12 October 2008

TNA's Digital Microfilm Pilot

In common with most archives The (UK) National Archives has a large collection of microfilmed records. TNA is now piloting a project to make these available online.

Delivery is by using very large pdfs, each of which contains a whole piece, which could be up to 800 pages long. They call this Digital Microfilm. You should only try downloading if you have a broadband connection, and even then you need a good supply of patience. One thing you won't need is a credit card; the documents are free of charge to download.

Four records series of military and naval records have been digitized in this pilot:

  • ADM 142 - Registers of Seamen's wills, 1786-1909
  • ADM 175 - Records of service of the Coastguard, 1816-1947
  • WO 144 - War Office: Inter-Allied Armistice Commission: War Diary, and Despatches of Chief of British Delegation, 1918-1920
  • WO 338 - War Office: Officers' Services, Index to Long Number Papers, 1870-1922
The records are not indexed and you will need to scroll through the pdfs to find the information sought.

They are large files and even with broadband you'll find you'll want to avoid downloading at times of heavy traffic. I ordered WO 338/14 for surnames Micholson - O of the War Office: Officers' Services, Index to Long Number Papers, 1870-192. It is 294.94 MB and would have taken well over an hour to download at the rate it was going at 9am. I didn't time it but it appeared to download considerably more quickly at 10pm.
Shown is the part of that file that relates to the the surname Northwood. Each entry in the index gives surname, forenames or initials, regiment, unique long number, rank and remarks. The long numbers usually refer to WO 339. John Daniel D'Arcy Northwood was with GLRFC(?), had long number 156442 and is a Lieut. I recognize him as grandnephew of William Northwood who came to Ottawa.

This series is arranged by surname, and the name range for each section is indicated upfront. A bit more explanation of the record content would have been appreciated. What does GLRFC stand for?

ADM 142 offers fourteen separate downloads with the same heading, Register of Wills 1786-1861, with no indication of the arrangement that I could find. Given the time required to download I was not encouraged to explore further.

Based on this admittedly limited trial my impression is that the material needs improved explanation so that clients can better appreciate what they're getting before embarking on the extended download required.

It would be desirable to reduce the download time. This could be done by further sub-division of the films, or perhaps by using another technology like Torrents which I understand are widely used for large downloads.

Congratulations TNA on undertaking this pilot.

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