Let sleeping dogs lie

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), News, Volume 17

The reading room of the National Library, Kildare Street, Dublin. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the concept of a combined national library and archive.

The reading room of the National Library, Kildare Street, Dublin. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the concept of a combined national library and archive.

Buried in the small print of the recent budget was an announcement that the government intends to merge the National Library (NLI), the National Archives (NAI) and the Irish Manuscripts Commission (IMC).
Reaction was muted: opponents of the ‘plan’ could hardly compete with the ignited passions of the nation’s septuagenarians facing imminent loss of their medical cards. In the circumstances, perhaps the most eloquent denunciation of the proposal came from the pen of the doyen of Irish medievalists, Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin, in a letter published in The Irish Times on 20 October last and quoted in last issue’s editorial:

‘The library and archives are not quangos, but venerable anchor institutions of Irish culture . . . Merging these three institutions will save no money: there is none to spare, if we intend to have national institutions of learning as do all but the very poorest states. This plan will add a new and costly layer of administration, incur serious legal expenses, mix like with unlike, cause institutional and personal conflict, distract meagre staff from their work; and in the end the State will pay more for less.’

If the proposal goes ahead it can hardly be doubted that Ó Corráin’s prediction will prove accurate in every respect.
That said, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the concept of a combined national library and archive that would inter alia also undertake the task of preserving and publishing manuscripts of national interest. There has been no international precedent for this, however, until four years ago, when Canada unveiled LAC (Library and Archives Canada), a merger of its two main repositories. A more modest transformation had taken place in the UK in 2003, when The National Archives (TNA) was formed following the merger of the Public Record Office (PRO) and the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HRC).
So merger is definitely in the air, and no doubt someone used the British and Canadian models in coming up with our government’s proposal. The problem is that there is a big difference between Britain’s Historical Manuscripts Commission and ours, and not just in scale. Whereas the remit of the PRO in London was to survey and publish official papers, the HRC was concerned with family and institutional records; bringing the two together in the TNA made some sense because they perfectly complemented each other.
Our National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission do not complement each other in this way. The NAI is not a repository limited to official papers and it has had a restricted role in publication. On the other hand, when the Manuscripts Commission was founded in the dark days of 1928, its brief extended to all ‘manuscripts and papers of literary, historical and general interest relating to Ireland’, and it has been fundamentally committed to their publication.
Because of the hard choices and prioritising involved in selecting material to be edited and printed, the Manuscripts Commission depends heavily on a board of specialists in Irish medieval studies and modern history. If it is to lose its board and be submerged in a combined national library and archive, it is hard to envisage its maintaining a capacity to function separately, and the publication of the kind of resources to which it has devoted its energies over the last 80 years—that is to say, everything from collections of Irish material in the papal registers in the Vatican to Irish state papers from Elizabeth I’s reign, the proceedings of Grattan’s parliament and the correspondence of Daniel O’Connell—is effectively at an end.
So, Ireland is not about to replicate the relatively happy experiences of the UK and Canada—in both of which cases the ‘new improved’ product was rolled out in spanking new purpose-built headquarters and, in nearly every respect, with increased resources. For the object of the exercise in the Irish case is openly about nothing more than saving money.
The line minister (for Arts, Sport and Tourism), Martin Cullen, has stated by way of a press release that ‘legislation will be brought forward to effect these amalgamations, and the governance, management, employment and administrative arrangements to realise them would be put in place as soon as it is feasible’. He added that he is ‘confident that the fusion of these organisations will lead to economies of scale and costs, and an enhancement of what they have on offer for the tourist, user and student’.
But is this likely? Let’s take the case of the Irish Manuscripts Commission. Its resources are confined to a board whose members don’t get paid, the use of a couple of rooms in 45 Merrion Square, and one part-time member of staff—repeat, one part-time member of staff! The minister will pay for the costs of drafting legislation and steering that bill through the Oireachtas, and when the new act receives presidential approval—estimates of the cost of this whole process vary widely, but it may be up to €2 million—he will then put into operation the new governance and management structures.
Minister Cullen is confident that this will lead to ‘economies of scale and costs’. But this is self-delusion, unless the part-time staff member currently, say, half a full-time employee becomes a third or a quarter of a full-timer. True, the disbandment of the IMC’s board would lead to a reduction in the expenses bill (for members’ train fares, tea and biscuits), and perhaps the Commission could lose a room. But no change to the IMC along these lines is remotely likely to produce the ‘enhancement of what they have on offer’ that the minister hopes for.
In fact, in order to thrive, the Commission needs a strong, independent board, comprised at least partly of members with a track record in the specialist employment of manuscripts and the publication of primary sources; it needs better facilities; and no one can doubt that it needs more rather than fewer staff (e.g. one full-time employee rather than half an employee).
If the country is in the proverbial state of chassis, and if the government’s overriding priority has to be, for now, saving rather than spending money, then clearly there is only one thing for it: let sleeping dogs lie.  HI

Seán Duffy lectures in medieval history at Trinity College, Dublin.

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