Back to Thatcher for the National Library: Shredding our Heritage

24 January 2021

This article originally appeared on Undod


Thirty years ago, in the days of Margaret Thatcher, the Welsh Office conducted a review of the National Library of Wales and concluded that the Library required additional funding. A Whitehall-based Civil Servant quipped at the time to a member of management ‘You do like your National Library on the cheap here!’ This report resulted in 30 new staff members starting on the same day in 1992.


The establishment of the Welsh Assembly in 1999 gave us hope that the Welsh Heritage sector would be central in the life of this new, positive era. Fast forward 20 years, and the Welsh Government commission an Independent Review, which as well as identifying other specific issues, again comes to the conclusion that the National Library has been systematically underfunded.


Unlike in 1989, when the Welsh Office acted on the recommendations in their report, this time there is silence from Welsh Government. The National Library is therefore being forced to cut the workforce again – by 30 down to 200 staff members – which, together with previous job losses takes the Library back to the Thatcher era. These cuts are not simply about job losses in tough economic times, but are a result of long term under-investment and are an attack on the Welsh Heritage sector.


Unlike most National Libraries, the National Library of Wales is not just a library, it’s a National Archive, it is a National Gallery for a Welsh Art collection, a National Audio-Visual and Broadcast Archive, and a Primary Digital Archive for Wales. It’s a super-cultural centre which has recently housed the relocated Royal Commission and Ancient Monuments of Wales. The site is even linked by an enclosed corridor with the Welsh Dictionary and Centre for Advanced Celtic Studies – it truly is a cultural gem.


The staffing cuts will result in a reduced capacity to undertake a number of our activities. It will impact our ability to collect materials for posterity – potentially collecting 20-40% less – and our ability to provide public access to collections.


Dr. John Davies would not have been able to write ‘The History of Wales’ without access to primary sources, some of which are in the collections at the National Library. And historians of the future will be handicapped in writing the history of Wales or re-interpreting the past if documentary evidence has not been kept, or if access to these primary resources is difficult or maybe impossible due to the loss of public services and knowledgeable staff.


The reality is that staff with up to 30 years of experience of the collections will be lost forever due to these cuts… and in a few years’ time, if the economic situation has improved, it will be difficult to rebuild this knowledge by bringing in new staff, as we will have lost the opportunity for experienced staff to pass on their knowledge first. The danger is that Wales will end up with a much diminished cultural institution.


What is the solution? In simple terms, we need additional resources to stabilise the finances and give the Library long-term security so it can serve the people of Wales and beyond. The Library’s value as a cultural institution has to be recognised. And it must be asked, why is the Scottish Government able to give its heritage sector financial stability and a long term future, unlike the Welsh Government? Both are reliant on the block grant from Westminster – is it just that the Scottish Government has more fiscal tools at its disposal, or is it simply that the Scottish Government values its Heritage sector more than the Welsh Government?

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