Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
3. To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the reason 70,000 boxes of archives held by the National Archives are at present uncatalogued and in need of archival and preservation processing; if this backlog means that the National Archives is not being facilitated with the necessary resources to allow it to fulfil its statutory obligation to preserve State records; his plans to assign more staff and resources to the National Archives to help process this backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51626/13]
I tabled this question because I received a response to a parliamentary question on the extent of uncatalogued records in the National Archives. There are 70,000 boxes, which is more than I believed were in the archives. Obviously the National Archives has a statutory function, but that function can be properly put into effect only if there are sufficient resources to catalogue and preserve records properly. Essentially, I seek to know whether resources will be allocated to deal with the extraordinary backlog of uncatalogued records, which I am sure comprise quite a treasure trove.
As the Deputy is aware, the National Archives is responsible by law for the acquisition of records of permanent value from Departments of State, the courts and 61 named bodies. The National Archives can also acquire archives from other sources, such as businesses, hospitals, charities and voluntary bodies, where it is considered that the archives are of outstanding quality and value. This can, on occasion, entail the rescue of archives that are in danger of destruction.
I understand that the National Archives has a historic backlog of approximately 70,000 boxes of archives which need archival and preservation processing to varying degrees. These documents are held in safe and secure conditions but, in light of the pressure on resources, progress on the historic backlog is likely to be slow. As each archival collection will require different levels of work, it is not possible to estimate accurately the funding implications arising. I would like to make it clear that the National Archives statutory annual intake of official records does not generate any backlog in cataloguing work and is catalogued within existing resources each year.
The historic backlog largely comprises records of national significance rescued by the National Archives in order to secure their preservation, where there is no legal requirement on the agency that created them to implement an archival preservation programme; and records acquired by the former Public Record Office of Ireland and State Paper Office of Ireland from Government Departments and offices prior to the enactment of the National Archives Act 1986, in order to secure the preservation of these records in the absence of a legally mandated institution to perform this preservation work.
Cataloguing is one of the core professional duties of archivists in the National Archives, requiring specialist knowledge and in-depth understanding of the content and historical and administrative context of the archives. Unfortunately, due to the moratorium on recruitment, it has not been possible to increase the number of archivists in recent years. Consequently, while the annual intake is catalogued and managed within current staffing resources, the backlog of 70,000 boxes cannot be dealt with at present, other than on an incremental basis as resources permit. I would like, in that context, to acknowledge here in the House the high level of work and commitment by the director and her staff.
I do not doubt the high level of commitment of the very limited number of staff at the National Archives. The National Archives appears to be the poor relation in terms of allocation of staff while at the same time we have archivists who are unemployed and in receipt of social welfare payments. It does not stack up that we would have such a monumental job of work to do.
Will the Minister consider seeking a relaxation of the moratorium on recruitment, given the extent of the backlog? I am concerned that there are some people with valuable records which they might want to place in a national institution so that they become publicly available - particularly in the context of the forthcoming centenary celebrations - but they are getting the wrong signals from us because the National Archives is not capable of dealing with the large volume of historical records already in its possession. This may mean that records are not put into public ownership which should rightfully be publicly owned.
Records of historical significance are being prioritised and that will continue to be the case. On the question of the moratorium, we recently appointed archivists to the National Archives, not to deal with the backlog but to work on other projects. The National Archives succeeded recently in securing some philanthropic donations which will also help. There is also a problem with space, unfortunately. When we had the resources in this country to provide adequate space it was not provided. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, and I visited the National Archives recently and the OPW is now drawing up a proposal for additional accommodation which I hope to bring to Government soon. I know there is strong support among my Government colleagues for the National Archives. Indeed, the Taoiseach has a particular interest in the National Archives and visited there recently. Within the current constraints, I am very confident that we can make progress.
It is welcome that there will be some proposal regarding the accommodation of the boxes. There is also the prospect of using the Internet to display records and a catalogue of the boxes’ materials. However, a catalogue will have to be fully compiled first. The destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922 was a terrible act of vandalism and a significant loss. This has led to the fragmentation of the public records sets. While not questioning the National Archives accommodation, one must ask about the quality of the locations where some public records are kept. Are we committing the same destruction in a different way? Do we have any respect for the written heritage of this country when we cannot even catalogue our public records in a timely way so they can be fully used for research?
The records contained in the 70,000 boxes in question are kept in a secure place and will be available to the public in the not-too-distant future. Since 2008, the National Archives has experienced a 41.64% reduction in its operational budget. If the Deputy checks the Estimates from the past three years, she will see how I have done my best to arrest that decline in funding. Last year and this year, the budgetary reduction was minimal. I have tried my best, within the constraints of the overall reductions to my departmental budget, to minimise the reduction in funding for the National Archives.
There has never been more interest in archival material, principally because it is the decade of commemorations. Some really interesting projects are under way both inside and outside the National Archives. Any archives of historical importance will be made available during the decade of centenaries.