Trove is a trailblazing essential service: how can we neglect it as we have?

The loss of Trove would instantly make such research much more difficult, forcing people to go through a variety of smaller institutions or physically attend the National Library.

The National Library of Australia revealed last year that they may be forced to end their Trove online service due to lack of funding. Despite vague promises made by the federal government, this longstanding neglect of the archive digitisation service relied upon by thousands of Australians — groundbreaking in its accessibility and scope — is not necessarily over. The perilous situation Trove finds itself is a direct result of years of fiscal negligence by the previous Coalition government and is indicative of the dire state of the arts in this country. 

The Albanese government has pledged to overhaul Australia’s arts funding system with initiatives to foster our contemporary music scene, increase employee protections in the industry and foreground First Nations artists and stories. Whilst these are admirable and necessary steps, specific reference to the National Library has been conspicuously absent from the program. 

The Prime Minister did acknowledge in January that our cultural institutions – including the National Library – have been “starved of funds” by the previous government. However, this concern has not translated to concrete policy pledges. The National Library is thus left hoping for the best in the May budget, despite possibly being required to shut down Trove by mid-year.

Trove has been in danger before. The service was seriously threatened by the Turnbull government’s “efficiency dividend” in 2016. The “dividend” slashed available funds to six federal institutions, including the National Library, by $20 million over four years.

A successful #fundTrove campaign forced a federal funding package that saved Trove from imminent destruction in 2016; this funding was supplemented further in 2021. However, it has become clear that this was a short-term, stopgap measure: Trove remains under threat.

The very fact that such a service was threatened in the first place is a serious indictment on the Australian government. Trove is a highly innovative service. The National Library of Australia has been a world leader in digitisation. Many American public libraries, for instance, owe a serious debt to Trove, which formed an exemplary basis for their own digitisation projects.

More importantly, the service is essential to a huge number of Australians. Trove is very widely used: according to the National Trust it averages over 70,000 site visits per day. These users, ranging from academics to students to people from all walks of life simply interested in their family or local history, find in Trove an accessible and extensive database of historical material. The loss of Trove would instantly make such research much more difficult, forcing people to go through a variety of smaller institutions – such as local libraries – or physically attend the National Library.

According to the National Trust, the loss of Trove would place huge pressure on Australia’s public library system and reduce the capacity for historical research across the board, including in the area of heritage assessment. As such, the National Trust labels the loss of Trove a “very retrograde step”.

Such a prospect should be of immense concern for students, for whom Trove offers a free and immense collection of primary source information with unparalleled accessibility. 

Edward Luca, head of Academic Services at The University of Sydney Library, said “Trove is an important piece of cultural and research infrastructure for Australia, and a powerful resource for students.”

“Trove enables access to Australian-focused content, including digitised newspapers, books, images, maps, diaries, letters, biographical information and other archival content, and connects users to digital collections hosted by other institutions.”

As such, the loss of the service would affect university students at every level of their studies. Assignments and theses would become immensely more time consuming and costly, forcing access through paywalled institutions or possibly expensive physical travel.

Third year history student Simone Maddison told Honi that “[Trove is] quite accessible and makes researching my interests at the beginning of a project quite easy […] particularly when I’m not quite sure exactly what my study will be about.”

The potential loss of Trove is deeply worrying, and the lack of a specific pledge in the current government’s newly announced arts package is concerning. What can we, as students, do to contribute to the campaign to save Trove? For a start, a parliamentary petition has been launched to impress upon the Albanese government that for thousands of Australians Trove is an essential service that requires funding. Although the budget consultation submission process has now closed, it is never too late to contact your local member of parliament to call for Trove to receive increased and stable funding.  

Ultimately, it is shameful that in Australia we find ourselves in a position where the cessation of a service like Trove is even under consideration. Our public institutions constructed a world leading, accessible and ultimately essential service for digitising and retrieving historical sources: we should not allow it to be threatened by neglect.

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