Great Parchment Book project

July 17, 2013, 15:30 | Centennial Room, Nebraska Union

Project outline

The Great Parchment Book of the Honourable The Irish Society is a major survey, compiled in 1639 by a Commission instituted by Charles I, of all the estates in Derry, Northern Ireland, managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the London livery companies. Damaged in a fire at London’s Guildhall in 1786, it has been unavailable to researchers for over 200 years (Moody 1939; Curl 2000). The damaged manuscript has however remained part of the City of London’s collections held at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). As part of the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the building of Derry’s city walls in 1613, it was decided to attempt to make the document available as a central point of the planned exhibition. The book represents an important source for the City’s role in the colonisation and administration of Ulster and, given the relative paucity of archival records for early modern Ireland, the manuscript should also reveal key data about landholding and population in 17th-century Ulster.

This ambitious project has attracted support from several funders, including the UK’s National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, the Marc Fitch Fund, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a number of London livery companies and the Irish Society itself. University College London (UCL), Derry Heritage and Museums Service (DHMS), and LMA have also provided funds and staff time.

Physical description and conservation issues

The manuscript consists of 165 separate parchment membranes, all damaged in the fire. Uneven shrinkage and distortion has rendered much of the text illegible.

Traditional conservation alone would not produce sufficient results to make the manuscript accessible or suitable for exhibition, the parchment being too shrivelled to be returned to a readable state. Much of the text is visible but distorted; following discussions with conservation and imaging experts, it was decided to flatten the parchment sheets as far as possible, and to use multi-modal digital imaging to gain legibility and enable digital access.

The project

A partnership with the Department of Computer Science and the Centre for Digital Humanities at UCL established a four year EngD in the Virtual Environments, Imaging and Visualisation programme in September 2010 (jointly funded by the EPSRC and LMA) with the intention of developing software that will enable the manipulation (including virtual stretching and alignment) of digital images of the book rather than the object itself. The aim is to make the distorted text legible, and ideally to reconstitute the manuscript digitally.

Conservation work on the membranes encompassed cleaning, humidification, and tension drying, using magnets placed on top of the parchment above a metal sheet to hold creases open during the drying process. This opened out areas of parchment where the camera could not reach the text (De Stefani 2012).

The practical conservation of the membranes was the essential first step, followed by the imaging work being carried out by UCL, where a set of typically 50-60 22MP images is captured for each page and used to generate a 3D model containing 100-170MP, which allows viewing at archival resolution. These models can be flattened and browsed virtually, allowing the contents of the book to be accessed more easily and without further handling the document. A readable and exploitable version of the text is also being prepared, comprising a searchable transcription and glossary of the manuscript. This element of the project has received a grant from the Marc Fitch Fund towards the employment of a palaeographer who is also encoding appropriate terms using TEI to capture structural and semantic information about the texts enabling comprehensive searching of the document.

The transcript and images of the document will be published online. We are currently working with web-designers Headscape to develop a website to enable sophisticated online presentation and searching of the document contents.

From 2013, both DHMS and LMA plan to use the document in their interpretation and outreach programmes, developing resources for schools and colleges based on the information it contains. There is also considerable interest from academics, including the University of Ulster. Our work on the computational approach to model, stretch, and read the damaged parchment will be applicable to similarly damaged material as we believe we are developing best practice computational approaches to digitising highly distorted, fire-damaged, historical documents.


The digital imaging and transcription will provide a lasting resource for historians researching the Plantation of Ulster in local, national and international contexts. The progress of the project is being recorded on a blog (LMA 2012).


Curl, J. S. (2000). The Honourable the Irish Society and the Plantation of Ulster, 1608-2000: the City of London and the colonisation of County Londonderry in the Province of Ulster in Ireland: a history and critique. Chichester, West Sussex: Phillimore.
De Stefani, C. (2012). Conservation of the Great Parchment Book. Presentation held at ARA Annual Conference 2012, Brighton August 29-31.
London Metropolitan Archives (2012). The Great Parchment Book: Conserving, Digitally Reconstructing, Transcribing, and Publishing the Manuscript Known as the Great Parchment Book. http://greatparchmentbook.wordpress.com (accessed 1 November 2012).
Moody, T. W. (1939). The Londonderry Plantation, 1609-41: the City of London and the Plantation in Ulster. Belfast: W. Mullan and son.