Keith Mitchelson: A trove of treasures

Jul 10, 2022
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The National Library of Australia is preserving our past wealth of regional newspapers, magazines, and books. Trove holds treasures relevant to understanding the present.

The National Library of Australia (NLA) commenced the creation of an online database of digitised images and texts from historical Australian sources back in the mid 1990’s, which after a decade of development opened on-line in 2009 as ‘Trove’. The database is very popular, hosting a claimed 70,000 daily users, and offering a range of content from libraries, museums, archives, repositories and other organisations across Australia. It also allows searching of books in Australian libraries (some fully available online), academic and other journals, as well as the searching of digitised-archived newspapers and other documents.

The website provides text-searchable access to over 700 historic Australian newspapers from each State and Territory, including many defunct regional papers and magazines. By 2014, Trove had made over 13.5 million digitised newspaper pages available as part of the Australian Newspaper Plan, a “collaborative program to collect and preserve every newspaper published in Australia”, as well as guaranteeing public access to “important historical records”.

The Trove data base is unusual amongst international digital document services. It engages with the general public directly, some whom provide help to correct the newspapers texts scanned by the OCR system which may incorporate text errors because of variable source document quality. As of January 2022, some 5.82% of articles have had at least one public correction. This collaborative participation allows users to give back to the service, and over time improves database utility as searchers encounter more corrected text.

A 2018 study found the site among the top 15 for international citations in English-language version of Wikipedia. The breadth of its domestic audience, its immediate popularity with Australians and its large number of international users signals the uniqueness of Trove.

Remarkably, despite the need to capture our ageing and deteriorating historical documents and make their contents publicly available, in December 2015 treasurer Scott Morrison and finance minister Mathias Cormann of the incoming Turnbull government cut funding in the ‘2015 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook Statement’. This ‘efficiency dividend’ caused the NLA to “cease aggregating content in Trove from museums and universities unless … fully funded to do so.”

Henry Belot reported that the Library was required to find $4.4 million of savings by the end of the 2017-18 financial year, including the $1.5 million of savings required immediately by the Mid-Year Outlook Statement, causing loss of 22 jobs and increased workload for remaining staff on frozen wages.

After repeated public campaigns and academic requests for funding restoration, in December 2016 Trove received a further $16.4 million, spread over four years to the end 2020. The Morrison-Cormann ‘efficiency savings’ actually equated to loss of one entire year of funding. By early 2020 the surge for all digital services during Covid created new problems, with the NLA coping with dwindling staff whilst needing to develop further services to provide for increased requests for information. It undertook a restructure of its staffing and operations to simply keep abreast.

Subsequently, in June 2020 then communications minister Paul Fletcher committed a further $8 million over two years, covering years 2020-2021. And then 18 months later in December 2021 with the federal election fast approaching, an increasingly desperate treasurer Josh Frydenberg, minister Fletcher and ACT senator Zed Seselja co-jointedly announced a modest $5.7 million over two years to ensure Trove funding did not become negative election issue.

Why did Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann impose those cuts back in December 2015 when Trove was still in its early phase of capturing historical documents, and the broader public were enthusiastically finding they could now easily access previously impossible to find information?

The Coalition might suggest financial limitations of the period, but others would see that Trove increased the ability to find hidden information – which individuals and associations were using to support legal challenges for native title, land rights, for stopping environmental destruction and pollution, and for evidencing climate change and other societal issues where historical accounts and data are vital to providing evidence of past ownerships, past conditions and past events.

Remarkably, this negative Coalition view of Trove is clearly evident from actions of governments from the Howard through to Morrison, where they drove a particular narrative of ‘Australia’s history’. During Turnbull’s government special funds were made available to restore triumphalist statues of James Cook in Sydney and Cooktown, and statues of numerous white explorers and colonial identities, many with documented roles in killing or supressing aborigines. Some $60 million was provided for a controversial ‘re-enactment of Cook’s voyage of 1770’ – which included a complete circumnavigation of Australia, a journey which he did not undertake in reality.

Former Coalition leaders Howard and Abbott have pointedly opposed native land rights, refusing to countenance an apology for past mistreatments, and promoted university courses on ‘Western Civilisation’ at a projected special Ramsay Centre established with a $3 billion bequest, where the glory of the British Empire would be taught, free of the black armband of objective truth.

As Tony Abbott wrote, “the Ramsay Centre would… “not merely be about western civilisation but in favour of it”. Abbott went on to criticise contemporary university education, suggesting that “every element of the curriculum … is pervaded by Asian, Indigenous and sustainability perspectives”. “Almost entirely absent from the contemporary educational mindset was any sense that cultures might not all be equal and that truth might not be entirely relative.”

Money was no object for the Coalition in developing its carnival celebration of Australia’s founding and promoting their triumphalist colonial view of ‘Australian culture’, which they insist must be taught in university to the exclusion of other realistic historical views. Simultaneously, the NLA’s preservation of fragile contemporary historical documents became much less interesting for them.

Trove of course hosts historical reports and documents that demonstrate the coercive and genocidal nature of the laws, institutions and treatment used in 19th and 20th century Australia to control, limit and eradicate Aboriginal identity, place and freedom. It is likely that the Coalition wants to limit public access to these damning documents.

Our national broadcaster, the ABC has been similarly targeted with intense political attacks and wilful defunding by the Coalition because it is medium of record, probity and honesty. It also dared establish a first nation’s radio and television voice with the NITV bringing aboriginal culture and lived experience to the whole country. Throughout the Abbott to Morrison governments (2014 to 2021) the ABC budget was cut by $512 million, plus a $14 million “return of capital”. The falling budget cost 640 jobs, staffing decreased by 13% causing numerous programs and projects to be scrapped. Surely the ABC’s commitment to the accurate information for the entire population of Australia is an element of the attacks by the openly racist Coalition parties.

Will the Albanese government restore full funding to continue development of our vital national Trove service which allows citizens everywhere to access our country’s history? Will the government restore full ABC funding? And urgently reverse the projected loss of a further 58 archivists and librarians – people collating the historical record of past ABC programs and history – vital information similar to the NLA’s Trove.

Sounds all too familiar? Well, our national historical information should be available for anyone to access, examine and learn from. The cost of hiding information from Australians any longer, is simply too much.

Keith Mitchelson has a 40-year experience in academic and commercial biotechnology sectors in the UK, China, and Australia. 

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