Libraries, records and the state


national library When I went to Dublin a while back, I had a couple of spare hours so I thought I'd look up some of my Irish ancestors. I was advised to go to the National Library (pictured), which seemed sensible, so I did. After a few minutes in its labyrinth, I eventually found the right bit of the building, only to be told that the records had all gone over to the National Archives about a mile away. So I trudged there, but by the time I had got through its labyrinthine system I had run out of time, with not so much as a readers' ticket to show for it.

Yesterday, back in Dublin, I bee-lined it to the Archives at the crack of dawn. Only to be told that the records I wanted were not in fact there, but in the General Register Office, about another mile back in the other direction again. Thanks, people.

Nor is the General Register Office easy to find. It's in a shopping mall, and there is no signage until you get inside the door – 'Reading Room 3rd Floor'. Even when you get to the third floor it's hard to spot, sharing the same door as the child welfare office. Is someone worried about terrorism (well, the IRA did blow up the record office in the 1920s, and thousands of irreplaceable records were lost, but that threat has somewhat subsided these days)?

And not surprisingly the place is a typical state-run organization. The staff are certainly pleasant and helpful enough (Ireland is still small enough for them to feel easy calling you by your first name). But there are bizarre rules (you can't order up more than five birth, marriage or death certificates a day, for example, even at 4 Euros a copy) which seem designed to make life comfortable for the producers rather than convenient for the consumers. And the indexes to all these records are kept in large, lumbering volumes.

This whole place, like most record offices I guess, should be privatized. There is no shortage of people wanting to look up their ancestry, and willing to pay to do it. A private-sector manager would have converted all the indexes, not just to microfilm (which you're lucky to get in some libraries) but to digital form, so that they can be scanned in seconds by anyone in the world – rather than people having to waste hours having to find the right place in Dublin and then having to lift, pore through, and replace heavy volumes – and copies of the records would spit out on your printer.

A lot of people worry about what would happen to libraries if the state did not provide them. I have no doubt. Without the dead hand of state bureaucracy, the whole business would be revolutionized in short order.