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It preserves our past, and visitors flock to it - so why is this essential resource underfunded?

Its acting director says cutbacks have affected the library badly.

National Library of Ireland The reading room in the NLI Source: Nico Kaiser

‘The cutbacks and so on of the past few years have really affected us quite badly, and I think people don’t realise just how much we have and what value it is. And we haven’t suffered neglect just in the past few years – we’ve had decades of neglect to catch up on.’ – Catherine Fahy, NLI

IN 1877, THE National Library of Ireland was opened. Its job is to preserve the many items that make up the documentary and intellectual record of the life of Ireland, to promote them, to make them accessible to all of us in the country.

But for the past number of years, its funding has slowly been dwindling. Its staff numbers have dropped by a considerable percentage. And a lack of suitable preservation technology means that in the back of the staff members’ minds is that should something catastrophic take place – like a fire – important documents could be lost forever.

But while the money being invested in the NLI is of concern, the visitor numbers are not – at the launch of its most recent annual report, acting director Catherine Fahy says that visitor numbers were up 42% on the previous year. There’s been an increase of 85% in visitor numbers since 2009.

Concern about cutbacks

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Clearly, the library is a draw to both tourists and Irish residents. But Fahy is concerned.

“Our cutbacks have been in the region of about 40% since 2008, and we had come last year to rock bottom in terms of our ability to function,” she tells TheJournal.ie. “Thankfully, the Department [of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht] did give us an extra grant this year after the budget.”

Minister Heather Humphreys granted €2m extra for all the cultural institutions, with the NLI getting a substantial slice of the pie.

The money enables them to keep things going. It meant they don’t have to go through with plans to close the photographic archive, or close in the evenings, and they’re able to keep their reading rooms and exhibitions open.

Staff numbers are low

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Another huge thing affecting the NLI is the severely reduced staff numbers. “Even in 2011 we had 104, and this year we are down to 80,” outlines Fahy. That number could be further reduced to 76.

When you understand that includes people like cleaners, admin, HR and finance, it means the core of people who are working on library operations is really reduced.

She compares this to other national libraries in comparably-sized European countries, saying that in Scotland and Wales, staff numbers would run to 280 – 300.

What does this say about how the NLI is viewed by the powers that be? “It shows that it’s not given a very high priority, I suppose you’d have to conclude,” is Fahy’s assessment. “I know that the Department have been doing their best to maintain funding and obviously things are very difficult,” she acknowledges. But their beautiful Victorian buildings – including the impressive reading room – require a “substantial capital investment”

The Victorian book stacks look beautiful, but what the library really needs is to be able to store items at modern archival standards. It has been in talks with Trinity and UCD about building an economically-viable collaborative store, but these are at concept stage.

For now, the NLI does its best to ensure books are being stored in optimal conditions. “We have done our best with mitigating risks,” says Fahy.

We’ve moved most valuable things to most secure areas; we have boxing and preservation programmes to help prevent the collections from danger of flood.

But they’ve been told a fire could wipe out a Victorian building like theirs, with its huge wooden areas, in half an hour. Though there is a small likelihood of this happening, if it did happen it would be “disastrous”, says Fahy.

What has the government been doing?

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Fahy says they have been making representations for the past 20 years to the various governments. “I think we have been heard,” says Fahy. “We’ve been told by Ministers and Junior Ministers they recognise our needs and that when times are better they will prioritise us. At the same time, we have been waiting a long time now. It is frustrating.”

She recognises that the economic situation means that libraries are not always at the top of the priority list. But as Fahy points out, the fact the collections – which directly connect us to Ireland’s past, and cannot be replaced – are held in poor conditions means that gradual damage can be affecting priceless items.

The newspaper collections are constantly being digitised and put on microfilm, but still, more funding is needed.

Because of the nature of the buildings, it’s also difficult to cater for public demand for more space. “We’d very much like to see a major project being done on the buildings – I’m sure they’d be a huge tourist attraction for both the citiznes of Ireland primarily, but also for visitors as well,” says Fahy.

They’re also concerned about moving into the digital age, and having the technological infrastructure to archive Ireland’s digital output (such as the site you’re currently reading now, which isn’t being archived by the NLI).

Focus on 2015

Eamonn_Ceannt_lastletter Source: david monahan

In the wake of a staff member allegedly stealing some books, the library has recently had to review its security set up, which Fahy says is ongoing.

Looking ahead to 2015, aside from the constant funding and staffing challenges, the NLI is focusing on its output: playing a role in the Yeats 2015 festival (its own Yeats exhibition, running since 2006, will be refreshed); refreshing its World War 1 exhibition; and digitising parish registers are amongst this year’s highlights.

One major project for 2015 is detailed cataloguing the papers of the seven signatories of the proclamation. The plan is to digitise them and make them available online.

The focus will also continue on its social media activity, which has helped draw people to the NLI’s Flickr page and website. “I think we find the biggest growth area for our visitors is online and that just grows in leaps and bounds, and I think probably has an effect in bringing people to the library,” says Fahy.

The NLI staff would “really like to take our proper place to a much greater extent than we have been, in terms of recognition and funding and so on”, concludes Fahy.

She says that they are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel, being “very hopeful” that the Government and the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht will be able to support them, especially in terms of giving them better storage and refurbished buildings on Kildare Street in the run up to 1922.

They’d like to work without the worries – about funding, about whether a heavy rainfall will lead to flooding, and whether the writings of Ireland’s most prominent figures will disappear into dust, because of a lack of money.

What the Arts Minister has to say

When contacted by TheJournal.ie about the funding issues, Minister Heather Humphreys said she was very pleased to have been able to secure the additional €2million for the cultural institutions.

“This is on top of the budget allocation, and a significant chunk of this money is going directly to the Library, to address its specific concerns,” she said. “It is very positive that the years of cutbacks at the Cultural Institutions have been brought to an end.”

The Minister said that the Government is implementing its plan to grow the economy and create jobs so that it can help increase investment in important institutions like the National Library.

“I will continue to fight for additional funding for the arts as the economy continues to improve,” she concluded.

In addition, a spokesperson for the Minister said:

The Department is very aware of the funding and staffing challenges at our Cultural Institutions, including the National Library of Ireland, which endured significant cutbacks as a result of the economic crisis. These cutbacks have now been brought to an end.

The spokesperson added that the Minister and her officials are in “very regular contact” with the directors and chairs of all of Cultural Institution.

Read: The secrets of Irish parishes will be online soon>

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