Digitising the Protestation Returns at the Parliamentary Archives
Author: Simon Barnes, Digital Imaging Technician, Parliamentary Archives
We’re a digitisation team of two in the Parliamentary Archives and we’re 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 from the public and support exhibition and outreach activities by photographing records which are about to go out on loan. 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. The latest project we’ve been working on is the Protestation Returns. The Protestation Returns, dating 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. 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, 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 was the highly variable dimensions and formats 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! We established early on that we would not be able to optimise the photography of each item by setting column height, lens choice and ppi individually, it would be too lengthy a process. Furthermore, we weren’t able to set our Nikon D800 at one height and photograph everything with one setting as there was too much variation but we thought the Nikon would be quick as we could use live view to line-up the documents. We tested and developed three different settings which enabled us to digitise the majority of the collection but inevitably some documents required individual settings. Part way through the project we bought an IQ180 digital back and 55mm lens for our Phase camera and decided to switch as we could improve quality and productivity. With 80 megapixels we could set the camera at one height and capture all our documents at 600ppi (see a time-lapse of my colleague Tim at work).
As much of a challenge has been the ability, time and motivation (!) to quality assure all the images generated. We’ve followed a process of first QA, followed by any necessary reprocessing/reshoots, a second QA and then web conversion and watermarking. The images are then moved to the digital repository for permanent preservation. Low resolution jpegs are viewable via our online catalogue and the Archivists and our IT department have developed a prototype Map Search, which allows users to search for the Returns we hold by area. So, 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 promoting the records and the digitisation project, via social media, blogging and are planning some outreach activities with regional archives. For the social media promotion, we’ve picked out interesting watermarks, useful dates, noted when women are listed (they weren’t required to be), where there are ‘recusants’ (refusals) and are highlighting some of the more interesting information and text we’ve discovered – some people were ‘not at home’ when they should have been making the protestation!
The photography is complete and the Returns are being ingested into the digital repository and made available through the map and online catalogue.
We’ve started on our next project focussing on Victorian MP and Parliamentary Estate photographer Benjamin Stone, which involves both digitising his historic photographs of the Palace of Westminster and its visitors and taking some of our own pictures of the rooms today, to compare and contrast how things have changed. We have also been visiting the roof of the Victoria Tower and took a time-lapse of the view, where we were lucky to catch a raincloud, and rainbow, passing over London.