The Royal Bounty archive was found in 1932 in the cellar of the French Hospital, when it occupied the Victoria Park building in Hackney. It consists of the papers of the successive French Committees concerned with the distribution of funds given by the Crown for the relief of poor Huguenot refugees and their descendants. The grants started in 1686 with James II and were wound up in 1876. The collection is substantial and is housed in over fifty archive boxes. The history of how the documents arrived at the French Hospital is still unclear. When were they taken there and by whom? Why were they stored and forgotten in the cellar? We might never find the answers to these questions, but you will be able to read more about the history of the archive and its contents in a future post.
This article focuses on the project aimed at digitizing the microfiches of the entire Royal Bounty archive and making them available to the Society's membership. The road was certainly long and we encountered obstacles on the way, but we are all delighted to enable Fellows to see this collection from the comfort of their own home.
In 2016, University College London approached the Society proposing to digitize some of the microfiches of manuscripts in the archive, with a view to making them available on the University’s Digital Repository. It was agreed that we would run a pilot, using only five Royal Bounty fiches. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the University’s equipment was unsuitable for large-scale digitization and could not photograph the microfiches quickly enough nor produce files of good enough quality to make the proposal worthwhile and cost-effective.
Nevertheless, the Library Committee were of the opinion that digitizing the microfiches would be a realistic way of making some archive material available online. It is unfortunately still very expensive to digitize original manuscripts, which tend to come in all shapes and sizes, are either bound or unbound, and often require conservation work prior to being photographed. The fiches were, on the other hand, a cheaper option that was definitely worth pursuing.
The decision to select the Royal Bounty archive was made shortly after receiving UCL’s original proposal. This particular collection was picked for several reasons. First of all, we had microfiche surrogates for all of the manuscripts in it, which is not the case for many of our other collections. It is an archive that has proved to be of interest to both academics and those working on their family history. The period it covers is substantial (1686-1876); therefore again, increasing the number of possible interested users. The nature of the collection, i.e. lists of names, with the corresponding amount received and information on the family members, is well suited to be made into an electronic resource.
Several digitization companies were approached and we received a few quotes which varied quite substantially. The Library Committee recommended selecting a specific organisation which had offered to photograph a few fiches so that we could get an idea of their work, which was impressive. The company could digitize the individual fiches to archival TIFF quality and then group the pictures into the respective manuscripts and create PDF files for them. The PDFs would then be uploaded online whilst the TIFFs would be kept for preservation purposes.
The Society agreed that the digitized fiches should be made available on the members’ area of our website and therefore, become an excellent addition to the resources offered as part of Society membership. This would imply creating a bespoke cataloguing and delivery system, which would be easier to adapt to our specific needs, rather than using an off-the-shelf product.
The project was approved in May 2019, so two years after the idea was first mooted, we were finally ready to start.
The digitization company picked up the 646 fiches, consisting of 12 x 5 images each, in June 2019 and by September had finished the scanning, but reported that the post-production work and specifically the creation of the PDFs was taking longer than expected. In fact, several microfiches were only showing the classmark for groups of documents consisting of several items and not the classmark for the actual items themselves. This meant that instead of grouping the pictures by simply looking at the classmark at the top of the fiches, the actual images had to be opened to check where the single items started and ended.
In the meantime, our IT specialist and I were creating the searchable catalogue to which the images of the manuscripts would be attached. Once the basics were sorted out, ten records were transferred and the catalogue was tested for layout, searches and any anomalies. It took some time to refine it but once the various teething problems were solved, the rather laborious task of inputting all the Royal Bounty records in the new catalogue began.
The digitized microfiches were received in January 2020, and work started on splitting the PDFs of some of the bigger groups of manuscripts into the actual items they comprised. New catalogue records were then created to accommodate these new items. As a result, our catalogue for this collection is now much improved and includes records for each single constituent item.
Thanks are due to members of the Library Committee who tested the system: the records, images and the various search functions. Once the final issues had been resolved, it went live in May.
In large part, this outcome was made possible thanks to a number of projects carried out in the past, notably the Society's decision to invest in creating microfiche surrogates of large sections of its archives more than 25 years ago. Subsequently, over the past few years all existing archive catalogues, including the Royal Bounty catalogue, have been transferred to an online system, and finally, we are now involved in cataloguing each individual item within a number of our archive collections. Digitizing and making the Royal Bounty archive available online is therefore a natural evolution of decisions taken over the last few decades, and it is to be hoped we may be able to do the same with other collections in the future.
A link to the Royal Bounty archive can be found here.