The Hon. Dr Brett Mason, National Library of Australia Council Chair
Shortly after my appointment as Chair of the Library’s Council, I was delighted to be one of thousands of Australians celebrating the 50th birthday of the Library’s instantly recognisable home on the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. The doors were thrown open to the community, with staff and volunteers sharing their deep knowledge of collections built up over decades, the many surprises behind the scenes—including the fleet of robots that ferry collection material from stacks to reading rooms—and the digital infrastructure that takes the Library to the world. I suspect few will forget a day which saw the entire Library teeming with excited visitors of all ages.
I am equally sure that the 80,000 people who experienced Cook and the Pacific—a superb exhibition running from September 2018 to February 2019, made possible through Australian Government funding—will long remember the astonishing treasures they saw. Drawn from the Library’s rich collections, and complemented by loans from national and international lenders, the exhibition explored new perspectives on Cook’s legacy. More than 400 people attended the very special exhibition opening, honoured by the words, songs and ceremonies shared by the Australian and Pacific communities whose worlds were forever changed after their encounters with these eighteenth-century voyagers. Visitors left the exhibition with new insights into Cook’s scientific and navigational leadership, and vivid new understandings of the many thriving cultures Cook and his men encountered during their three voyages.
The Library is a place to which many return day after day, week after week, pursuing answers to their research questions, assisted by great curatorial expertise. Its exhibitions and public programs are also a major drawcard for visitors to the nation’s capital. But it is the Library’s digital leadership that takes its collections far beyond its walls, and very far beyond the capital. Far-sighted investment in digital infrastructure and collection digitisation has seen the Library make tens of millions of digitised pages, maps and images, tens of thousands of digitised audio hours and billions of web files available across Australia and the world through its Trove online platform. And while the last year has seen an increase in the size and scope of digital heritage available to all through that world-leading service, there is always so much more to do.
For this reason, 2018–19 saw Council preparing a bold new philanthropy strategy— aptly named Treasured Voices. This campaign aims to digitise, and make available through Trove, many more treasures from the Library’s vast collections, including the personal papers of past leaders and rich stories of Australian rural and regional life, as well as a further diversity of all collection formats. We were delighted that the Library’s existing digital capability, and its new ambitions, were recognised by the Australian Government in the 2019 Budget, which provided $10 million over four years, beginning next year, as seed funding for this ambitious campaign.
This contribution makes Treasured Voices a true partnership between government and the community.
Generous private donors have long given to the Library because they believe in the work that we do, and in our ability to deliver on our commitments. With their support, in 2018–19, over 30 scholars gained the opportunity to engage deeply with our collections and expert curatorial staff over weeks or months. In addition, Library staff members were able to travel internationally to develop professional knowledge, and to bring new ideas ‘home’. We also use this support to preserve and digitise special parts of our collections—in 2018, unique and fragile performing arts scrapbooks; in 2019, Australian advertising posters created between 1850 and 1950.
The Library also welcomed Budget funding of $1 million for urgent capital works— specifically, remediation of legacy asbestos issues. The Library’s building—the core of its operations and identity—has been lovingly cared for over decades, but its age is showing, with its heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system nearing the end of its useful life, and its 50-year-old heritage windows close behind. Even more importantly, the Library’s 261 linear kilometres of shelving—at its main building and two additional repositories—are almost full. With the physical collection still growing by two kilometres every year—despite a significant and purposeful shift to digital collecting—the Library has focused on identifying a solution to address its short-term storage needs, while exploring options for the larger-scale, longer-term storage it must secure within a very few years.
Over the course of the year, I have learnt how carefully the Library stewards its collections, relationships and resources, and how strategically it stretches these resources to support its physical and digital collections and services. The Australian people have good cause to be proud of the work of their national library, which leads the world in so much of its digital innovation, while remaining grounded in the reality of collecting at scale, and serving millions of individuals every year.
In this, my first year as Chair of the Library’s Council, I thank and acknowledge my fellow Council members for bringing their many skills and talents to a collegial table focused on maximising the impact the Library has on the Australian community. I thank them for the strategic insight they have brought to the Library’s work, and their particular focus on how the Library should weight its investment across its three core purposes—to collect, connect and collaborate—as we move into the third decade of the twenty-first century.
I particularly thank outgoing members for their outstanding contributions to the Library’s success: Ms Jane Hemstritch (Deputy Chair and Chair, Governance Committee), concluding a very distinguished nine years on Council; Justice Thomas Bradley, elevated to the Queensland Supreme Court during the year; and Senator Claire Moore, who retired from the Australian Parliament at the 2019 election.
The Library is fortunate that Mr Douglas Snedden (Chair, Audit and Enterprise Risk Committee), Professor Kent Anderson (Chair, Fellowships Advisory Committee), Ms Alice Wong, Ms Janet Hirst and Mr Julian Leeser MP will continue their work for the Library, and that Council will benefit from the skills and perspectives of new members Dr Shane Simpson, Dr Bennie Ng, Ms Rosalie Rotolo-Hassan and Mr Richard Price. The Library’s renewed and enlarged Council will continue the important work of focusing on and refining the Library’s strategic priorities.
I also thank Director-General Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, the Library’s staff and the wonderful onsite and online volunteers who work with such dedication to build a collection fit for the future, engage with the many communities the collection represents and nourishes, and provide national collaborative services that bring Australia’s heritage to all. I look forward to working with them in the coming year.
The Hon. Dr Brett Mason