Archives in crisis

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/June 2010), News, Volume 18

‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
(George Orwell)


78_small_1274199265This is Ireland in 2010, not Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nonetheless, Orwell’s dystopian vision has much to teach a society, such as ours, that professes to be democratic. Freedom of access to the records of the state is a core value in a properly functioning democracy. The relationship between present, future and past in such a society is not controlled by governments or mandarin policy-makers. Rather it is mediated and moulded by the citizenry at large, in all its bewildering diversity.
This may seem an elementary principle, but Ireland is in danger of forgetting it amid the current general crisis. In the budget of October 2008, the Irish government unveiled a proposal to merge the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) and the Irish Manuscripts Commission (IMC) into the National Library of Ireland (NLI). The only rationale provided for this ghastly move was ‘rationalisation’. Reaction was muted, the public being understandably preoccupied by bread-and-butter issues. In the eighteen months since, the merger has received only intermittent attention in the media and wider intellectual community. In the world of party politics it has scarcely registered at all.
Contrast the situation in New Zealand. On 25 March 2010 the NZ government declared its intention to integrate the country’s national archives and library. The plan was immediately denounced as ‘a blow to the accountability of the state’ by ARANZ (Archives and Records Association of New Zealand). The controversy has captured the attention of the NZ media and opposition parties. In the antipodes, at least, there seems to be widespread recognition that an independent national archive is a prerequisite for transparency in government.
‘Archives in Crisis’—a symposium held in the Robert Emmet Theatre, Trinity College, Dublin, on Saturday 10 April 2010—was organised in the hope of igniting a debate on archives in Ireland. Catriona Crowe (NAI), Fintan O’Toole (Irish Times) and Eunan O’Halpin (TCD) were invited to set out their visions for the future of archives in Irish society. The three brief presentations were followed by an hour-long open forum moderated by Diarmaid Ferriter. An audience of over 200 archivists, historians, librarians and genealogists filled the lecture theatre beyond capacity. Members of the public travelled from counties Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Cork, Derry, Galway, Kerry, Kildare, Limerick, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Roscommon, Sligo, Westmeath and Wicklow. The numbers offer dramatic proof that archival policy is not some ‘anorak’ issue. Rather, as Ferriter put it in his opening remarks, the archives crisis is one of national importance and must be discussed in those terms.
Clearly there is a tremendous appetite for debate. Why, then, has that debate been slow to take off? An answer may be the control of information. On the day New Zealand announced its merger, cabinet papers were released online by the government in Wellington, explaining the decision and providing some details of what it intends to do. In Ireland no substantive information concerning the projected merger is yet in the public domain, despite freedom of information (FoI) requests submitted by the Irish region of the Society of Archivists. This is so remarkable that it bears repeating. After eighteen months, we simply do not know and cannot discover what the merger is going to entail. ‘Proactive obfuscation’ seems to have replaced ‘proactive disclosure’ as the operative principle of FoI.
The one body that should be in the know is the National Archives Advisory Council (NAAC). Since 2007 the government has been in breach of statute by not appointing a chairperson of the NAAC. Without a chair, its members cannot convene and cannot advise. It is not hard to guess why the NAAC has been put to sleep. One of many inconvenient truths that its members might have brought to the minister’s attention (raised at the symposium by Catriona Crowe) is the existence of a 1974 interdepartmental committee report produced by the Department of the Public Service. This examined the case for a merger but ruled it out firmly ‘on grounds of distinct differences in the disciplines of archival science and librarianship, and serious problems with regard to space for an amalgamated entity’. The impetus for ‘Archives in Crisis’ came from the proposed merger. So imagine for a moment that the government performs an inelegant, but not unprecedented, volte-face. Would that resolve the matter? Certainly not. The merger is merely one symptom of a wilful neglect of archives that has deep roots in Irish political culture.
Figures presented by Crowe convey this more eloquently than any polemic. The NAI is critically under-resourced. Its total staff of 45 compares with 90 in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The national archives of Scotland and Denmark (countries of comparable size to Ireland) each enjoy staffing levels four times higher than our own, with 160 and 180 staff respectively. The impact of this on the functions of the NAI is all too clear. The biscuit factory in Bishop Street (the NAI’s current accommodation) is now full. Only a small selection of papers from high-profile government departments are accessioned each year. ‘The National Archives is actually being forced to break the law’, Crowe told the meeting, ‘by not accepting all the state records with whose preservation and custodianship it is charged.’
What is true of the National Archives holds good for local archives throughout the country. This was demonstrated by Cecile Chemin, chairperson of the Society of Archivists Ireland, who named the seventeen counties and two cities (including the famous heritage city of Kilkenny) whose local authorities do not currently employ an archivist. Nor does the crisis end with the records of the state. Fintan O’Toole highlighted the plight of the archives of the country’s mental hospitals, such as Grangegorman, whose unbroken records, dating back to the early nineteenth century, offer a unique view of Ireland’s ‘culture of incarceration’. The institutions that generated these precious documents are being closed down, but there is no statutory protection for their archives. O’Toole argued that by consigning these records to oblivion the country is ‘continuing to forget in death those who were forgotten in life’.
The energy generated by the symposium was almost tangible. The challenge is to channel that energy constructively. The meeting concluded with a proposal for the formation of an action committee comprised of nominees from groups representing the various interested sectors—including the Society of Archivists Ireland, the Irish Society for Archives, the Royal Irish Academy, the Committee of Irish Historical Sciences, the Association of Professional Genealogists of Ireland and the Council of Irish Genealogical Organizations—and an independent chairperson who will represent the public interest.
This committee must set itself ambitious but achievable goals. Catriona Crowe’s six-point vision for Irish archives in 2022 offers a starting point:

(1)    A revised National Archives Act providing for the preservation of the records of semi-state, health and religious institutions, as well as the records of departments of state.
(2)    A custom-built facility capable of meeting the NAI’s statutory obligations, with sufficient space to last into the 22nd century.
(3)    An expansion in staffing levels to bring the NAI into line with other national archives services in countries of similar population size.
(4)    Concerted, coordinated and properly resourced provision for the preservation of the state’s electronic (‘born-digital’) record heritage, already in considerable danger of loss.
(5)    A fully resourced education service, which can provide for the needs of the primary, secondary, undergraduate and postgraduate sectors, and for lifelong learning.
(6)    A fully resourced digitisation unit, to continue the provision of free access to the country’s records on the world-wide web.

Freedom of access to archives is a litmus test for democracy. Access can only be guaranteed by supporting the underlying infrastructure and processes basic to archival science: accession, appraisal, preservation. Remember, too, that the Irish state was established amid the ultimate act of archival ‘rationalisation’: the Four Courts blaze of 1922. The new minister, Mary Hanafin, has a reputation for historical sensitivity and strategic action. The minister should look forward to the year 2022 and, after meaningful public consultation, set out a plan for achieving the type of national archives that Ireland deserves. There could be no better way to mark the centenary of the nation’s great archival tragedy.  HI

Peter Crooks is Deputy Director of the Irish Chancery Project, Department of History, Trinity College, Dublin. 


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