National Archives ‘creaking’ under pressures

Staff shortages and legislative shortcomings threaten quality of State records released under ‘30-year rule’

First published Monday 2nd December 2019

NAMA, the Central Bank, the National Treasury Management Agency, the Garda Ombudsman, and the children’s agency Tusla are among over 150 publicly-funded State bodies with no legal requirement to maintain and archive records for eventual release to the public, journalists and academics under the ‘30 year rule’.

This is one of the findings of a comparative report of Ireland’s national archives, which uncovers a system creaking under the pressure of staff and skills shortages, expanded responsibilities, new technologies, space constraints, and legislative shortcomings.

Read the full report HERE.

Published by Fórsa trade union as officials prepare to release more State papers in the New Year, the report also says that only four out of 61 State departments and agencies covered by the National Archives Act are up-to-date with their legal obligations to transfer records to National Archives Ireland, the body charged with maintaining archives and making them available to the public. Only six out of the 61 bodies regularly transfer records to the national archives.

The union also says the annual transfer of records under the 30-year rule has been scaled back this year because of a lack of storage space.

The report, which was undertaken on behalf of the union’s Archivists’ Branch by Creative Cultures and Associates, uncovers a substantial backlog in the processing of records, and in making them available to the public. It also identifies major shortcomings in the digitisation of records and the development of online access.

This is largely due to serious staffing and skills shortages in National Archives Ireland, a problem that will be exacerbated when a commencement order is signed to implement the 20-year rule, due to replace the current 30-year arrangement. Although this will result in additional work, no extra staff have been hired.

The report finds that National Archive Ireland’s staff complement is currently 25% below the number identified as necessary in management’s 2016 workforce plan. The organisation also lags behind comparable state archive bodies in Denmark, Scotland and Northern Ireland in terms of the employment of qualified archivists and other relevant specialists.

National Archive Ireland employs 40% fewer staff per capita than the National Records Office in Scotland, and 25% fewer than the Public Records Office Northern Ireland, while most of its employees have no relevant professional training. Meanwhile, professional archive staff are virtually non-existent in major State departments and agencies, and there is no State policy governing the management of electronic records in place.

The crisis means the quality of material made available to journalists, researchers and the public under the 30-year rule and other services is in rapid and steady decline.

Fórsa official Seán Carabini said the crisis in the State’s archives meant the quality of material made available to journalists, researchers and the public under the 30-year rule and other services was in rapid and steady decline.

“In reality, most of the State institutions required to release material to the National Archives don’t do so. And the majority of public service bodies established since 1986 have no legal requirement to transfer records to the archives at all. These include organisations like NAMA, the National Treasury Management Agency, the Garda Ombudsman and Tusla, which have played, or are playing, leading roles in Ireland’s social, political and economic story,” he said.

Fórsa is calling for a fundamental review of the relevant legislation with a view to extending its scope and updating legal requirements on information governance, data retention, GDPR and digital preservation. It also wants a rapid and comprehensive review of records management across the public sector, and adequate and suitable space to store the growing national archive.

Mr Carabini also called for an immediate increase in staffing from the current 45 to 60, in line with a management workforce plan, with an emphasis on professionally-trained specialists. “There are over 50 million records in the archives, many of which predate the foundation of the State. But there are not nearly enough staff in National Archives Ireland or elsewhere in the State apparatus to properly maintain our archives in line with public expectations and the standards being set elsewhere.

“Furthermore, the scant and declining involvement of professionally-trained archivists, including in records management, the digitation of records and IT more generally, is putting the quality of our national repository at serious risk as new technologies increasingly shape the way we keep records and tell our national story.

“Staffing needs to be significantly increased, with recruitment targeted towards specialist archival staff, conservators, and experts in building a functional digital archive,” he said.

Read the full report HERE.