The National Library of Wales is one of Wales’ best ever creations.
Since 1907 the Library has served as our national memory. It’s unique in the world as an amalgam of national library, national archive, art store and gallery, broadcasting and media collection, electronic storehouse, and much more.
Without it, Wales, which has never been a rich country, would be infinitely poorer. But today the very existence of the National Library is in question.
The Library is currently in consultation with its remaining employees about losing a further thirty staff, in addition to the roughly 100 posts that have been lost since 2010. This would leave just 200 people in post, which is a number nowhere near enough to keep essential services running.
Between 2008 and 2019 the Library has lost 40 per cent of its income. Already many activities have been cut back severely, and public services compromised. To put it simply, if these new cuts go through, and are followed by yet more, the Library cannot survive as a working institution.
But does the Welsh Government, its main funder, realise what will be lost?
Anyone seriously interested in Wales and its history and culture depends on the Library for knowledge, and access to that knowledge will be harder in future. Ceredigion could lose a valued community centre, and exhibition spaces may close. Children would be deprived of the Library’s excellent educational services.
Everyone will lose access to print and electronic material that arrives through the Library’s legal deposit (‘copyright’) status. Cuts of up to 40 per cent are planned in collections intake.
The Library is recognised across the world as a pioneer in giving free online access to digital and digitised knowledge (it long since ceased to be just an ‘Aberystwyth institution’). Anyone, anywhere can take advantage of its electronic services. That work too is now in jeopardy.
There’s a wider point, which is that all of us should be aware by now that ignorance, lies and misinformation are poisoning our politics and society. Easy and unimpeded public access to secure knowledge is one of the essential defences against a slide into authoritarianism and intolerance.
Richard Ovenden, in his recent, powerful publication Burning the books, points out that Nazi-style book burning is not the only way of destroying a shared culture. Starving libraries to death by depriving them of funds is just as effective.
In 2020 an independent review of the National Library, chaired by Aled Eurig, concluded that “urgent attention should be given to the Library’s financial needs.’”
The Chief Executive and Librarian, Pedr ap Llwyd, reacted by saying, “without doubt, the library’s current financial position is the result of systematic historic underfunding by Welsh Government, and the tailored review sees the current unsustainable position the library finds itself in as a real threat to the future of the organisation.” The threat is real. It cannot be denied.
Can the Welsh Government afford to stand aside and watch while an institution charged with recording our history itself slips away into history? Does it really intend to turn the clock back to the nineteenth century by winding up the Library and begging the British Library to look after our heritage on our behalf?
Many people are alarmed by the Library’s fragile financial position. A petition has been started to raise the issue on the floor of the Senedd. Anyone who uses the National Library of Wales or values the contributions it makes to our country should sign it – and add their voice to the growing chorus of people demanding a change of heart by the Welsh Government.
Andrew Green was Librarian of the National Library of Wales between 1998 and 2013.