One of the behind the scenes teams in the Parliamentary Archives is the Digitisation Team – we’re two staff who are responsible for delivering the Archives’ public copying service, digitisation project work and supporting exhibitions and outreach activities. We handle on demand requests for copies of archives, received from the public and support exhibition and outreach activities by photographing records which are about to go out on loan so we have an accurate record of their condition. We also do photography for exhibition panels, publicity and our web resources and social media.
The digitisation project work we do is essential to the Parliamentary Archives’ aim to increase online access to our collections and we have photographed a few of our smaller collections which the Archives’ plans to link to our online catalogue.
The latest project we’ve been working on is the Protestation Returns. The Protestation Returns, date from 1641-42, were ordered by the House of Commons and required all adult men to swear allegiance to the Protestant religion. The returns were organised by parish and are the closest we have to a seventeenth century census, significantly taking place at the start of a civil war that involved all levels of society and affected all countries in the British Isles and Ireland.
We work closely with our Collection Care colleagues who help prepare the documents by doing a condition check, unbinding the Returns from their files and flattening any folded documents. This really helps to speed up the process of digitisation and flags any which may need careful handling. Whilst the majority of the Returns are written on paper, a number are on parchment (animal skin). In some cases individuals signed their own names on the Return, but more often an official wrote down the names and individuals made their mark. Some people refused to make the protestation, and this was duly noted on the Return, whilst widows (who became household head on the death of their husbands) also sometimes signed. So, each Parish produced a return in its own fashion and it created a somewhat varied collection of documents!
Our main challenge with this project is the highly variable dimensions and format of the documents. Some Returns were completed on the back of the declaration, some were bound into booklets and some were recorded on thin lengthy strips - some are very large, while others are tiny! Ideally, we would adjust our camera settings to optimise the photography of each individual document, but that wasn't practical for the thousands of items to be digitized so we've developed a number of general settings that allows us to capture favorable images at a speedier pace. For those who are technically minded we have been using our Nikon D800 DSLR camera and our medium-format Phase One camera.
You may have already seen the prototype Map Search on our website which allows you to search for the returns we hold by area. If you can trace your family tree back to the seventeenth century, and you have an idea where your relatives lived, you may be able to find them in the Protestation Returns. We’re nearing the end of the photography and hope to start uploading images for you to view in 2016 so keep an eye out for more information and future blogs. In the meantime, we’ve taken a timelapse (or two) of the photography in action for you to see.
Image credits: all ©Parliamentary Archives