This spring I had the good fortune to be chosen to participate in a British Council library tour. From January 25-February 5th, 1997, I toured over seventeen libraries and archival collections in Northern Ireland and met with colleagues from all parts of the country. The American group was made up of fourteen librarians representing a cross-section of institutions from across the United States and included special collections librarians, library directors, and subject specialists. This library tour is part of the British Council's on-going effort to promote a balanced view of Northern Ireland and its political context. The tour was based in Belfast, with trips by bus to view collections throughout the country.
The tour provided a valuable overview of the rich library and archival collections held by institutions in Northern Ireland. The group visited The Linen Hall Library in Belfast, the Armagh Public Library, Queens University at Armagh, University of Ulster at Magee, University of Ulster at Coleraine, Belfast Public Library, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Ulster-American Folk Park, and several other smaller and more specialized collections.
In addition to the library tours participants were treated to theater, storytelling, and receptions by both the Northern Ireland Library Association and the British Council's office in Northern Ireland. There was a travel day to Derry along the Antrim Coast Highway, and the sun shone brightly for a visit to Devil's Causeway. The day the group arrived in Derry was the 25th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Fortunately there was little violence, although tensions were certainly high and security checkpoints were set up along the main roads entering the city.
The British Council clearly supports the English presence in Northern Ireland, but our questions and discussions were never censored, and everywhere we went people were happy to speak to us frankly and openly. In fact, the first day's orientation included an introduction to the extremely complex political situation in Northern Ireland and a tour of the parts of Belfast that have seen the most damage from the "Troubles."
Certainly the end of the cease-fire is having an impact on funding for Irish libraries and public institutions. Although it is not spelled out in so many words, it appears that the expense involved in maintaining the peace will be paid from public funds that would otherwise go to library and educational programs in Northern Ireland. The costs involved in maintaining fleets of armored trucks, fortified police stations, and 24-hour surveillance helicopters (among other security measures) will result in an estimated 50% reduction in acquisitions budgets for libraries that receive public funding.
Discussions with collection development librarians revealed the labor-intensive nature of Irish collecting. Even at the Belfast Public Library where approval plans are standard for non-Irish collecting, the individuals responsible for local collections have to rely on personal relationships in order to get material. The Linen Hall Library has several people assigned to contact each of the political parties every few days to be ensure comprehensive coverage.
Irish publishing also produces a lot of "vanity" press titles that are under one hundred pages in length, with very small print runs, but that are of a scholarly nature. This sort of thing is rarely picked up by standard approval plans, yet such publications make up a large portion of Irish scholarly publishing.
Although there is some Internet access at the university level, private individual accounts are quite rare. There is only one Internet cafe, located in Belfast, and most of the librarians we spoke to had difficulty gaining access to Internet resources. There are two Web sites currently under development that are quite useful for finding information on Northern Ireland's social and political situation:
Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
Internet Service on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (INCORE)
For information on upcoming study tours and opportunities for the pursuit of individual projects in Northern Ireland contact Ms. Kathy Culpin, Cultural Affairs Assistant, Northern Ireland Cultural Programme, The British Council, Cultural Department, The British Embassy, 3100 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC 20008-3600. Tel (202) 588-6500. Fax (202) 588-7918. http://www.britcoun.org/usa