UCL and London Metropolitan Archives digitisation of The Great Parchment Book wins award

20 May 2014

Ireland bookA groundbreaking project by researchers at London Metropolitan Archives and UCL to digitally restore fire-damaged historical documents receives a Succeed award for their digitisation work.

The Great Parchment Book of The Honourable The Irish Society is a hugely important source for the City of London’s role in the Protestant colonisation and administration of Ulster. It was damaged as the result of a fire at the Guildhall in 1786 and has been unavailable to researchers for over 200 years. Now, following conservation treatment at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), as well as 3D scanning, reconstruction and online publication by LMA, UCL Computer Science and the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, this resource is available to historians and the public.

For the development of this process, the Support Action Centre of Competence in Digitisation (Succeed) awarded a Commendation of Merit to those involved. This is one of four awards given by the body in 2014, which recognise successful digitisation programmes, especially those exploiting the latest research and technology.

Initially, the documents were cleaned, humidified and opened out by conservationists at London Metropolitan Archives. Then the UCL researchers took over, developing a process to acquire, model, stretch and make readable the documents in digital form. Between forty and sixty images were taken of each page, which were then assembled using custom software into 3D models of each sheet. These can be navigated using a unique interactive system allowing readers to travel over the page and view all lines of text, or digitally ‘flatten’ the page for ease of reading and sharing.

The transcript and images of the document are available on an interactive, searchable website, showing an image of each folio side by side with the transcription, allowing the user to compare the original (pre-conservation) image and digitally flattened image, and an original and modern transcript.

On the occasion of the work’s completion, The First Minister of Northern Ireland, The Right Hon Peter D Robinson MLA, said “I cannot praise the work of the LMA & UCL highly enough.  In completing this mammoth project they have succeeded in opening a veritable treasure trove of information relating to a most significant period in the history of Ulster; and illustrating as never before the central role played by the London Guilds in the creation and preservation of the city of Londonderry and its environs.

Dr Tim Weyrich said: “From the start, the project was a true collaborative undertaking. The practical conservation of the Great Parchment Book was the essential first step, followed by the digital imaging and reconstruction work. Throughout, we were able to draw from our collective experience in digital humanities, imaging and computer graphics, but also from academic collaborations, such as with colleagues at ETH Zurich who contributed to the methods for digital ‘flattening’.”

Professor Melissa Terras, Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, said “This project demonstrates the excellence that can be achieved in interdisciplinary projects, benefiting both those with an interest in reading damaged and deteriorated historical texts, and those working on 3D modelling and transformation. It provides a great example of how digital techniques can add to our understanding of our cultural heritage.”

The virtual reconstruction of the Great Parchment Book is currently on exhibition in Derry as part of the commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the building of the city walls. The published images and transcription will also provide a lasting resource for historians researching the Plantation of Ulster in local, national and international contexts, as well as outreach programmes for schools and colleges based on the information it contains.

Following the success of the reconstruction of the Great Parchment Book, a number of institutions with similar damaged parchments have expressed interest in using the same method, and the team hopes to develop this technique as a service in future.

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