National Library of Ireland: Chairperson Designate

I remind members of the rules regarding the use of mobile phones. Apologies have been received from Deputy Helen McEntee. It is proposed that the first part of the meeting, session A, will be a meeting with the chairperson designate of the National Library of Ireland. The meeting should conclude at approximately 4.30 p.m. although it may be a little later. Session B is a discussion on Culture Ireland with the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, which should commence immediately after session A. We will then deal with private business such as correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.

This session has been convened to enable the chairperson designate of the National Library of Ireland, Mr. H. Paul Shovlin, to address the committee on the role he will play as chairman and his views on the future contribution of the National Library of Ireland. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. It is proposed that all opening statements and any other documents the witnesses have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting has adjourned.

I congratulate Mr. Shovlin on his appointment to the post and invite him to make his opening statement.

Mr. Paul Shovlin

It is a privilege for me to be invited to appear before the committee today. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about myself and the National Library of Ireland, which I hope to serve as chairperson. I will try to answer any questions as comprehensively as I can.

The committee will already have received my written statement but I will summarise it now. I have had a fairly successful business career and believe I am well qualified to chair the National Library of Ireland. More important, I have worked extensively in the cultural and charitable sectors in non-profit roles. I have served on management boards and audit committees and I was inaugural chairman of the RDS foundation board, which co-ordinates the cultural, musical and educational programmes of the RDS. I have served as a board member of the National Library for the past five years. In that period, I have been an active board member, attending virtually all board meetings and participating in the library's audit committee. I also chaired the library board's sub-committee for the Seamus Heaney exhibition, which is planned for 2017.

My vision for the National Library is to increase national awareness of its unique mandate. We need to tell the story of the National Library more loudly than we have in the past. I will try to ensure that the library claims its place at the centre of international engagement in the context of Irish history, culture and heritage. I intend to promote the idea that the library is the appropriate destination for important national collections, such as the Heaney collection. It is also my intention to help promote a diversification of funding sources for the National Library.

I care about the National Library and am very committed to it.

The mandate I will have as chairman for the next 12 years, subject to the committee's ratification, will be my main work and responsibility. Other things I am involved in will be secondary to chairing the National Library.

That concludes my opening statement.

I welcome Mr. Shovlin. I am very glad to see he cares about the National Library. I do not imagine he would have been on the board if he did not. It is one of my own favourite places in the country. It is a real national treasure and Mr. Shovlin is quite right that it is under-appreciated.

In his opening statement, Mr. Shovlin refers to the legacy of under-investment. He comes from a strong financial background. The storage and retrieval aspect of the library was drawn to our attention when we visited it some months ago. I was appalled at the risk we are taking with the national collection because of under-investment. I know the possibility of partnering with one of the universities in respect of a combined storage facility is being explored. How would Mr. Shovlin see that going? Would it be a priority area?

We are coming up to a very important commemoration with which the library is going to be strongly involved, and rightly so. At the end of the decade of centenaries we will also be remembering another incident in which we lost a very large collection of irreplaceable material. My question about storage is in that context. I would like to see a higher premium placed on this matter.

In his own personal time, Mr. Shovlin has been involved in a number of areas. How does he see the mixture of business and cultural aspects? Are they mutually beneficial? Only 1% of the collection is conserved to international standards. Is that a priority? I appreciate that there is a juggling act going on. I was very pleased with the digitisation that was done last year and the extent of interest in the parish records. Although I appreciate the work that has been done with the budget that is there, I feel we are under-investing hugely.

Mr. Paul Shovlin

I thank the Deputy for her ongoing interest in the National Library. I see good business practice as the enabler for the cultural aspect. Without that, we struggle. We have got to have good business practice to enable the culture to be accessed.

The condition of storage is poor. Huge investment is needed there. As the board of the National Library, we need not just to repeat the mantra, "we are short of funding", but to create an atmosphere of saying: "This is where we need to be - how are we going to get there?" It is only through Government and other funding - I talk about diversification of funding resources - that we can get there. We need to set out our stall very clearly as to where we want to be in order to address those ills, such as storage, which the Deputy has identified.

In a way, the library has been under the surface in terms of its profile, almost as though the nation had forgotten about it. We need to wake ourselves up. We are the custodians of huge national treasures. The problem with the National Library is that we do not have evidence - like potholes - if there is a problem. It is just there and can be the victim of inertia.

Collaboration is another strand of our strategy. We do not just want to talk about collaboration; we want to activate something. There are institutions like the universities with which we can establish collaboration. It is our intention to pursue that line.

What is the duration of the appointment?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

Five years.

I welcome Mr. Shovlin and congratulate him on his appointment. I would be a bit like my colleague, Deputy Murphy. I am an enthusiast in terms of digital access to media and particularly the National Library. I congratulate the library on the 1916 papers it has produced online. I have used the 19th-century baptismal registers to trace a relation of mine who, as I discovered, fought in the American civil war. It is a wonderful facility.

In terms of joining up all the knowledge, for example Google books, the universities, and all the other institutions that are online right around the world - we have a lot of Irish records in America, in New York state, the Smithsonian or whatever - is there a vision of how to tie all that together? How can we leapfrog and have everybody working with everybody else to achieve a platform where Irish people in any part of the world can get a seamless link to the resources?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

As the Deputy says, access is very important. In terms of exploiting this wonderful resource and in terms of cultural tourism, we have got to be there. If one is working with the likes of Google, one has to be careful that one is at least an equal partner. We are the custodians of these collections and need to make sure we are clever enough not to surrender everything to the Googles of this world. We discuss that at board level in the National Library and have made some soundings on how American universities have been able to work with Google. The experience is generally pretty good, but people are careful. One needs to be very well advised and absolutely alert in respect of any legal agreements one might have with the likes of Google. We have to keep our minds open to approaches and to working with these people.

I do not necessarily agree with everything Mr. Shovlin said there. The point I was making was that from the point of view of the consumer who wants to find out something from the past, I would put the emphasis on inclusivity. Most of the publications the library has in its 138-year history would be out of print and would not be available generally anywhere. Unless they are digitalised on the library's own collection or available or linked, they are hard to access. The library should be making as much as possible available to the public at all times.

I do not want to go into the issues about Google wanting something the library does not want to give it. I would say that the library wants to give everything to anybody who wants to look at it in digital form.

To put the question a different way, notwithstanding what we have just been saying, does Mr. Shovlin see the availability of digitalisation of the library's records and books on its own website or whatever as an objective task to be done urgently?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

Yes, we do. We are doing quite a lot already, subject to resources being available. The resources available have been quite light. I agree absolutely with the Deputy that it is our intention to keep pushing out, digitising and making our collections available online.

What is the library's percentage that is digitalised at the moment?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

I am subject to correction on this but I think it is 1% or 2%.

There is obviously a huge job to be done there. I would think that is a very important task and I recognise the library's commitment. I did not think the figure was as low as that. That shows how out of touch I am.

Mr. Paul Shovlin

It is very low.

The other issue is newspaper records. I have been looking at The Brooklyn Eagle, a newspaper that was printed in New York in the 1860s. It is a fantastic resource. The digitalisation of newspaper media is top class in the case of that newspaper. It is hugely important to have all of that data and the copies of all those newspapers dating back probably 200 years. It is a huge potential source of information and knowledge to everybody of Irish extraction around the world, who number in the millions. Notwithstanding the support of businesses, the Government should also step up to the mark in terms of its budget. Is there a budget every year for that?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

My understanding is that there is no specific budget. It is part of the general pool of expenditure that is made available by the Department. To achieve anything would require a very substantial amount of money, and even then it would be over a long period. However, as the Deputy suggests, we need a fairly aggressive programme. We know the point we want to reach but it is a question of having the resources to get there.

After this meeting, could Mr. Shovlin circulate an analysis from the National Library on what his plans and needs are?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

Yes, I would be delighted to do that. I thank the Deputy.

I congratulate Mr. Shovlin on being chairperson designate. He is quite clear in his presentation about the considerable uncertainty that faced the National Library over the last five years, particularly regarding the lack of money and investment and also the uncertainty about the legislative proposals. It appears there will no longer be uncertainty around the legislative proposals and Mr. Shovlin's appointment is an indication of that. The National Cultural Institutions Act and the National Library will remain in the current position. If Mr. Shovlin has heard different mood music, it would be helpful for the committee to know that. However, that war appears to be over and we are now looking forward to supporting many of these organisations.

I have a few questions and if Mr. Shovlin does not have the answers, perhaps they could be sent to the committee in writing. They are straightforward as I do not wish to put Mr. Shovlin in a difficult position. Will he confirm if the National Library has received any increase for its expenditure in 2016? Is that specifically aimed at the 2016 commemoration or has the National Library received an increase in its funding for next year?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

In 2015 there was an interim increase of €600,000. My understanding is that the increase is being held, so basically it is the funding for 2015 as well as the €600,000 but no increase beyond that. We are, nevertheless, appreciative of the pressures the Government and the Department have been under and we are relieved that the €600,000 has been held. It was a supplementary amount that we received earlier just to ensure that the National Library could function properly, so we have held that. However, we must move on from here.

Mr. Shovlin is saying essentially that there is no increase for next year. It was stabilised for this year and it is on stand alone for 2016.

Mr. Paul Shovlin

Yes, stand alone plus the €600,000.

The National Library faces two big issues. One is employment restrictions. How many keeper positions are unfilled, which the National Library is restricted from filling? They are key positions. The second is storage. Will Mr. Shovlin enumerate for the committee how bad the storage facilities are and give us a couple of examples? Is any of the library's material in danger of being destroyed or damaged or, indeed, being inaccessible to researchers?

Has the section 1003 tax incentive been used recently by the National Library for acquisition? I understand there might be commercial sensitivities about it but is it something to which the library has access?

Mr. Shovlin has much experience in the commercial world. He has also served on the board. In terms of diversifying funding, can he give us an assessment of the fund-raising climate he sees in both Ireland and the US in respect of helping him to diversify the funding?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

I am not sure of the exact number of keeper positions, but there are 30 unfilled positions.

Mr. Paul Shovlin

Yes, 30 have been vacated and we have not been able to fill them. The library is very stretched. One hopes there will be some relief under those controls. We are in the process of appointing a head of security and facilities management. We had to get special permission for that appointment, which is an absolutely crucial appointment. We are grateful for that but we need to be in a position where we have far more flexibility. We have been nailed to the cross. The Senator mentioned the mood music on the legislation. The mood music has gone silent, so we are taking that as a positive indicator.

Regarding material under threat, the collections are there and in the case of photographic collections when the photographs get old certain chemicals start to change their nature and the photographs start to disintegrate. Undoubtedly, there are issues in that regard. There are also issues in the main collections. There is potentially water damage and fire damage. To be fair to the staff of the library, they have done their best and we are hopeful that any damage would be minimal. Nevertheless, it is walking something of a tightrope. One should not have to worry about these things. These are national collections. One of my missions is to articulate this problem in a way that does not get into an argument, so people will say that it is a genuine and reasonable position and that funds are needed. It is investment, not necessarily to spend more money. We just need investment. That is crucial.

The Senator mentioned section 1003. It has been used over the last few years, although not very often. We are hoping to use it more. As good, important national collections come up, we are anxious to be in a position to have a proposition to put to the people who are giving, selling or offering these collections to us. We hope to be able to use section 1003.

I hope I have answered all the Senator's questions.

What is Mr. Shovlin's assessment of the current fund-raising climate in terms of diversifying funding?

Mr. Paul Shovlin

We really have not tested it. We must gear ourselves in a way that we can go forward and put a proposition. If fund-raising and philanthropy can be done for different purposes, surely the seriousness of purpose of the National Library's mandate should enable us to raise funds for particular projects. However, it is similar to an investment as well. We must be able to package them and to research the tax environment, particularly in the United States. In this country it is fine and we understand section 1003. However, if one is doing something in the United States, and the Senator might have some experience in that regard, one must have all one's ducks in a row and the machinery in place to be able to receive philanthropy if it emerges.

Thank you, Mr. Shovlin. That concludes our discussion on this matter. I thank Mr. Shovlin for taking the time to appear before the committee. We wish you the best of luck in your role as chairman of the National Library.

Mr. Paul Shovlin

Thank you, Chairman.

Sitting suspended at 4.30 p.m. and resumed at 4.33 p.m.