Standing up for Canberra

Trove is a national treasure worth funding

The National Library's Trove project is remarkable. And, due to budget cuts, it is dying.

If you're reading this online, you can access Trove. There are no paywalls or passwords.

It is a fundamentally and purely democratic home to 90 million pictures, unpublished manuscripts, books, oral histories, music, videos, research papers, diaries, letters, maps, archived websites and Australian newspapers, from more than 1000 libraries around the country.

And 70,000 people pay that home a visit, every day.

Some people think that it's OK for Trove to wind up. To them, Trove is a dustbin: a place to keep the old bits of paper and tape we don't know where else to put.

But it's not OK to me.

There is a through-line to Australia's history. It's not always clear from the big, birds-eye view of things, but when you dive into the detail you see the fingerprints of the past on the stories of the present.

There's Sydney's Evening News from April 10, 1902, featuring an editorial titled "Must Women Vote?". It argues women do not actually want the vote, yet men are cruelly forcing them to. Women are more concerned, apparently, with "the prices of her gloves, her boots, her little bits of lace and finery" than the "serious business" of politics.

There's the story in the Advertiser from April 1950, which reports that eight Adelaide men were jailed that day for homosexuality. The newspaper ran the men's names, their ages, their occupations, and their street addresses.

There's the May 16, 1881, edition of The Newcastle Morning Herald, which reports on a town hall meeting at Cook's Hill to discuss the issue of Chinese immigration. It quotes a man named Mr Newman, who says, "if they conformed to the customs of the country, [I] for one would not so much object to them … but it was not so".

Then there's the notification of the introduction of the Aborigines Protection Act in the pages of The Singleton Argus from January 8, 1910. The act would set the legal framework for what became known as the Stolen Generation.

The Abbott-Turnbull government delivered Trove a death sentence in last December's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook when it cut $36 million from the budgets of "cultural and collecting entities" by what's known as an efficiency dividend.

Any potential efficiencies within the National Library's budget have been found, well and truly. There is no fat left to trim. These cuts hit bone.

As a result, the National Library, already starved of funds, is finally overwhelmed.

The National Library has announced that Trove will cease adding new material. It will preserve an incomplete version of our past – which is like preserving every second page of a novel.

The cuts will mean the Trove's ongoing effort to digitise Australia's history will be put on pause – indefinitely. The next project Trove was due to embark on was the digitisation of The Bulletin, from its first issue in 1880, through to its final issue, more than 120 years later.

The project is no longer going forward.

This isn't just letting history fall through the cracks. This is blowing open the cracks.

These cuts are an attack on Canberra and an attack on Australia. Those it hurts most aren't yet alive to vote against it.

What's more, these cuts don't have to happen. At $4.4 million by 2017-18, the investment to keep Trove alive is relatively minor. Yet the dividend the investment returns is incalculable.

By now, you probably know Malcolm Turnbull brought the budget forward by a week to give himself space for a double dissolution election.

What you might not know is that it costs taxpayers more to bring the budget forward by a week than it does to cover the Trove's budget shortfall for a year.

The Turnbull government found $3.3 million to examine whether wind turbines cause heart disease. There's still time for it to find the money for Trove.

This piece was first published in The Canberra Times on Wednesday, 27 April 2016.