Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Researching at the IFI Irish Film Archive... and 10 Tips for Ph.D. Researchers!

Matthew McAteer Ph.D. writes about his time in the IFI Irish Film Archive when he researched the Radharc film and document collection, and provides some handy tips for researchers...

I was a college student who spent two years locked inside the IFI Irish Film Archive in Temple Bar. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it! Actually I was doing research on an old TV show produced by a handful of Catholic priests called Radharc. It ran for three and a half decades and the archive preserves all of its 420 episodes along with the documents that came with them (which fill more cardboard boxes than I care to mention – the show’s co-founder Fr. Joe Dunn kept records of, well, pretty much everything).

In contrast to a lot of other religious and broadcasting archives this is an exceptional collection. Radharc was Ireland’s most important independent documentary production unit, and outside of RTÉ this collection is Ireland’s largest of a single television series. Covering almost 40 years its value is broad. My own research looks specifically at what it tells us about Irish secularisation. However it is also a mine of information on TV history and religious history. Radharc footage is routinely used by filmmakers as a record of change in Irish culture and for scholars these hundreds of interviews with everyone from Irish travellers to theologians, from sociologists to guerrilla fighters, capture key changes in how Irish people saw the world. Given how intimate the film unit was with the Catholic Church, the access the IFI Irish Film Archive provides to these reams of personal correspondence is rather special, with none of the delays associated with some church archives.My research was carried out between 2010 and 2014 under a unique scholarship put together by the IFI Irish Film Archive, the Radharc Trust and UCD. The first two years were spent in the archive where for three days a week I would catalogue the 650 files which accompany the Radharc film collection, copying anything relevant to my research, and transferring them to the archive’s preservation vaults. The rest of my weeks were spent viewing the programmes. In 2012 I left the archive to work on my thesis and four years and three months after my first day in the archive I got my Ph.D.

This partnership between the IFI Irish Film Archive, UCD and the Radharc Trust has now successfully concluded. Radharc’s paper collection has been comprehensively catalogued and an in-depth history of one of Ireland’s longest running television series been produced. To celebrate that fact I’ve decided to put together a list of the top 10 tips for any researcher adventurous enough to take on a long-term project of this nature. Enjoy!

Matthew McAteer Ph.D.

Matthew's tips for Ph.D. researchers embarking on a project...

1. Treat your role as a normal job. Maintaining full-time hours can help to integrate the long-term researcher into a working archive.

2.  Interview anyone connected with your subject, right off the mark. I came within a hare’s breadth of a former Radharc director at a function and told myself to wait until I was more firmed up on the history. He had passed away before I got a chance.                                        

3. Don’t wait for the paper collection to ‘speak to you’, photocopying every document you can get your hands on for the first year. Narrow things down, develop a general thesis and stick to it (it’s harder than it sounds).

4. Don’t photocopy anything if you are permitted to use a camera instead. My eureka moment came over a year in when on a visit to another archive I saw a researcher doing just that. 

5. Begin with the documents which give you an insight into the personalities involved. Notes of meetings and personal correspondence take priority over programme scripts, cue sheets, invoices etc. 

6. Don’t try to watch every episode. If you are researching a long-running series, start chronologically and then narrow your viewing down as the thesis topic takes shape.

7. Book your archive viewings well in advance. Don’t be blathering ‘can I use the, erm, beta-player today ... tomorrow, I mean ... ah, shur look I’m grand for now, gulp!' 

8. Don’t ask to view things on actual film if at all possible. Stick to whatever viewing tapes are there. 
9. Don’t start transcribing anything. It’s great to have a transcript of illegible handwriting for easy reference but it just takes too long. And no, you are not going to get an undergraduate to volunteer their services.  

10. Don’t waste your time researching film technologies unless crucial. I have oodles of notes on cameras, film stock, audio recorders etc which I never used in the end.

View our online exhibition of the Radharc Document and Film Collection held at the IFI Irish Film Archive.

The call for entries to The Radharc Awards 2014 is now open.

The author’s Ph.D. thesis “A Programme about Religion: Radharc and the Secularisation of Irish Society, 1959-1996” was formally ratified by University College Dublin in July 2014.