National Library ‘on our way back up’, says director

Five-year plan involves revamping building and connecting with a global audience

Director of the National Library of Ireland Sandra Collins: “With physical artefacts, it invokes the physical, emotional and spiritual in a way that digital can never do.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Director of the National Library of Ireland Sandra Collins: “With physical artefacts, it invokes the physical, emotional and spiritual in a way that digital can never do.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

The National Library of Ireland will today launch its new five-year strategy at its imposing premises next door to Leinster House on Kildare Street.

The launch comes at a pivotal moment in the library’s 140-year existence. After seven years of cuts, during which its annual budgets fell from a high of almost €12 million in 2008 to a low of under €7 million, and the loss of a quarter of its staff, the NLI is now embarking on a process of renewal, according to its director Sandra Collins. “We’re on our way back up.”

Ten new posts have been advertised this year, most of which are now filled, and a badly-needed €10 million renovation is due to get under way in 2017. Underpinning all this is the new strategy, which builds on the library’s mission statement – “to collect, protect and share the material that comprises Ireland’s literary and documentary heritage” – and lays out core principles and key objectives from now until 2021.

Exciting time

The early 21st century is proving a surprisingly exciting time for libraries. Rather than being supplanted by the internet, as some expected, world-class institutions such as the British Library in London and the Bodleian in Oxford have found new ways to fulfil their role in the digital age.

The goals remain the same, but the means of pursuing them are changing. Old buildings are being reconfigured for modern needs, digital archives are being built, and libraries are using new technologies to reach out to the communities they serve. “What 2016 has shown is there’s an appetite for engaging with our heritage and our culture in Ireland, ” said Collins.

The NLI’s five strategic priorities for 2016-21 are to “collect, protect, connect, innovate and collaborate.”

Collins said each one carried its own challenges. The practicalities of collection are changing, she said, pointing to the library’s most significant recent acquisition, the WB Yeats collection of draft poems, correspondence and books. “It’s an amazing archive. But if we look at the writers of today, what form will their archive be in? Will it come on a memory stick?”

The protection of the collection involves the crucial long-term project of digitising all its contents along with the more immediate imperative of making safe the existing five stories of book stacks, which will be moved from the west wing to what are currently the public areas in the east wing.

“We’re going to take everything out and switch the collection to the east wing, which is structurally more solid,” said Collins. “So our public spaces will be nearer the road, which is much more logical.”

Lovers of the gracious Reading Room will be relieved to hear it is not going to be interfered with.

In addition to making the building a space to which more people are drawn – a doubling of visitor numbers by 2021 is planned – the huge potential of connecting with a global audience is illustrated by projects such as the library’s online publication last year of centuries of Catholic parish records.

Emotional and spiritual

“I don’t think we will ever replace the physical with the digital,” said Collins. “With physical artefacts, it invokes the physical, emotional and spiritual in a way that digital can never do.”

She agreed the strategic goals would only be met if resources were made available. The preamble to the strategy document calls for funding to be “regularised towards historic levels as Government finances improve”. However, that would still leave Ireland well behind comparable institutions elsewhere; the National Library of Scotland, for example, employs twice as many staff.

“It’s an objective fact that we’ve been underfunded in comparison,” said Collins. “What I don’t think works is whingeing. But we are very disproportionate in our staff numbers. When I came into the job, there were so many people with so many good ideas, but we kept running into the wall of ‘who’s going to do that?’ it raises that question of what the country really thinks of our literary heritage. Are we just paying lip service to it?”

She describes herself, though, as “a huge optimist” for the future of the library as a living public space and as a globally available resource.

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