For today’s Explore Your Archive theme, we will be looking at all things BIG in the Irish Archives Resource! When we refer to archives as being “big,” we often mean their physical size or scale. A number of questions will instantly flash across archivists’ minds that ultimately help in determining their scale of what is big and what is not.

Will it fit into a folder or do we need a box?

How many shelves will I set aside in the storage room?

Can you put that into cubic feet?

However, as an online archive resource website, defining the parameters of what is ‘big’ can be a slightly trickier process. First, we could look to find the repository that has uploaded the largest number of collections to the IAR.

Coming in with a grand total of 91 collections, Cork City and County Archives takes the prize as the IAR’s biggest contributor, followed up closely by Dublin City Council with 83 collections, and University College Cork’s Library and Archive Service in third with 76. From art and folklore to health and politics, a vast range of topics are covered. 

Or perhaps we could take a more traditional approach by counting the number of items in each collection, and with an estimated 350,000 items, Linen Hall Library’s Northern Ireland Political Collection stands tall among the biggest collections contributed to the IAR. But as with any archive, the Northern Ireland Political Collection started with just one item. 

The Northern Ireland Political Collection

The inception of the collection lies in the hands of Jimmy Vitty, the man who held the position of Linen Hall Librarian in 1968. After being handed a civil rights leaflet in Belfast city centre, Vitty returned to the library intending to document what he believed would be one of the city’s recurring eruptions of conflict. However, since 1968, Linen Hall Library has played a pivotal role in documenting the complex and turbulent history of life and politics in Northern Ireland, particularly the thirty-year period between the late 1960s and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement commonly known as ‘The Troubles’. After the outbreak, Linen Hall Library soon sought to collect all printed material relating to the Troubles, and the keepers of the Northern Ireland Political Collection have been overwhelmingly successful in their aims, amassing over 350,000 items to date. This figure is only set to rise in the future as the archivists continue to expect further accruals from large organisations and previous contributors, as well as regularly embracing donations from the public. 

A crucial condition set by the library for the collection of material has been in their efforts to create an archive that represents a balanced record of political events that have taken place during the Troubles. The collection meticulously documents the activities and views of all parties involved in the conflict, from paramilitary organisations to government agencies. The Northern Ireland Political Collection is one of the few institutions in the world to have managed to gather the views and perspectives of all sides of a conflict in such a comprehensive and balanced manner, featuring records published in English, Irish, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Ulster Scots, Basque and French. Topics covered range from the peace process to economic issues and solidarity campaigns, as well as shining a light on the voices of marginalised ethnic and community groups. This is particularly notable in the representation of sexual politics from LGBTQ+ groups active during the thirty years and into the present day. 

The main body of the collection comprises over 19,000 books, pamphlets, and reports, supplemented by several thousand posters, an additional 2,000 titles of periodicals published by political parties of opposing ideologies, approximately 75,000 leaflets, handbills and press releases, and a further 2,000 PSNI documentaries and news bulletins.

IE LHL NIPC 0189 MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD FOR PEACE 25 MARCH 1992, National Union of Students, Image Courtesy of Linen Hall Library via Divided Society

With collections so vast and comprehensive, repositories often fall victim to the issue of providing public access to material. However, Linen Hall Library has combated this risk through its meticulously detailed catalogue, listing the heart of its collection by author, title, publishing organisation, and subject. Additionally, large portions of the political collection have been digitised by Linen Hall Library, which have been made freely available in Ireland and the UK through the Divided Society and extraORDINARYwoman websites. This access to the collection has promoted discussion and engagement with Northern Ireland’s complex history. Portions of the collection can also be found on permanent display in Belfast in Linen Hall Library’s vertical gallery. Further archival access can be facilitated by email to Linen Hall Library at info@linenhall.com.  

Róisín Costello, Records Manager

With special thanks to Linen Hall Library for permission for the use of images from the Northern Ireland Political Collection for this post.

Sources

Bell, Robert. “The Northern Ireland Political Collection at the Linen Hall Library.” History Ireland 1, no. 1 (1993): 47-51.

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