I am pleased to have this opportunity to appear before the committee to discuss the Comptroller and Auditor General's recent report on procurement in the National Library of Ireland. As the report points out, the acquisition that is the subject of the report was the third significant collection of James Joyce material to be acquired by the library in the space of just over four years. The acquisition was completed in a thorough manner. The authenticity of the material was verified and its importance from a literary perspective confirmed by external experts. Independent professional valuations were also carried out. The vendor provided appropriate information on the provenance of the material. The library was anxious at all times in the acquisition process to ensure the State received value for money in the transaction. Working closely with our legal advisers, appropriate contractual arrangements were put in place to safeguard the library's interest in the matter.
The conclusions of the report, as set out in paragraph 4.30, are worth noting:
While the State ultimately acquired the manuscripts in question for a price representing market value, the circumstances surrounding the sourcing of the material and the level of interaction that is inevitable within a limited community of persons in a specialised field strongly suggests that more robust contractual and ethical arrangements may be required to protect the State's interests where such factors come into play.
The key point is that the material was obtained at market value. The report does not record any impropriety on the part of library staff.
The acquisition was effected through the use of section 1003 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. The Joyce material was purchased by a commercial bank which then donated the papers to the National Library. Subsequently, the bank sought and received a tax credit in the same amount as the amount it had paid for the material. The application for the tax credit was approved by the selection committee established under section 1003. The committee determined that the material in question met the statutory criteria that apply under the scheme. These criteria are that the material should be an outstanding example of the type of item involved, pre-eminent in its class, the export of which from the State would constitute a diminution of the accumulated cultural heritage of Ireland or the import of which into the State would constitute a significant enhancement of the accumulated cultural heritage of Ireland. Under the tax credit scheme, the Revenue Commissioners are required to obtain an independent valuation of an item approved by the committee for donation. Such a valuation was obtained in this case — one of three valuations commissioned in the whole process.
The National Library has an active acquisitions programme funded from its annual voted allocation. We also have access to instruments such as the tax credit scheme and the heritage fund. I am pleased that the institution continues to receive donations of material; this varies from single items to large collections. Acquisitions can be and are a time consuming and long drawn out process, as a range of issues must be addressed. These include the importance, authenticity and provenance of material. Negotiations with vendors can be tedious but I must stress that the library endeavours to acquire material for inclusion in its collections at the lowest possible cost to the State. In that respect, it adopts a commercial approach in its negotiations with vendors.
The three Joyce acquisitions mentioned have helped make the National Library probably the world's foremost repository of Joyce material. Scholars and researchers come from around the world to undertake research on this material. Material from the 2000 and 2002 acquisitions formed a central part of the library's ground breaking Joyce exhibition which ran from 2004 to 2006. It is fair to say these acquisitions have helped to raise the profile of the library and allowed the institution to develop new and innovative programmes and attract new visitors.
Returning to the report, it appears the Comptroller and Auditor General's concerns, in so far as they relate to the National Library, can be summarised as relating to possible conflicts of interest on the part of library staff and possible delays in pursuing an acquisition once the existence of the material became known. I have addressed these points in my responses which have been incorporated in the report, but I wish to add a few more comments.
With regard to possible conflict of interest, I must stress that there is no evidence of any conflict of interest on the part of any library staff member involved in this acquisition. In a report commissioned by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism — a copy of which is in the Oireachtas Library — the vendor has made clear that no information was received from anyone in the library in relation to the material or the library's interest, or lack of interest, in pursuing a possible acquisition.
In early 2007, the board of the National Library commissioned an external review of the acquisition. As part of that review all of the key library staff involved in the transaction were interviewed. The external reviewer did not find any evidence of a conflict of interest on the part of library staff. The wider review which, as I mentioned, was conducted on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, reached the same conclusion.
As director of the National Library, I became aware of the existence of this cache of Joyce material in the early summer of 2004. I believed at the time that it would be difficult for the library to pursue an acquisition through a Paris based vendor — the material having been discovered in a Paris bookshop. My rationale for that decision was that the library did not have the resources to pursue an acquisition through an unknown Paris book-dealer. That is no reflection on that person; it was simply an acknowledgement of the reality that, at that point, not only did we not know the bookseller, but we did not have the resources or the capacity to commit to what was likely to be a complex and time-consuming acquisition process.
The material ultimately came on the market some months later via Sotheby's of London, which had handled a previous Joyce sale to the library on behalf of a different vendor. Sotheby's had a good understanding of what the library would require in order to complete the purchase. Therefore, the acquisition proceeded quite smoothly from the time Sotheby's first came to the library in late 2004 to the conclusion of the process in June 2005. A six-month period to conclude an acquisition such as this is by no means unusual. I make no apologies for the approach taken. It may seem conservative, but I regarded it then, and I still do, as a prudent and reasonable approach.
I should stress that the Joyce material was never on offer to the library before December 2004 and that up to that time the institution had nothing remotely resembling an entitlement to acquire the material for any price lower than that at which it was ultimately acquired. It subsequently transpired that the vendor had acquired the material from the Parisian book-dealer in April 2004 and, therefore, any direct approach by the library to the book-dealer would not have achieved success.
The library and its board have taken steps to ensure that appropriate policy and governance arrangements are in place dealing with acquisitions. This process began when the board was established in 2005. Arising from the concerns that arose in relation to this particular acquisition, the board, in early 2007, established an acquisitions policy advisory committee. The remit of this committee is to support the board in terms of acquisitions policy generally. Work is nearing completion on a collection development policy which will spell out the library's policy on the type of material the institution wishes to acquire.
A further element that is planned is the preparation of a set of acquisitions guidelines that will lay down for staff the key principles to be followed in the acquisitions process. Ethical issues will undoubtedly feature in these guidelines.
The library already complies fully with its obligations under ethics legislation. In particular, staff holding designated positions are required to complete declarations in accordance with the legislation, staff contracts and terms of employment are consistent with the appropriate guidelines, and an ethics policy is in place for staff. This ethics policy is in the course of being reviewed. The existing policy already explicitly addresses the issue of conflict of interest. However, as part of the review consideration will be given to strengthening further the relevant section.