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Using the archives

Selection of guides available in the PRONI search room Volumes in a PRONI strongroom Visitors conducting research in the PRONI reading room
The search room is the first place most visitors go when they arrive at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).  It can be compared to the reference section of a library, however unlike most printed material, archives are unique and irreplaceable.  They have to be stored in strongrooms under special environmental conditions.  They cannot be made available on the open shelves in the same way as library books, nor can they be borrowed.
To help preserve these irreplaceable archives, you should follow the dos and don’ts for using PRONI at all times and read our guidance on handling archival documents.
Every individual document held by PRONI has a unique reference number.  This number is used to order a document from the strongrooms.  The document/s you order (up to five at a time) are then brought to the reading room for you to view.  They must be returned to the issue desk when you have finished looking at them.

How are the archives are organised?

Archives are rather different from printed material.  A book deals with a particular person, place or subject and so its contents are easy to define.  An archive on the other hand consists of the papers created by organisations and individuals in their day-to-day activities.  It usually covers a multitude of subjects, persons and places.  Archives therefore cannot be organised by subject, place or person - rather they are arranged according to the organisation, person or family who created them.
Each archive in PRONI is given a main archive reference number.  However, as an archive can contain anything from a single document to many thousands of documents, it is not possible to order a whole archive at once.
Catalogues are numbered lists of PRONI’s archives.  They are arranged according to the main archive reference numbers and give details of all documents contained within each archive – a date, description and unique reference number for each individual document held by PRONI.
PRONI is currently converting all of its catalogues from paper volumes into a computerised database or electronic catalogue. This will make it possible to comprehensively search the contents of all the catalogues quickly and easily by subject, place, person or any keyword.
However, until the electronic catalogue is up and running, guides and indexes remain crucial to accessing the archives.  They are usually arranged by place or subject and identify the main reference numbers of archives relating to that place or subject.
You must then look at the catalogue covering that main archive reference and identify the unique reference for the particular document you want to order and view.
See the catalogues page for more detailed information and examples of how the catalogues are arranged and how they are used.
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How do I find and view the specific document I want?

A number of the most popular archives held by PRONI have been copied onto microfilm and are available in the self-service microfilm room. However, to access the majority of archives in PRONI, you must:
  • Identify the relevant main archive using the guides and indexes – these will give you the main archive reference number.
  • Browse through the catalogue for that archive; identify the document/s you are interested in and note their unique reference numbers.
  • Order the document you wish to see via the computer terminals in the search room.
  • A member of PRONI staff will bring the document/s (you can order up to five at a time) from the strongrooms to the reading room. Here, you will be allocated a table where you can read the documents.
  • Return all documents to the issue desk once you have finished with them.
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What if the document I want to see is marked ‘closed’?

There are some documents and files that you may not be permitted to order/view for various reasons.  For example, a document may be too fragile to handle or contain sensitive information about a living individual.
In some instances it may be possible to access some or all of the information contained in a closed document - see a record I want to see is closed for further information.
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Can I ask for help or get someone to do research for me?

Staff in the search room are there to help visitors to PRONI. Feel free to approach a member of staff at any time if you are confused or unsure of how to proceed, or if you have any general queries.
Staff will tell you about the records and which types are likely to be relevant to your research, but they cannot do the research for you. Genealogical research in particular is time-consuming - it can take months of painstaking work to compile a family tree.
PRONI offers a very limited search service for identifying specific information from the archives, however, we cannot offer a complete family tree service.
If you do not have the time or experience to do your own family history, you may wish to consider employing the services of a genealogical researcher.  A list of independent commercial researchers who are familiar with the sources in PRONI and elsewhere is available online or at PRONI.
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