We must resist merging of our cultural institutions

 

OPINION:Lumping vital institutions in with quangos should offend anyone taking culture or history seriously

THE BUREAUCRAT barbarians are at the gates of the National Library of Ireland and they need to be resisted.

At the end of last year, the Government made much noise about public sector reform plans for State agencies and quangos, including the merging of the National Library, the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission, supposedly while retaining their separate identities. Since then, the institutions involved have received no clarity on what this will involve and no indication that any serious thought has been given to the consequences.

Crucially, given that the suggested “reforms” are supposed to be for the purposes of cost-cutting, no information whatsoever has been offered as to how these proposed changes will save money.

The very idea of lumping these vital institutions in with quangos should offend anyone who takes culture or history seriously. A Government that maintains it is serious about heritage, archives and commemoration a century on from the events that led to the foundation of this State, has instead left itself open to the criticism that, in the words of Senator Fiach Mac Conghail last week, it is creating “a tsunami of desecration or potential undermining of the whole cultural infrastructure of our nation”.

It is particularly tragic that this should be happening in a country that witnessed the cultural vandalism of the Four Courts fire at the start of the Civil War in 1922. This led to the destruction of hundreds of years of documented Irish history, meaning that the work carried out by our libraries and archives is even more vital.

I resigned from the National Library board last week in order to highlight these issues. In doing so, I was conscious of the words in the late 1970s of one of my predecessors in UCD, Robert Dudley Edwards who, during that decade, worked tirelessly and successfully to generate awareness about archives and heritage and to persuade politicians that they needed to take them seriously.

He was adamant that historians “need to express themselves in no uncertain terms about historical heritage and matters relating to preservation and availability of sources”.

I make no apology for following his advice, also for speaking out on the proposed removal of history as a core mandatory subject at Junior Cert level. All of these issues are linked and, collectively, a test of the Government’s genuine commitment to the preservation, promotion and accessibility of history.

Battles over the autonomy and status of our cultural bodies are nothing new. The Irish Manuscripts Commission might not have the profile of some of the other institutions, but it is because of its creation in 1928 to preserve documents in the aftermath of the Four Courts fire that Irish history today is being written nationally and internationally through the analysis of primary sources.

In the 1930s, bureaucrats in the Department of Finance had their own preferred alternative to supporting it financially – its abolition.

The department’s determination to micro-manage every aspect of the commission’s work was resisted, but it was clear that officials involved believed archivists and historians did not know the value of money. A similar mindset seems to prevail now and it is, once again, misguided.

The merger of archives and libraries needs investment rather than offering a chance to save money; the merger of the archives and library in Canada, for example, cost Can$15 million. No one in the National Archives and National Library objects to the idea of shared resources or co-operating in common fields of interest – this is already happening – but the two bodies perform very different functions.

The library has custody of our great literary and estate manuscript collections and is a world-famous repository with links to people such as Joyce, WB Yeats and many other writers and scholars who used its majestic reading room and often donated valuable manuscript collections to its care. It has been a State-sponsored body, governed by a board, since 2005, under the provisions of the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997.

It is one of our finest national cultural institutions, and a huge scholarly and public resource. The focus of the National Archives is solely on archives, most of them the files of government departments which are quite different kinds of records to manuscript collections, with different preservation, processing and accessibility requirements.

The slashing of the National Library budget has been disproportionate; from 2008 to 2012 its funding has been cut by 40 per cent and its staff by 38 per cent.

In spite of this, it has delivered on key aspects of public service reform and innovation. It hosted 1.2 million visitors last year, has promoted shared services, curated major exhibitions and made vast amounts of material available online, most recently the James Joyce papers, as well as organising the recent collection of first World War material where members of the public could gather in the library – their space – and share and donate aspects of our heritage for posterity.

But this debate is not just about money. It is about autonomous governance, public ownership and resisting the further centralisation of arts and culture administration in Ireland, which is already ridiculously excessive. Last Saturday in this newspaper, Dermot Bolger eloquently underlined the importance of libraries in our society as welcoming and democratic spaces where we are citizens, not consumers.

It has been made clear to the library that what is being considered is the abolition of an autonomous board overseeing its governance.

Surely if the Government was serious about reform in this area, it would do the opposite, by allowing genuine, autonomous and transparent governance of the cultural institutions, with unpaid board members who are independent of party politics and experts in their fields. It should value independent advice rather than seeking to eliminate it and micro-manage complex institutions with rich histories (the National Library dates back to 1877) under the guise of cost cutting.

Who will benefit from these proposed mergers, and by extension the abolition of autonomous governance of cultural institutions? It will certainly not be the taxpayers and the users of these institutions.

Those in power will have undermined the very thing we need to prize and cherish at a time of national crisis – the robust, independent protection of our culture and history, a history that is founded on its libraries and archives and the preservation of its public and private documents.


Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD

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