemic has affected every aspect of life, and its consequences are reported daily in the headlines of every newspaper. While historical scholarship is far from the most important thing to be affected (to put it mildly!), the spread of Covid-19 has most certainly impacted the ability of researchers to consult the records which form the basis of their work. While many of the major archives and libraries have begun to reopen, they are now functioning in a very different landscape. Since the 24th of August, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has reopened, on a limited and appointment-only basis. To use the archive, visitors must now book a slot online, at least two weeks in advance and on a first-come-first-served basis. Visitors can only request 10 items per visit and must submit their requests in advance.[i] Researchers can no longer use the self-service microfilm desk or reference material in the search room, which is now closed.  To ensure that staff and researchers are not at risk, there is a strict policy requiring hand washing, social distancing in the reading room, and most of all the quarantine of documents both before and after they are consulted by readers.  For both customers and staff alike, these new restrictions can be a frustrating experience, and similar restrictions are in place in almost every other repository that has recently reopened. But such restrictions are the only sensible way to provide access while still ensuring a safe environment. Moreover, with a little effort there are ways to adapt and make the most of the time you have in the archives.

Just as for any other user, the challenge I face is to try and get the most out of my requests each week. At the most basic level, this means being careful in consulting the catalogue. Thankfully, PRONI’s e-catalogue is quite impressive, with extensive listing at the item level, as well as some substantial abstracts (and in many cases full transcriptions) of items, accessible within the e-catalogue. This is partly a legacy of earlier hand-lists created for individual collections by twentieth-century archivists and which have recently been entered into the catalogue by PRONI staff. I’ve been looking at some good examples of these recently, including the Ellis Papers (D683), the Foster/Masserene collection (especially D207 and D562), and the Downshire papers (D607 and D671).  One only has to look through these reference numbers via the ‘browse’ function of the e-catalogue to see the substantial material that is already accessible digitally. Some of these earlier catalogues are well known to historians as they were published, such as the two-volume Eighteenth Century Irish Official Papers in Great Britain, which was edited by a former Deputy Keeper of PRONI, Dr Anthony Malcomson. Another very useful printed work is Thomas Bartlett’s volume derived from the Macartney papers, Macartney in Ireland 1768-72, which is a calendar of the papers of a highly influential chief secretary, Sir George Macartney. [i] Admittedly, substantial parts of these books are now accessible via the e-catalogue, but the printed copies are still useful (especially if you want to give your eyes a rest from looking at a screen).

Another category of sources that I tend to check before I submit requests, are PRONI’s own pamphlet series, as well as their other free-to-access resources. Most of these can be accessed at While these explain how to use the catalogue for specific categories of documents relating to family history, they also provide some useful information for Beyond 2022 researchers. Even more exciting are the collections of facsimile documents that PRONI has produced, with a great example being Plantation in Ulster, 1600-41 A collection of Documents, edited by the late historian Robert Hunter.[i] This volume, available for free via the PRONI site, reproduces some of the most important documents that PRONI holds relating to this crucial historical event. While nothing will replace the experience of handling and viewing these documents in person, such digital resources are a godsend in an age of COVID.

Unsurprisingly, the process of archival discovery means that I quickly go beyond what has been calendared or extensively catalogued. However, one of the effects of the current situation is that I now seek out items which I know will be more substantial, in that they incorporate multiple pieces of correspondence within a single object. For instance, one of the collections I’ve been looking at a lot is the Castlereagh papers, which consists of 37 volumes of bound correspondence.  A single volume consists of 80 to 100 letters bound together, but is still counted as a single ‘item’ within the catalogue. In contrast, in a collection like the Foster paper, one ‘item’ usually means a single letter. Obviously, if you have a limited number of requests, the priority goes to the item which has multiple documents within it. This doesn’t mean we are neglecting collections like the Foster papers (far from it), but simply that the schedule of what we consult is different because of the restrictions. However, the current restrictions definitely reinforce one of the prime aims of Beyond 2022; namely, to enhance online access to historical records. By enhancing the catalogues of partners, and pursuing an ambitious digitisation plan, we are hoping to help make repositories more resilient in the face of situations like the current pandemic.


[1] For more on how readers can make an appointment in PRONI, please visit:

2 PRONI also sponsored the only modern life of George Macartney, Peter Roebuck (ed.), ‘Macartney of Lisanoure’, 1737-1806 (Belfast, Ulster Historical Foundation, 1983)