Culture Shock: A catalogue of disasters: what’s in store at the National Library

What should be one of the most attractive jobs in Ireland is one that any sane and suitable person would think twice about accepting

Read it and weep: the reading room at the National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street, where the new director will be required to ‘consider more diverse ranges of funding sources’

Read it and weep: the reading room at the National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street, where the new director will be required to ‘consider more diverse ranges of funding sources’


To get a sense of the crisis in our national cultural institutions, ask a simple question: who will be the next director of the National Library of Ireland? As of today the job is vacant. Fiona Ross, who has guided the institution steadily through five very rough years, retired yesterday. The closing date for applications for the post was Thursday. We can only hope that among the applicants is someone who combines the attributes of a saint and a genius. What should be one of the most attractive jobs in Ireland is one that any sane and suitable person would think twice about accepting.

The job requires a rare combination of cultural nous, managerial capacity and bureaucratic wiliness. Where would you look for such a person? Most obviously among the pool of Irish or Irish-connected people who run big public or university libraries. Or perhaps there is an ambitious young deputy at a national library in the EU. Or maybe there’s someone, like Fiona Ross, who works in the private sector and whose managerial talents might outweigh a lack of library or cultural experience.

So let’s assume you’re one of these people. The first thing you look at is the salary. The job starts at €85,000 a year and could rise to €98,000 after five years. That’s by no means penurious, but it means that anyone who would be a prime candidate would probably be taking a pay cut. The University College Dublin librarian’s salary, for example, starts at €114,000 and reaches €146,000. The National Library job, moreover, is a five-year contract with no job security and limited pension rights. If you were, say, a 40-year-old deputy at a European national library, you’d probably be looking at moving with your family to one of the most expensive cities in Europe with a likelihood of being unemployed when you’re 45.

It is worth noting that the €85,000 starting salary is below the level of the Government’s salary cap, for its advisers, of €87,000. Of course that cap has been breached by Ministers for their sidekicks who couldn’t be asked to live on such low pay. This tells any potential directors of the National Library a lot about where they will sit in the national pecking order.

Let’s assume, however, that you’re prepared to take a pay cut. Perhaps you want to do something for the country, or perhaps you see it as a chance to make your mark before you move on to higher things. So you look past the salary and examine the specifications for the job. The role of the National Library is “to collect, promote and make accessible the documentary and intellectual record of the life of Ireland and to contribute to the provision of access to the larger universe of recorded knowledge”. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Except, as you dig down into the official spec, you’ll start to wonder how much time will be devoted to doing it.

The first thing you’ll discover is that you have no money to do anything. The current budget of €8 million is spent on keeping it open. There is no budget, not a red cent, for acquisitions. Bizarrely, the job spec treats the acquisition of new books and manuscripts as an optional extra, suggesting the director should have “an eye to fostering and adding to” the national collections “as appropriate”.

The library struggles even to catalogue the material it already has. The brilliant exhibitions it mounted on James Joyce and then on WB Yeats were to be the start of a rolling exhibitions programme, but there’s no money for that either. The Yeats exhibition, which was to run for a year, has been up for four years because there’s no money to replace it.

The second thing you’ll find is that this is not going to get any better. The job spec effectively warns the prospective director that the Government has no intention of substantially increasing funding over the five-year term. The new director will be required to “consider more diverse ranges of funding sources through commercial opportunities and development of collaborations with partners in the public and private sectors”. Or, to put it another way, the core job of the new director is that of a fundraiser. The director will be expected to “exploit the potential of the Library to generate income including the potential to attract sponsorship and philanthropy of various kinds”.

To fundraiser you can add industrial relations manager and political operator. The “very challenging change management agenda” promised in the ad for the job holds out the delightful prospect of endless hours of union negotiations. And applicants are also warned that “proposals to amend the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997 are currently being developed”, which means a new director will take up the job not knowing what the Government’s intentions for the governance, independence and status of the library might be.

It may be, of course that some world-class person is willing to take a pay cut, raise the money to run the library, and have infinite patience for industrial relations and dealing with a Government that has shown contempt for the cultural sector – before even dealing with the actual job of developing the collections. If so, they should be hired as soon as they get the all-clear from the psychiatrists.

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