Open Letter : Is Our Country’s Memory at Risk?The new government that took office this month may be called innovative in many respects, but it remains to be seen whether new is necessarily better. For the scientific institutions that are still active on the federal level since the second phase of the constitutional reform of 1980, the future looks grim. On behalf of the federal cultural institutions, the Director of the Monnaie spoke up against the measures, but the budgetary restrictions are also aimed at the Federal Scientific Institutions (FSI).
The government agreement dedicates a remarkably long chapter to the FSI, but also to Belspo, the Public Planning Service (PPS) which is responsible for the administrative management of the FSI and of the research programmes on the federal level. The chapter contains some revolutionary intentions, but remains vague on several points. We are eager to learn the precise intentions and the vision of our new Secretary of State. Naturally, we are ready to provide our own ideas, ambitions and solutions and to cooperate with the political authorities.
We are, among other things, faced with the severe cutbacks which the Council of Ministers imposes on all the federal public services. In 2015, we must save 4% on personnel and 20% on our operating costs. The next four years, there is to be another 2% cutback in the allocations. As a result, the FSI active in the documentation sector, i.e. the State Archives, the Royal Library of Belgium and CegeSoma (Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society), will see their academic and public service activities seriously jeopardised. In what follows, we will give a brief outline of the exact and dramatic consequences these cutbacks will have for these vulnerable institutions which we may, without any pretence, call “the memory of our country”.
The General State Archives
The State Archives have 18 depositories located throughout the country. One of its missions is to ensure the sustainable conservation of archives from various sources and to make them accessible for research purposes. The State Archives have for many years had two ambitions: to contribute in a useful way to the modernisation of the government (digital government, open government) and to achieve the digitisation of important parts of the 'national memory'.
It is the government's ambition to establish a 'digital federal government' by the end of its term. It proposes that each federal public service, quite rightly, 'eliminates the paper mountain' which will 'create space, abolish many miles of shelves and, at the same time, will also contribute to the disclosure and accessibility of historical archives for the public'. The legal mission of the State Archives is precisely to select historical archives and to give permission to destroy documents without any administrative, juridical, historical or scientific interest. Thus, a lot of space will be created in our country, which in turn will lead to considerable economies. This operation protects therefore not only 'the memory of the country', but also contributes to more efficient government. If the present budget for the extension and maintenance of the archive depositories is not maintained, these transfers will no longer be possible. With less and less personnel, it cannot be expected that the State Archives accelerate the whole operation of sorting, classifying and transferring many miles of records.
Where the digitisation of archives is concerned, the present resources have as yet not allowed to perform a correct analysis of this complex question and to catch up with other countries. This would require a considerable investment, in qualified personnel as well as in IT facilities. Contrary to what is often assumed, digitisation and online public service are not free. They come at a price!
The mission of the General State Archives increasingly gathers momentum and complexity. The infrastructure to be maintained expands and the (digital) client becomes more demanding. The funding however is continually reduced. To achieve additional savings, several state archives would have to be closed down, which is impossible in the space of one year, if only because such an operation also costs money.
The Royal Library of Belgium
The Royal Library of Belgium plays a key role in the safeguarding of the historic, academic and artistic memory of our country. It keeps for the community not only world famous historic heritage collections, but also all Belgian and many foreign publications, which indeed can only be found here. As a result of these brutal structural savings of nearly 30% of our budget , it will be impossible to ensure the essential mission of the institution and a high quality service with a minimum of excellence. It is clear that our core business will be affected.
All funding for acquisitions for the heritage collections of the Royal Library are withdrawn. Among them are world famous manuscripts, prints and valuable incunabula. As a result, important heritage will find its way abroad. Is the government prepared to see more Gruuthuse-manuscripts leave the country?
We will no longer be able to fully participate in the preservation and promotion of our country's cultural heritage, nor make it accessible to the public. The continuation and success of the goals which we have been pursuing for a long time, and that are reflected in the digital development, the accessibility of the collections and our public activities are also seriously jeopardised.
With the appointment of a minister for the Digital Agenda, the Library hoped that the government would give special attention to the development of the digital collections in an institution such as the Royal Library. However, in view of the announced measures, the Library can no longer participate in this strategic development. Moreover, it will no longer be able to give access to the foreign academic literature necessary for academic research to students, researchers and ultimately the public. Thus, we are confronted with a radical and unilateral closing-off of the basic access to knowledge for everyone.
For Cegesoma, the announced measures are a threat to its existence. It is a small and relatively young institution (founded in 1969). For many decades however it has played a central role in the field of contemporary history: as an internationally renowned centre of expertise on the dark years of the 20th century history of Europe and Belgium , in particular the two World Wars and the Cold War, as a platform and meeting point for the colleagues at the universities in north and south and, finally and increasingly, as a player in the cultural sector with historic exhibitions and publications destined at a broad public.
Several years of cutbacks and non-indexation of the personnel budget in the allocation have completely eroded the financing of permanent employment (no one at CegeSoma has civil servant status). In 2015, all accrued reserves will be exhausted and we will be left with a negligible budget. In 2016, we will have no option but to dismiss employees…whose redundancy payment will exceed their annual salary. If no steps are taken, the future of Cegesoma is at stake.
We are ambitious and open to all forms of intelligent cooperation on different levels. In order to grow and flourish and to maintain, as federal scientific institutions, the possibility to achieve these goals, what are needed are investments and not further cutbacks!
Therefore, we put the following question, together and in all clarity, before the federal government: does it wish to secure the future of the documentary institutions, i.e. the State Archives, the Royal Library of Belgium and CegeSoma by granting them stable funding? The new government promises in its agreement to evaluate the funding for the institutions and re-implement them by mid-2015. We can only express the hope that a solution will be found then to undo the disastrous consequences of these linear savings, or at the very least attenuate them and to give us the chance to move forward.
Director General of the Royal Library of Belgium
Rudi Van Doorslaer
Director of the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society
Director General of the State Archives of Belgium
28 / 10 / 2014