Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Conradh na Gaeilge Archive - The First Step

In 2017, Conradh na Gaeilge announced they would be donating their archive to NUI Galway where it is to be safely stored and made accessible to researchers and interested parties in the James Hardiman Library Archives. This summer it was subsequently announced that the material had been transferred, and the identity of the archivist engaged to process the collection was revealed. That lucky archivist is me, and over the next 18 months, alongside working through the collection, I will be writing a series of blogs sharing my experiences and explaining the process involved, which I hope you will find of interest. (As a word of caution, this introductory blog is a bumper edition so probably a good idea to make a cup of tea first!)

So let me introduce myself! My name is Niamh Ní Charra, and I’m from Kerry, born to a Limerick mother and Galway father, who incidentally met here while studying Science. (Without NUIG I wouldn’t exist!) I graduated with an Electronic Engineering degree and worked in America briefly before leaving that world to become a professional musician, as you do! Following years “on the road”, I returned home to take a masters in Archives and Records Management. I mention this varied background because of its particular use and relevance to the work ahead which includes first-hand experience of the Oireachtas, Pan Celtic Festivals and other events mentioned in this collection. Having a grá for Irish is also a must!

The first pile of boxes which has completely taken over the processing room
The interest which greeted the announcement of the Conradh na Gaeilge archive coming to NUI Galway was fantastic but also led to my inbox unsurprisingly being inundated with queries! Because the job of the archivist is often misunderstood, it is easy to assume that all that was required of me once the material had been transferred was to hand it out as requested. I have therefore chosen to detail the process ahead to shine a light on the painstaking work that goes on behind the scenes before the archive can be made available to researchers, and hopefully to delay those queries
for a little longer until I am further down the road!

From another angle - approximately 280 boxes sit on 8 palettes
There are several stages to processing a collection before it can be made available and essentially they can be listed as follows: know what you have, make it safe, appraise it, decide on an arrangement, catalogue it, consider what should be made accessible (e.g. is it too frail, are there data protection issues etc.), digitise where possible and suitable and then release it. It can be daunting to know where to start when faced with hundreds of boxes of material but keeping these points in mind and having a plan is key. It is also important to familiarise yourself with the background of the collection, in this case getting a feel for the Conradh na Gaeilge organisation and the history behind it.

The 2nd pile of boxes, with the final pile visible in the background


At the core of processing a collection is the act of getting control over it, both intellectually and physically. While initially announced as 500 boxes, I estimate the final number of banker boxes to be closer to 650. Each one has to be opened and its contents examined before I know what is in the collection. This is the first pass and due to the size of the collection I have decided to combine a few stages while conducting it.

An example of what awaits when lifting the lid on a box!

While examining the contents of each box, I am also checking their condition for problems such as mould that might spread. Contents are then removed from the current boxes and placed in specially designed archive boxes and folders that help preserve them. These boxes are then placed in secure storage in climate controlled storerooms. The material is now both secure from further deterioration, and from theft. It is also protected from environmental hazards such as fire and flood. During this process, I list the contents of each box (known as a box-list), note what format the items are in (paper, photograph, CD etc.), and make note of special items of interest which may be candidates for digitisation. This box-list not only summarises what is in the collection, it will also aid in deciding on an arrangement for the collection once the first pass is complete.

Empty shelves in the climate-controlled storeroom where the archive boxes will be stacked once processed

Not everything in a collection should necessarily be kept – it may not be relevant or unique to that collection. There can also often be duplication of material and in some cases it may not be possible to suitably store an item due to its format, size or other practical considerations. For that reason the collection needs to be appraised. Appraisal is an important function of archivists and what separates them from colleagues in other related professions. It is something I will go into in more detail in future blogs, but for now, it is sufficient to note that as I make this first pass, I am also appraising.


One of the hardest tasks when undertaking the processing of a collection is accurately estimating both the time and the resources required. The above-mentioned stages are time-consuming but essential before the collection can be made available to researchers and until complete it is impossible to know definitively what is in the collection, and therefore how long the subsequent stages will take. It is also impossible to ascertain how long the initial pass will take, but we estimate it will require 6 - 8 months to complete.

And there you have it! As you can see, I have my work cut out for me! It is a pleasure and privilege to work on this collection and I am enjoying coming across some real gems as I make the first pass. Future blogs will cover these initial and subsequent stages in more detail and the discoveries I make along the way as well as introducing you all to Conradh, the organisation behind this wonderful rich collection.

Go dtí an chéad uair eile,
Beir bua,


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