Want to hear about a daft idea that deserves to be shelved?


CULTURE SHOCK:A plan resurrected from the 2008 budget by an anonymous bureaucrat has the potential to wreck two national cultural institutions that, far from being wasteful quangos, combine almost 450 years of our history

YOU MIGHT IMAGINE that when radical cutbacks are required, Government departments think very carefully about the nature and necessity of the public services they deliver. Well, perhaps. But mostly what happens is that civil servants draw up lists. They have to produce proposals, any proposals. And one of the things that happens under this pressure is that silly, cranky notions that have been mouldering in bottom drawers are dragged out, spruced up and presented as bright ideas. One of these daft notions re-emerged this week, and it has the potential to wreck two important national cultural institutions.

In 2008, some anonymous figure in the Department of Finance came up with the idea of merging the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives of Ireland. It says much about the way government works in Ireland that we don’t know whose brain was rocked by this particular storm. Nor do we know what research they did to determine the costs and benefits of the proposed merger, still less its likely effects on the delivery of the services these institutions provide to the public. The Society of Archivists, which represents professionals in the field in Britain and Ireland, made several attempts under Freedom of Information legislation to get the documents that outline the rationale for the proposal. No documents were produced. It is a reasonable inference that they do not exist.

The lack of any rationale and the absence of consultation did not, however, prevent the merger from becoming the stated policy of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government, for which, as we know, such considerations were incomprehensible. There was public concern about quangos. Something had to be seen to be done. Even though neither the National Library nor the National Archives is a quango (both are statutorily established national cultural institutions), the notion of merging them was floating around. So it was seized on by a floundering government and included in the 2008 budget speech.

The problem was that it was impossible to find anyone at all to tell us why this was a good idea. The obvious reason to do it would be to save money. But it’s impossible to see how a merger can save a penny. The institutions have very different functions, so there’s no evidence of duplication. We can’t close one building and cram everything into the other one – both the library and the archive have severely lacked space for decades. It could be imagined, in principle, that some kind of shared specialist storage space could be created, but that would cost money, not save it. (The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has spent £30 million on a new archives repository.) At the moment, both institutions have a crisis in secure storage. Putting two crises together is hardly a way to ensure more efficient delivery of public services.

The idea of a merger might have some basis if one of two things were the case. The first would be a grand plan to create a big, new prestige institution. Canada did this in 2004, with a huge new complex in Ottawa. There are decidedly mixed views on whether the project has been successful.

But, in any event, this is not at all what the Government here has in mind. It is looking to retract, not to expand.

The other condition that might make sense of a merger would be if the National Library and National Archives were bloated, inefficient, badly run organisations. As a user of both institutions over the years, I can say from experience that nothing could be further from the reality. Historically, both were starved of basic funding. (The historian Donnchadh Ó Corráin has pointed out that the National Library is a fifth of the size of the National Library of Wales and about the same size as that of Albania.) The boom years brought decidedly limited improvements: the library gained a decent exhibition space that it has used superbly.

Yet the staff of both institutions have been a pleasure to deal with, always committed to serving the public and making the store of common knowledge available to as many people as possible. The archives’ online project of digitising the 1901 and 1911 censuses and making them freely available to all citizens is arguably the single most successful public cultural project of the last 25 years.

There was, therefore, a general assumption that the 2008 merger proposal would be dropped by the new Government. This was, after all, a ridiculous argument. On the one side were the directors and staff of the two institutions, all the historians, genealogists and writers who use them, and all the relevant professional bodies. On the other, there was some bright spark in the Department of Finance who doesn’t know the difference between a library and an archive. No contest, surely. And yet here we are, back again with this ridiculous notion readopted as the policy of our new, reforming Government.

The joke is that this time the merger is being proposed as an example of “public-service reform”. Let’s just consider what that example is. Public-sector reform consists of asking service users what they want, setting clear aims for the delivery of public services and rigorously analysing the spending of public money to achieve those aims. The merger unticks every one of these boxes: ignore the wishes of the users and state no aims for delivery and conduct – not even the most basic analysis of costs and benefits. It is not an example of public-service reform but the epitome of an old, unreconstructed bureaucratic mentality.

For no good reason at all, therefore, the State is planning to abolish two of the cultural institutions it inherited at its birth. The National Archives was established, as the State Paper Office, in 1702. The National Library was founded in 1877. A merger, in whatever form it takes, will create some new body, wiping away almost 450 years of history. Two bits of the public service that actually work will be dismantled and the nation’s memory banks will be entrusted to some as yet unknown entity.

Given the sloppy and reckless decision-making through which this new entity is being conceived, it is hard to be optimistic about its future.