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Archives in Crisis – Reaction

13 Apr

Action on Archives

On the first sun-filled Saturday of Summer, a darkened and windowless lecture theatre would hardly be the first choice of venue to spend ones day. However, it certainly was for the 250 people who packed the Robert Emmet Lecture theatre to capacity in Trinity College for the Archives in Crisis symposium.

Organised by the Action on Archives group, headed by T.C.D. Research Fellow Dr. Peter Crooks ,the event was also organised in association by the Society of Archivists (Ireland), headed by Cecile Chemin. The symposium was chaired by Dr. Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin. The panel of guest speakers included Catriona Crowe of the National Archives, Eunan O’Halpin, Professor of Modern Irish History at Trinity College and Fintan O’Toole, Deputy Editor of the Irish Times.

The meeting was scheduled to tackle, for the first time by public debate, the proposed merger of the National Archives and the Irish Manuscripts Commission INTO the National Library of Ireland, put forward by the Government in the December 2000 budget. Described as the biggest risk to Irish documented heritage and records since the shelling of the Four Courts in 1922, the meeting certainly did address and tackle this issue of merging the Archives and Library, with O’Toole calling it an “idiotic proposal and symptomatic of the back-of-an-envelope and ill-informed politics that has brought Ireland to the current state of crisis it finds itself in today”. Given the crowd and undoubted public interest in the future of Irish records and archives, the meeting also addressed ‘action on archives’ that must be taken nationally and in all aspects of the profession, its funding, its service, its accessibility and its direction from the Department of Sport, Culture and Tourism and its Minister.

Catriona Crowe, representing the archivists’ branch of IMPACT trade union, addressed the distinct lack of storage capacity that prevents the National Archives from acting on its statutory obligations to receive, catalogue, preserve and disseminate the records of the Irish state as appropriate. Today, records even dating back to the nineteenth and eighteenth lie at risk in the government departments as the National Archives, despite desperately wanting the records, do not have space, staff or budget to take in the records. Staffing levels in the National Archives are at 45 people, the National Library of Ireland has a staff of 100 and the National Museum has a staff of 200. These figures are but one reminder of the funding and personnel issues which are at crisis point at the National Archives. Crowe argued strongly for the necessity for the re-establishment of the National Archives Advisory Council, which was established under the National Archives Act of 1986. The NAAC has not met since 2007. A vocal and informed NAAC is an absent and vital cog in the efficient and dedicated service of the National Archives.

Fintan O’Toole has through the columns of The Irish Times, of which he is assistant editor, has long been an advocate for stringent or at least consistent and beneficial policy on archives and state records from the Government and at the National Archives. The ability of any citizens of a nation to truly know one-self and grasp at the idea of national identity is through the actions of its National Archives. In the wake of recent damming and horrific reports of abuse and deliberate destruction of records in institutional schools, Magdalene laundries, mental hospitals and general hospitals, how we as a people and nation respond to these crises will tell forever more. Through the records and archives of these forgotten Irish and forgotten institutions the stories of those who were previously silent can now be heard.

In fact, the theme of health records, with particular emphasis on those records of Irish mental hospitals, drew particular attention and debate from attendees of the symposium. It was obvious from the passionate interest from audience members, with reference to health records in particular, that ‘action on archives’ is indeed needed in many aspects of how records of health and education are documented and preserved.  Events that lie beyond the immediate hands of record keepers such as the fire that gutted Longford town Cathedral on Christmas morning of 2009 must be averted in the future. Countless birth, death and marriage records as well as priceless golden crosiers were destroyed in the fire but it was only from the ashes did officials realise that these records were even kept in the cathedral.

The Action-on-Archives organised symposium on the current crisis in Irish state record keeping was a hugely positive starting point. It is the primary goal and objective of the group to oppose the loss by the National Archives of its autonomous identity. The work by Peter Crooks to bring this event together should not be lost and should prove to be the first step of a united effort to lobby an uninformed Government decision and highlight to a public the vital importance of the consistent adherence of the National Archives to its statutory obligations, they primarily being safeguarding and preserving of records of the Irish State and therefore also, the actions of a people and government.

For Further Information Contact:

Peter Crooks – pcrooks@tcd.ie

http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/group.php?v=wall&ref=search&gid=379393677441

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0412/1224268137886.html

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