Monday 11 June 2012

APGI: Ireland's cultural institutions are in crisis

This morning's Irish Times carried an opinion piece by Jimmy Deenihan TD, Minister for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, in which he accused some parties of failing to appreciate the realities of Ireland's current economic crisis and the need for 'everyone to share the pain'.

You can read the Minister's piece here. It sets the scene for the following statement issued this afternoon by The Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI).

"The crisis facing our cultural institutions is an issue all too familiar to APGI. As an organisation at the forefront of developments in Irish ancestral research, APGI has heard the rhetoric about our cultural assets while observing the deterioration of our cultural institutions. Increasingly limited access to valuable genealogical records housed in our cultural institutions only frustrates and disappoints visitors of Irish ancestry who come here specifically to research their family history.

The proposed merger of the National Archives into the National Library is indeed ill-advised, but it serves to highlight the longstanding lack of appreciation for these and other national record repositories by those who control finances. Investment in heritage-related tourism facilities is being drastically reduced. At the same time the government is promoting The Gathering, a nationwide event for the Diaspora being held in 2013.

To its credit, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has funded two acclaimed projects in recent years. The digitisation of the 1901 and 1911 Census returns and that of various parish registers from Carlow, Cork, Dublin and Kerry has won enormous praise internationally. This is largely because they have been made available online free of charge, a gesture much appreciated by the Irish Diaspora.

Unfortunately, when members of the Diaspora arrive in Ireland to convert the online experience into a personal visit they find the facilities far from impressive. They encounter queues (and even unscheduled temporary closures) at the General Register Office Research Room. They find time restrictions on ordering documents in the National Archives. In the National Library they find the core services so diminished that books and newspapers can be ordered only every two hours, while the self-service parish register microfilm area is unsupervised. The staff in these repositories valiantly strive to provide good service despite shortcomings in terms of funding.

Last September Jimmy Deenihan held a meeting ‘to establish the current position regarding the provision of genealogical services and to discuss options for further development of these services’. It was a very worthwhile meeting, attended by public and private sector organisations (including some from Northern Ireland) involved in the provision, use and dissemination of genealogical records. Since then there has been no follow up. We believe the Minister was sincere in wishing to enhance an area much lauded for its contribution to heritage-related tourism. Evidently his colleagues in government fail to see the connection between adequately equipping our national record repositories and impressing tourists who wish to research their ancestry.

Our expertise and understanding in this area is a resource that the government could be calling on in advance of The Gathering 2013."