Anglo-Irish 'double whammy'

July 19, 1996

William Simpson argues that Trinity College library is penalised because of its legal deposit status for all UK and Irish published materials

For most visitors to Ireland, Trinity College library means the Book of Kells - the country's biggest tourist attraction last year. However, it is much more than a heritage centre, proud though the college is of the Long Room, Kells and other great manuscript holdings.

One of the few positive legacies of the ill-starred Act of Union of 1800 between Ireland and Great Britain has been the continuing United Kingdom legal deposit status of the library of Trinity College Dublin. This status, granted under the terms of the Copyright Act of 1801, continues to serve both Ireland and Anglo-Irish cultural relations well.

The library functions in relation to UK legal deposit in exactly the same way as the university libraries of Oxford and Cambridge and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales. It shares with them the costs of maintaining a joint copyright agency in London for the receipt and distribution of copies of material published in the UK and works with them and with the British Library, which operates independently of the agency, to produce high-quality cataloguing records for all published materials.

It is probably common knowledge in academic circles that Trinity College library is a UK legal deposit library. It may be less well known that this is not a one-way arrangement between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Under the terms of Irish copyright legislation, the five UK legal deposit libraries are entitled to receive copies of all works published in Ireland. Trinity acts as the agency for the receipt and transfer of Irish material to the UK, adding value to the process of international cooperation by avoiding the need for a small independent agency in Dublin. This reciprocity is a point usually overlooked by those British publishers who sometimes complain about the iniquities of their being required to deposit copies of their publications in a "foreign" library.

Also forgotten is the fact that Trinity serves the whole island of Ireland, north as well as south, and in that sense continues to perform a UK function long after it has ceased to be a UK library.

In terms of relative costs to the two countries' publishing industries, the Irish side bears a much greater burden in that Irish publishers, who are generally smaller and cater for a market that is only a fraction of that enjoyed by their British counterparts, provide a total of 13 legal deposit copies (one to the National Library, seven to the Irish University libraries, including Trinity, and five to the UK legal deposit libraries). By contrast the British publishers provide only six copies, including Trinity's.

UK legal deposit status is important to Trinity College library and to the Republic of Ireland for a number of academic, cultural and historical reasons. Simple continuity, if not a compelling argument, is a powerful one and the sheer volume of material collected and preserved for the nation over two centuries, both before and since independence, makes it an unmatched resource in Ireland for research and scholarship. Because of its heritage collections and its continuing acquisition programme of books and manuscripts, as well as legal deposit, we are, in fact, Ireland's only research library of world stature.

Trinity's legal deposit status ensures in some measure that although Ireland today looks increasingly to continental Europe for its political and cultural inspiration, historic ties and influences are not forgotten. Reciprocity of legal deposit arrangements ensures, though, that remembrance of a shared inheritance does not descend into neo-colonialism and Trinity are genuine givers as well as recipients in the arrangement.

There is a very considerable opportunity cost attached to legal deposit status since the cost of acquiring, cataloguing, storing and making available the material the library receives not just to Trinity's own staff and students but to the wider community is reliably estimated to be more than twice the IPounds 500,000 of special factor funding that we receive from the Higher Education Authority. Since a substantial proportion of what is received under legal deposit, though valuable to the nation, is not material that it would otherwise buy, there is a powerful case to answer when the college's scientists and engineers argue that what is spent on legal deposit would be better directed to the purchase of the American and European monographs and serials that it cannot at present afford.

While very few people in Trinity would seriously argue that the library should give up its legal deposit status and most recognise both its role in building up the library and its historic responsibility as a national resource, the college is anxious to ensure that the government recognises and acts on its responsibility to maintain and develop this unique resource directly rather than through a system which, after the IPounds 500,000 is committed, leaves Trinity to find the remainder.

Trinity is subject to a "double whammy" in that our legal deposit role is not fully funded while, under the unit costing mechanism by which the performance of universities is measured, we are judged to be expensive because activities such as legal deposit and our heritage role consume a large slice of our recurrent budget.

It would, however, be unfair to pretend that government or the HEA is unsympathetic to our position. In discussion with ministers, civil servants and other officials there is recognition of the importance of Trinity's role and that we are at present unfairly penalised because of it. Negotiations continue on a positive and friendly basis and there is a will to provide greater support for our historic role. The difficulty lies in finding the money.

Trinity College library's links with main United Kingdom research libraries remain strong and, if anything, are growing. Just as the university itself is still seen as a source of outstanding graduates by UK employers, the library is seen by the wider academic community as well able to punch its weight.

Like all Irish university libraries and the National Library itself Trinity is a member of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries, but is the only Irish (and non-UK) member of the Consortium of University Research Libraries.

The imminent addition of its catalogue records to the CURL database will add considerably to the records of holdings available to UK academics and researchers, whether for document delivery or personal visits, even though no funding comes from the UK.

William Simpson is librarian of Trinity College Dublin.

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