Letters published in the Irish Times about the National Library of Ireland
(November 2012 – February 2013)
3 NOVEMBER 2012
Sir, – In a statement issued on October 31st which has so far received little press attention, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin announced the Government’s decision to abolish the board of the National Library of Ireland and return the library to within the civil service structure in which it languished before the coming into effect of the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997. I write, as a member of the statutory Readers Advisory Committee of the Library, to protest against this retrograde step.
When the National Cultural Institutions Act was being debated in the Seanad in 1996, it was described by the then Minister for Arts, Michael D Higgins (now, of course, our President), as representing “one of the most significant legislative initiatives, in cultural heritage terms, that the Irish State has undertaken since its foundation”. Its aim, according to Mr Higgins, was “to establish a modern legislative structure within which our major cultural institutions [including the National Library] could be enabled to thrive”.
He went on to say that “autonomy provided by means of statutorily established boards will give these institutions greater discretion and accountability over the handling of budgets; some flexibility over personnel resources; stronger powers to develop policies on acquisitions, the holding of exhibitions and integrating these important institutions into the national culture”.
I believe the National Library of Ireland, under the two boards which have served since the 1997 Act was brought into effect in 2005, has fulfilled the promise of which Mr Higgins spoke. The progress which the library has made in these years is in marked contrast to the preceding decades of under-resourcing, inactivity and neglect when the library was part of the civil service structure, most notoriously in the hands – more accurately, at the mercy – of successive ministers for education.
To return the library to that earlier, failed administrative framework is the greatest folly. It will exacerbate the immense difficulties which the library is already facing with very severe, indeed disproportionate, cutbacks in budgets and staffing. The National Library of Ireland is the worst resourced national library in Europe and is, in some respects, less well resourced than some of our county libraries.
How can any Government which professes to value our cultural heritage defend such deplorable circumstances? The National Library is the key repository for the materials required for research into our past and our cultural heritage. The oversight of the library’s activities by a board, accountable to but independent of the Government, guarantees that priority is given to the public interest in facilitating such research and that issues of vital importance to scholars and others concerned with the development of an understanding of our culture and history are not lost in bureaucratic obfuscation or short-term political agendas.
The board is there to protect this public interest, and the library as an institution and the quality of the service it provides will be greatly weakened by its abolition.
Future generations will curse this Government for compounding the errors of their predecessors by what is, in effect, an act of gross cultural sabotage, perpetrated – and what an irony this is – in the name of “balancing the books”.
Incidentally, it is not at all clear how savings are to be realised by this measure as I understand the board had agreed to serve on a pro bono basis. Certainly, the purported savings have not been spelt out by the Government.
Edmund Burke wrote that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, and it is in this spirit that I feel it necessary to highlight the damage that is being done to the National Library – an institution which, I believe, is deeply valued by the people of Ireland.
Yours, etc., FELIX M LARKIN
13 NOVEMBER 2012
Sir, – I would like to endorse Felix Larkin’s trenchant critique of the Government’s recent decision to abolish the National Library’s board and take over management of that splendid institution. His cogent and well-informed letter (November 2nd) stresses the utter “folly” of entrusting the library’s affairs to a bureaucracy that knows little or nothing about what transpires daily inside those hallowed precincts on Kildare Street.
I write on the basis of more than 50 years’ experience of reading and writing in the NLI. In fact, I could never have completed any of my books and articles on Irish history without its marvellous resources and all kinds of help from the friendly staff. Over the years I have watched the library’s gradual emergence from the dark ages of the 1950s and 1960s and its transformation into an efficient, benevolent, refurbished, and even computerised institution. To my delight it took a mere five minutes for a book to be delivered to my desk. In recent years – especially under the enlightened leadership of Brendan O’Donoghue – the quality of the library staff as well as the hospitable ambience reached a peak. Since then, ominous budget cuts have eroded those wonderful services while reducing opening hours and greatly increasing the length of book delivery.
To quote that estimable Irishman, Mr Murphy: “If a thing ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. In my opinion the only thing that needs fixing in the NLI is the budget that has shrunk in size over the last few years. Of course, the bottom line is money – hardly a surprise in these hard times. Nevertheless the NLI does not deserve to become a sacrificial lamb simply because it is a centre of cultural production rather than a producer of stout or computers or pharmaceuticals. Continued under-financing of the NLI is bound to result in not only more layoffs, but also a further decline in readers and services.
As Mr Larkin points out, the NLI is now “the worst resourced library in Europe”. That sobering pronouncement should be a cause of huge embarrassment to the Government as well as the nation. Quite rightly he declares that the NLI is “deeply valued by the people of Ireland.” To this truism I must add my conviction that scholars of Irish history, literature, and culture around the world also hold the NLI in high esteem.
Their profound indebtedness to the NLI and their concern for the wellbeing and autonomy of this national treasure should not be ignored when contemplating any scheme of managerial reform.
Yours, etc., L. PERRY CURTIS Jr, Emeritus Professor of History, Brown University, North Pomfret, Vermont, USA
5 DECEMBER 2012
Sir, – Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan’s defence of his proposed emasculation of the National Library and the National Museum (Opinion, December 3rd) is an almost comical example of Orwellian doublethink.
He describes as “reforms” a package of measures which, in fact, would undo the very real reforms effected by the Cultural Institutions Act 1997. That act freed the library and the museum from the control of the civil service in which they had been shamefully neglected for decades. Mr Deenihan now wishes to return them to that failed administrative structure, and to abolish the boards and advisory committees which guarantee their integrity as centres of scholarly pursuit.
He claims that abolishing these boards and committees will save “some €350,000 per annum based on 2011 figures”, but this is misleading. The members of the boards and committees have agreed to serve on a pro bono basis, so the savings in question have already been realised.
Mr Deenihan needs a better justification than that for abolishing the boards.
Yours, etc., FELIX M. LARKIN
7 JANUARY 2013
Sir, – It is most depressing to note that Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan refuses to respond in any meaningful way to the near-universal rejection of his plan for the National Library and National Museum by the academic community in Ireland (News Agenda, January 3rd). He appeals to us to give his plan a chance to work, but he doesn’t seem to recognise that his plan is to revert to the failed administrative structure which was reformed by the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997 that he now proposes to dismantle. In other words, his plan has been tried and has failed.
He also persists in providing misleading figures for the costs of the boards of the National Library and National Museum: he quotes historic 2011 figures, not current figures. The current figures would reflect the fact that the members of these boards have agreed to serve on a pro bono basis, and so the bulk of the savings which he seeks have already been achieved without the retrograde step of abolishing the boards.
The boards are essential in order to preserve the independence of these vital cultural institutions. Moreover, if (as he claims) Mr Deenihan wants to encourage philanthropic support from the private sector for the National Library and National Museum, I suggest that such support is much less likely to be forthcoming if these institutions are lost in the miasma of the civil service. Strong, independent and accountable corporate structures are necessary in order to attract philanthropic interest.
Yours, etc., FELIX M LARKIN
11 FEBRUARY 2013
Sir, – I write on behalf of the professional staff of the National Library of Ireland who are members of Impact to express our concerns about the proposed reform of the National Library. We are in agreement with recent commentators and correspondents to this newspaper (Fintan O’Toole, Michael Ryan and Felix M Larkin) in their negative assessment of the decision by the Minister for Arts to abolish the board of the National Library and replace it with an advisory council serving both the National Library and the National Museum.
Reform of the library was undertaken in 2005 when it became a semi-state body. The National Cultural Institutions Act (1997) legislated for this to enable the library to work independently, with its own board. A great deal of time and effort were expended by civil servants and library staff to bring its provisions into effect. It seems a waste of scarce public resources to attempt to undo this work, with little prospect of any real gain and, probably, considerable loss.
The National Library and the National Museum have entirely different functions, with no natural connection. The National Library collects and makes accessible the printed, manuscript and visual record of the life of the nation and is meeting the demands of the digital era by digitising its own collections and by capturing born-digital material. It is vital that the National Library be able to maintain and promote its own identity and autonomy to attract the philanthropic funding now necessary to carry out its mission.
The National Library will always require a core of funding to carry out the day-to-day work of acquiring, processing and preserving publications and historic documentary material. It has suffered a decline of 85 per cent in purchasing power since 2008. Its overall budget has been cut by 44 per cent in the same period. This compares to the 28 per cent cut imposed on the other cultural institutions. We fear this trend will worsen under the governance structure proposed.
The current proposal cannot adequately serve the National Library, the National Museum or the citizens of the State.
Yours, etc., MATT STAUNTON, National Secrteary, Services & Enterprise Division, Impact Trade Union, Nerney’s Court, Dublin 1