The future of Trove, the National Library of Australia’s expansive public digital archives, is in doubt with just six months funding left, with the library’s director general revealing that it is facing “very, very big decisions” in the next few months, if the government does not step in with funding.
Trove, a free online resource used by thousands of researchers, academics and members of the public, receives more than 20m hits each year. It has been treading water for the past six years, drip-fed by the federal government to the tune of about $5m annually.
The last tranche of that funding is set to run out in July. While there remains a possibility that Trove will be thrown a last-minute lifeline in the May budget, that will come just weeks before it could be forced to cease operations.
Last week, the arts minister, Tony Burke, publicly indicated that Trove’s future will not be addressed in the federal government’s new cultural policy, which will be announced on 30 January.
The National Library’s director general, Marie-Louise Ayres, said she was waiting to hear from the government.
“We’ve had no indications about future funding of Trove,” she said.
“We’re at a point now where we can’t continue to run our business on a funding model that is just not fit for purpose and doesn’t recognise what modern Australia needs from it national cultural institutions.
“I’m an optimist. I believe our case is very good … but it’s coming to the point when we will need to think very carefully about which parts of the service we could continue running and which we could not [post July 2023] – and they’re very, very big decisions.”
Dr Mike Jones, a historian at the Australian National University recently wrote in the Conversation about the possible consequences of the closure, saying many students had raised concerns with him about the viability of projects planned for 2023, with no guarantee of Trove’s ongoing viability.
“A student I spoke to yesterday, who’s just starting his PhD, was wondering if he needed to reshape his whole methodology and rethink what was happening if there was a chance that Trove was going to go,” he said.
“Given the reliance on Trove by historians and many other researchers, suddenly not having that sort of platform available will increase the cost of research projects, it will mean that people will need more research time, they’ll potentially need to visit more institutions physically than they did in the past. They may even need to reshape projects completely and it might make some projects that are currently viable simply not possible, because if they’re using large scale historical data or cultural heritage data, it’s simply not feasible without that kind of platform there.
“From an academic institution point of view, it could be really significant. But Trove is also used by the broader Australian population – by local historians, by family historians, researchers, by people trying to find out about their own families, their own histories.”
According to the National Library’s modelling, Trove will need about $32m over the next four years to upgrade its ageing digital archival system. Introducing a paywall for users is not an option, Ayres said.
“From the very beginnings of the National Library’s work in the digital space, and we’ve been in this space now for well over 20 years, we have had one great driver – democratising access to our collections and the collections of other cultural institutions and making sure that they’re available to all Australians regardless of where they live, who they are, and their ability to pay,” she said.
“Free access to information is fundamental to libraries, and it is to us. So from our perspective, egalitarian access is what drives us and we have no interest at all in moving to an alternate model.”
The National Library and its Trove service is one of six national Canberra-based cultural institutions that have been struggling to do more with less over a period of more than three decades, when the government introduced the concept of efficiency dividends to government-funding bodies in the late 1980s.
In 2016, the Turnbull government slashed a further $20m in funding collectively from the National Library, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Film and Sound Archive, and the National Gallery of Australia.
In his address last Friday, Burke said there was “a lot of outcry at the moment and justified outcry” about funding of Canberra’s collecting institutions, saying it was due to “systematic underfunding that has happened for a long period of time”.
“There will be major decisions that the government will take in dealing with those challenges,” he said.