By Lisa-Marie Griffith
On Saturday over 250 archivists, archive readers, students, staff and researchers from across the humanities packed into Trinity’s arts block for the ‘Archives in Crisis’ symposium and they were just the ones who made it in. Every seat in the lecture theatre was taken and those who had not arrived early were lined up against the wall or forced to take a seat on the steps- ten minutes into the symposium the security staff were turning people away at the door. The overwhelming turn out on a beautifully sunny day confirms how seriously people feel about objecting to the planned government merger of the National Archives of Ireland into the National Library of Ireland.
Moderated by Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, historian of UCD, he thanked everyone for attending and Peter Crooks for organising the event and bringing everyone together. The first speaker was Catriona Crowe, chairperson of the archivist’s branch of IMPACT, who outlined the difficult position the NAI were currently in. Underfunded and with a staff of only 44 the archives are currently forced to limit their processing and archiving to only certain government departments and in January 2010 the archive announced that they could not process the files due to be opened to the public under the 30 year rule. Crowe compared the NAI staff numbers with their European counterparts. The archive runs with a quarter of the staff that the National archives of Scotland and Denmark- two countries with comparable population to Ireland. With just 44 members of staff the archive can not carry out all of the duties they are legally bound to uphold. She also spoke of what little thought had gone into the planned merger; no cost-analaysis of the proposed merger had been carried out and how the merger would end up costing the government millions. She said her trade union wanted three things; an examination and analysis of the government decision, a full independent cost analysis and that the civil servants involved in the decision read the 1974 inter-departmental National Archives report.
The next speaker was Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times an outspoken critic of the planned merger. O’Toole began stating that the difference between a tyranny and a democracy was that in a tyranny there is a predictable past, one which is laid down by the rulers and never challenged. In a democracy the past is always open to interpretation and constantly being rewritten. Freedom of information and actual access to that information is essential to the life and democracy of a country. O’Toole said that government decisions like this, back of the envelope decisions where cost analysis has not been carried out, had led to the deplorable state of the country and that it shows the idiocy of the sitting government.
The last panel speaker was Professor Eunan O’Halpin, historian of TCD, who opened saying he deplored the suggestion that consultants should be brought in to carry out a cost analysis and decide the fate of the archive as what they had to say was irrelevant. He said ‘you cannot simply say no’, but you need to do and create say something. The point of the day would be lost if a plan to go forward was not formulated.
The floor was then opened to comments and the following are some selected points that were made:
Cecil Chemin,The Chairperson of the Society of Archives spoke. She said there had been constant lobbying to the government on the issue of the NAI and that the only response they had received was confirmation of their letters. She also outlined how many city and county councils around Ireland currently had archives but who had no sitting archivists and she highlighted some of worst government-funded archives in Ireland.
Professor Louis Cullen spoke from the floor and said that he had experienced many government changes in archive policy and that the highest authority in government had to be lobbied.
Bill McCormack of the Worth Library was the first person of the day to speak about how this would affect the National Library of Ireland. As a librarian he said he had huge concerns for the printed works housed at the NLI.
The symposium was adjourned at 5.00. Diarmaid Ferriter explained that the plan to go forward was to call a committee with an independent chairperson and which would represent archive readers and the general public and be made up with representatives from the following: the Society of Archives: Ireland, The Irish Society for Archives, Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations , Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy’s Committee of Historical Sciences.
Peter Crooks closed the session calling on all people who had spoken, or those who had not had an oppurtunity to do so, to email him with their concerns and suggestions for the committee so that it could all be drafted into a proposal by the committee and sent to government. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.