Jacqui Hayes has the past at her finger tips. With the deftest of touches on her iPad, the archivist is able to pull up files from the 1880s on screen.
It appears effortless, but staff in the archive department at Limerick City and County Council are keenly aware of the marathon effort it is taken to get to this point.
Since the online archive collection was launched in 2010, following the start of digitisation in 2008, it has grown to become the biggest online archive by a local authority in the State, they claim, given the scale of material available free of charge.
In the years since, careful consideration has been given to the collections most likely to be viewed online, while some may never be digitised.
“There are some documents which no one has ever come to see, or may never come to see, and they are huge [files] and would cost a fortune to make available online, and we have to be able to justify the cost and investment.
“If you had on a shelf what is online now, it’s the equivalent of 20 to 30 metres. That quantity of material online is unprecedented for any other local authority or even on a national scale,” said Ms Hayes.
In all, almost 1,000 documents from 30 collections, and running to nearly a million individual pages have been specially scanned to a very high resolution and digitised online.
Some might be a simple one-page letter, while others run to a 300-page minute book – all now preserved for a lifetime, with a history of the city and the lives of its inhabitants brought to a new generation.
“It gives a real insight into the concerns of the day,” says Ms Hayes. “There are some lovely little snippets of history and some are truly fascinating.”
“We are embracing Limerick as a digital city, and driving forward with the digital agenda. They are public records, and this is about opening the door of the strong-room and making them available, and in a format that’s pleasurable for the user,” she said.
“A huge amount of work goes into our collections, such as the Ranks exhibition, or the bacon industry, which so many people in Limerick worked in, and we want to make these documents continually and easily accessible after the launch has taken place.”
In contrast, she explains, the normal route to accessing archival documents can be time intensive, cumbersome, and potentially off-putting.
“Appointments have to be made, one person can only see the documents at one time, someone has to be with you at all times to ensure they are not damaged in any way, you have to sign off on regulations for readers. So, it makes life a lot easier for everyone if these are available online.”
From a preservation point of view, the longevity of the original documents can also be ensured, as they will succumb to less wear and tear over time.
William O’Neill, a UL scholar, who works alongside Ms Hayes and historian Sharon Slater in the same department, said the documents are “in pristine reading condition, it’s as if you’re reading the original in front of you.”
Given the changes in technology, he said, this is the first time that the records can be accessed on any device, including phones, tablets, laptops or home computer.
The roll books from the Christian Brothers’ schools in the city are among those now online, with the style of note-taking through the ages making its own revelations about societal changes.
“The older the records, the clearer the handwriting actually is. You can see from the roll-books that the standard of handwriting disimproved from the 1970s on, when there was also a poorer quality of stationary.”
The Limerick Police Force collection of 1922 shows a time of major upheaval in the State – and the dramatic means to quell any further revolutionary spirit amongst the population of the Treaty City, during the interim period between the departure of the RIC and the establishment of An Garda Siochana.
Again, no one has requested to see this collection, or perhaps never even knew of its existence – until now.
“It’s a unique part of history, but has not been recorded in any history books. It’s great now to be able to shine a light on this collection,” she adds.
At the time, Mayor Stephen O’Mara sanctioned a civil police force for three months, with all businesses in the city being compelled to pay a rate towards the force for protection.
A letter from the Mayor’s office was sent out to all businesses in May 1922, detailing that 38 men had now taken up duty. Records of their work detail the day of a life of a police officer, unaccustomed to such work.
One week’s duty in June of 1922 outlined: “Man arrested and charged with indecently assaulting a child. Cleared boys from swimming at Lower Cecil Street skip. Man arrested and charged with attempting to disarm police. Old man knocked down on street and found to be destitute. Sent to Croom County Home. Woman found destitute and demented sent to County Home.”
There are also the Vaccination Records from 1864, which lists the names of children vaccinated under efforts to eliminate smallpox, with parents fined if they did not have their children vaccinated.
The Limerick County Council minute-books, which span from 1899 to 1973, allow the reader to see how an in-depth level of the running of the local authority, and provides historians and researchers “a never-seen-before level of online access to these records, which details the issues that the council tackled since the turn of the 20th century.”
The archive will be constantly updated. See www.limerick.ie/archives