The National Library has bolted
Just over a year ago the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht organised a great genealogical jamboree in the National Library, bringing together everyone involved in Irish family history in an effort to thrash out a common approach. A policy document prompted by the meeting is apparently still ripening slowly inside the Department. In the meantime, however, the Library itself has bolted. It has just issued an extraordinary request for tender (see tinyurl.ie/agw), seeking a partner to digitise not just genealogical records – primarily parish registers, commercial directories and electoral registers– but also its huge collections of journals, newspapers and photographs.
On the face of it, this is rational and familiar. In the UK the British Library and National Archives have teamed up with ancestry.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk: the private companies bear the entire cost of digitising original records held by the institutions, in return for which the companies have an exclusive but time-limited licence to make the digital versions available online as part of their commercial services. Everyone wins. For researchers, the pain of payment is more than balanced by the accessibility and transparency that digitisation provides. The original records are better conserved because they are no longer being handled.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Library’s treasures were available, not just to those who can visit Kildare Street, but to everyone on the planet? Unfortunately this is Ireland, where nothing ever does exactly what it says on the tin. The tender positively stamps on the toes of a whole host of special interests, political, clerical, local government, bureaucratic …
The Library must have known just how much opposition it would provoke. So why issue the tender? Is it an effort to forestall Department policy? An attempt to cut the Gordian knot of petty politicking? A cry for help? Or can they really think it’s possible to do something sensible and honest in Ireland in the common interest?
['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]