by Pádraig Laffan, Vice-Chairperson of The Federation of Local History Societies
The Federation for Ulster Local Studies and The Federation of Local History Societies and The National Library Project
Have you ever thought how great it would be to walk along by the Liffey with your grandchildren and to be able to say to them “I helped build that bridge”? Well, a great bunch of volunteers has done something just like that, and about which they will be able to brag to their grandchildren. However, it is not bricks and cement or even steel. It is on the Web. It will still be useful in their grandchildren’s time. In fact, it will get better with age.
Here’s the story: Way back in 1989, while we all still used film in our cameras and before the days of easy communications with email and texting, two Federations (for Ulster Local Studies and of Local History Societies) got together to plan a project which would directly involve local history societies in every county of Ireland.
The plan was to select representative pictures of every county, and possibly every town, from the many thousands in the Lawrence Photographic Collection held in the National Library of Ireland, and have somebody locally re-take the picture from the same viewpoint, at what was then approximately 100 years since the original photograph had been taken.
We approached Dr. Patrica Donlon at the National Library; she, representing the NLI, could hardly have been more helpful or enthusiastic.
Lawrence Photographic Project 1990/1991
The NLI supplied the 1,000 selected scenes on lovely 10x8s (we were all in inches then). Fuji Ireland became our main sponsor. They supplied and agreed to process 100 rolls of film, and print 2,400 colour 12×8 prints. A lot of work by All-Ireland teams validated the picture choices, and spread the word amongst local history societies. In the course of time we sent out the films and a photocopy of the scenes, with instructions to take three different exposures of each scene.
As the films came back, we chose the best exposures and Fuji printed them. We made up the packages, which have resided in the National Library of Ireland, the Ulster Museum, and also some local libraries since then. Each package consists of an original Lawrence print, an A4 card with a photocopy picture and all the relevant information – date, time, photographer, neg. number, etc. All of this was a massive piece of North/South co-operation at a time when over the border terrible turbulence reigned. There was one memorable day when we spread everything out on the large wooden floor of the new RTÉ studios in Dundalk and walked up and down through the collection as we sorted it.
There is a wealth of stories recorded in this project about the old photographs and the adventures encountered in re-taking them in a catalogue booklet included with the collection. However, members also responded with comments like “If W. Lawrence was here now, that’s not the significant scene he would take!” and, “We have scenes which would better represent our place!” – Also “Why did he not put in a little information about the subject of the photograph”, “or even the correct county?”
There was also a general feeling that we could harness this new ‘photo–history–community’ surge of interest, for another new project.
Our Own Place 1993/1996
In the early 1990s, the two Federations (Ulster Local Studies and Local History Societies) put their respective heads together and came up with a project, which we called Our Own Place. For this, each group had twenty categories of picture ranging from the usual architectural scenes to ‘people at work’, ‘people at play’, houses, shops, and many others. RTÉ financially supported this project, and we started work again.
Finally in 1996, we were in a position to lodge 800 cards, each with its own picture and descriptive text paragraph and containing all the relevant data (researcher, photographer, location, etc.) with the Ulster Museum, the National Library, and our sponsor RTÉ.
Last year, Liam Clare (my colleague in FLHS, who was also involved in creating these collections) and I, approached NLI Head of Collections, Colette O Flaherty, about raising the profile of these collections in the National Library’s online catalogue. She proposed that our members might wish to engage in another great voluntary project. The Federations agreed and we started back in February 2012. We recruited volunteers, including some historians, some friends, others just keen to become involved, some very amateur computer users and other very highly qualified computer and information experts. The NLI appointed Aoife O’Connell as our instructor and mentor. She prepared instruction packs; got us a work location in the Manuscripts Reading Room and liaised with the Library’s IT section which provided five laptops for us. Finally, a little shakily we started, with every day’s work being error-checked by Aoife and uploaded to the NLI catalogue that evening. As March ended, Our Own Place was completed. The physical materials from that project were archive packed, labelled, and consigned to storage.
Cataloguing the Lawrence Photographic Project required a little re-training from Aoife, and we were off again. The camaraderie in the groups was wonderful, and they all fell in love with always helpful, always patient Aoife. Somebody said of working in the NLI Manuscripts Reading Room, “It was great but it was like a retreat, we couldn’t talk out loud.” The Lawrence Photographic Project has carried on through April and it all looks set to finish in May. Then, when Library staff scan and upload the pictures, we will have two historically valuable resources available to researchers everywhere.
One could hardly thank all the volunteers enough for their commitment to these projects and their hard work, including long distances travelled each day to the Library. In a time of some national gloom, they are shining stars.