Digital Repository of Ireland brings history to life online

4 Apr 2014

Dr Sandra Collins, director of the Digital Repository of Ireland

How do you build a digital repository of Ireland’s history, from ancient through to recent? Dr Sandra Collins is on the case, as Claire O’Connell found out.

When you think of historical items, what springs to mind? An ancient manuscript, an unearthed chalice, old photos, letters and State records can all help to build a picture of the past. But what online records are we creating today that will inform future historians? Emails? Electronic diaries? Tweets?

From the physical to the virtual, from the ancient to the recent, the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) is looking to digitise, preserve and curate important items in Irish history in a way that makes the information accessible today and into the future.

Connecting history

Many artefacts lie in individual collections, such as libraries, museums and institutes, explains DRI’s director, Dr Sandra Collins, and the trick is to link them digitally.

“Different institutions may have specific holdings and collections, and we want to provide a home where you can bring all those different pieces together and tell a national or international story,” Collins says. “We work with institutes across Ireland on the ‘back-end’ tasks of creating digital records of artefacts, and as a national centre we can be a home for the cultural and social records that don’t have a home in an institutional repository, or we can build a collection that links items together.”

A case in point is the Inspiring Ireland initiative, which Jimmy Deenihan, TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, launched last month at Stanford University in California to tie in with St Patrick’s Day celebrations. The digital portal showcases high-quality images of objects from Ireland’s history, including paintings, letters, sculpture, photography and documents.

The pilot project now stands to grow as more digital objects are added, explains Collins.

“This one has really captured my heart,” she says. “We have always said that there is incredible value and richness in any of these objects but you can tell a much richer story if you bring them together.”

Inspiring Ireland - Crawford

Skellig Night on South Mall, by James Beale. A view of the festivities on bonfire night in Cork City, 1845.
Image via Inspiring Ireland

Challenges of curating

Taking images and putting them online sounds simple, but scratch the surface and there’s a lot more to it.

“Digital preservation is challenging,” says Collins. “Formats, standards and software to access the data change rapidly, and while the cost of storage is coming down, that is being outstripped by the sheer growth of data to be stored.”

There’s also the issue of access – where there is copyright, data protection or intellectual property the DRI has to manage how it allows people to view the information. But the initiative is driven by the need to preserve records of societies, whatever formats they may take.

And what are we doing today that should be kept in the historical record?

“If you accept that you can’t preserve everything, then what do you consider important enough to preserve? The tweets of government ministers? The electronic diaries of senior public figures?” asks Collins. “We are looking at policies, and we need a clear roadmap and thorough digital infrastructure.”

Inspiring Ireland - Library

A Dance at a Pier During the Kilmackillogue Pattern, Co Kerry, via National Library of Ireland.
The Kilmackillogue Pattern refers to the religious devotions that take place in July, celebrating the feast day of St Killian.
Image via Inspiring Ireland

Winding path

Collins has an obvious passion for her work. “I love this area, it’s fabulous,” she says. “It is such an eye-opener to see the beautiful objects on the cultural and social sciences side.”

The “winding path” that brought her here included lecturing in applied maths at Dublin City University, working for 10 years in software and systems development and research with Ericsson and engaging with the scientific research community as a programme manager in Science Foundation Ireland.

In 2011, the opportunity came up to direct DRI at the Royal Irish Academy and she went for it. Getting the initiative off the ground involved working with several academic institutions and people from different work disciplines, recalls Collins.

“The first six months (were spent) really building a common understanding of what we were doing,” she says. “Even with the language – we are a ‘trusted repository’ but that notion of trust means different things: in ICT it means encryption and security, in social sciences it is about anonymisation and protecting identity, and on the cultural or humanities side it is about asking whether you trust the source. So even if you think you understand concepts, there’s a lot of work in establishing common language.”

New insights into data

Today, the DRI is working on several projects, including collaborations with the SFI-funded Insight centre at NUI Galway. One is developing a new way to mine into the archives at RTÉ, explains Collins.

“The RTÉ archives are such an important archive for the cultural memory of the country, and you might assume that where data is archived that you can retrieve it at a moment’s notice, that it is all there catalogued, but it is much harder than it sounds. You need expert knowledge to find the data you want that is relevant,” she says. “We are working with Insight to build a linked database discovery layer that will work across all the archives, bringing together from multiple different types of media and formats and bringing a richer story together for both the archivist and the public.”

In another strand with Insight at NUI Galway, the DRI is looking at how to build a Social Repository of Ireland, pulling in information from social media and news sites, and just last month Insight and the DRI were involved a Research Data Alliance meeting in Dublin, which discussed the need for open access and its value in research.

“Where the public has invested in generating datasets that in some way we have a responsibility to share and reuse that if possible to get the best return on the investment of the science,” says Collins.

Mother’s influence

Collins built the early part of her career in environments where women were in the minority, and she recalls having few female role models to inspire or teach her. Instead, she reckons that her main role model was far closer.

“The person who was a big influencer for me was my mother,” she recalls. “She always said ‘you can be whatever you want’ and she said it so often, each time I walked into a room that was full of men it never occurred to me to think any differently.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland. You can nominate inspiring women in the fields of STEM via email at or on Twitter at @siliconrepublic

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication