Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, Director-General, National Library of Australia
A paradise for lost souls, hungry ones, all of us in our wonderful diversity. A truly public space, a space of encounters.
So wrote a regular visitor to the Library in May 2019. Over the last year, the Library has done much to amplify the physical and digital public spaces that nurture and inspire encounters, and that mirror the astonishing and growing diversity of Australia’s people. I am delighted to report here on just a few of the Library’s achievements, with many more detailed in the pages that follow.
In 2018–19, as in the previous two years, the Library’s ambitions—especially to unlock its glorious collections for the 98 per cent of Australians who live more than three hours’ drive from Canberra—have been supported through the Australian Government’s Modernisation program. The overwhelming majority of Public Service Modernisation funding has been invested in the Library’s Trove online platform: some, but by no means all, back-end requirements have been addressed, including rapidly escalating cybersecurity needs; a brand new Trove interface will be delivered in 2019–20; and a growing library of digitised and born-digital content is available to all, from anywhere, at any time. This investment was extremely welcome, as the Library’s ongoing appropriation was insufficient to support much-needed change to a service that is heavily used by Australians in every postcode, and which is increasingly seen as an important international window to Australia’s life, people and democracy.
This short-term additional government investment built on decades of investment by the Library, supported by general appropriation and through partnerships with institutions across the country. It built on decades of successful delivery of ambitious digital agendas. It built on the enormous trust the community has in the National Library, as both a physical and digital space of encounter. And it built on collaboration—an intrinsic element of the Library’s organisational DNA.
For nearly four decades, the Library has led collaboration across the entire Australian library community. For many of those years, that collaboration centred around metadata—machine-readable description of collection materials. Since 1981, Australians have benefited from the existence and maintenance of the Australian National Bibliographic Database (ANBD)—an aggregation of all Australian library holdings. The ANBD is deployed for public use nationally via Trove and internationally via WorldCat, a service bringing together catalogues of some 60,000 libraries around the world. Australia is world renowned for its approach to national sharing of metadata, driving major efficiencies, and delivering effective access to generations of knowledge seekers.
Metadata sharing was extended to museums, galleries and archives 20 years ago and the Library now collates collection metadata from more than 940 libraries and more than 170 other collecting institutions. In this way, Trove provides a single access point for discovering a huge array of unique Australian content, whether held in physical or electronic form, delivered by a small historical society, medium- sized museum or large government agency.
In addition, the Library has collaborated with other institutions for more than 20 years to collect Australian websites of high cultural value for long-term retention. More recently, it engineered an agreed approach to more frequent, semi-automated collection of Commonwealth websites to preserve the Australian Government’s communication for posterity. The Library has also partnered with the Internet Archive to collect annual ‘snapshots’ of the entire Australian web domain.
In 2019, these three collections were brought together as the Australian Web Archive (AWA), a world first that saw more than nine billion files—from 1996 to the present—freely available, and fully text-searchable, via Trove. This was a major technical achievement and required active engagement with a range of agencies to ensure that privacy, copyright and e-safety issues were addressed, and that robust risk management approaches were agreed on and endorsed.
The Australian community has embraced the AWA, with use of archived website material increasing significantly since its launch in March 2019. Researchers are particularly interested in this unique tranche of digital content; they are already considering the possibilities for (and current infrastructure barriers to) applying data-intensive, machine-learning approaches to examining how Australians have written, read and engaged with society, culture and politics online over the last two decades.
The AWA exemplifies the Library’s emphatic—and world-leading—expansion of its remit, from creating descriptive metadata about physical collection materials to actively collecting, preserving and providing access to the born-digital heritage that is such an integral part of our collective knowledge base in the digital era.
These two long strands in the Library’s leadership history—sharing of descriptive metadata and collection of born-digital documentary heritage—have now coalesced, with the National Library working with all state and territory libraries to create a single system to satisfy the legal deposit requirements of all nine jurisdictions. In May 2019, National edeposit (NED) went live, marking a decisive shift from metadata-centred collaborations to partnerships around collecting digital content. In developing this major initiative, the library leveraged decades of work as a member of National and State Libraries Australia, significant metadata expertise and longstanding relationships with Australia’s thousands of publishers.
The AWA and NED exemplify the Library’s deep technical expertise and its prescience in investing early in digital library infrastructure—and in refreshing that investment. They reflect its commitment to innovation in an environment in which the market cannot deliver solutions of the kind or scale needed for these services, and to collaborations that deliver long-lived national benefit.
Beyond these vast and technically advanced collaborations, in 2018–19 the Library was an active partner in a major review of the state of collection storage, accommodation, digital infrastructure and ongoing sustainability of collecting institutions within the Australian Government Department of Communications and the Arts portfolio. The Library will continue to advocate for adoption of the review’s recommendations. We also worked with these institutions in practical ways rarely visible to the outside world: through involvement in committees and working groups across public programming, security, cybersecurity, workforce development and other capability needs; by sharing collection items to support each other’s exhibitions; and through the partnership now developing the Horizons and Reflections: Endeavour 250 digital platform. While Canberra residents and visitors embraced the free Culture Loop bus—which made it easier for patrons to visit multiple institutions in a summer of blockbuster exhibitions—this was merely the visible manifestation of much deeper cooperation between a community of cultural institutions.
To work at the National Library of Australia is to work in a committed, energetic and generous community, and to be continually inspired by both new thinking and long-held knowledge.
Visitors to the Library are welcomed by our passionate volunteers, who enthusiastically assist those seeking information, exploring exhibitions or touring the reading rooms and stacks. Other volunteers work onsite with staff to describe and research our physical collections, while thousands more online correct Trove text to make it easier for researchers to find what they are after.
We are also aided by the Friends of the Library, whose passion for our work drives them to support us in so many ways. I thank them especially for their gift to mark 50 years in the building—a beautiful ‘fish trap’ by glass artist Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello, which acts as a potent reminder of the longevity, strength and elasticity of culture.
It is also a powerful symbol of the fact that our entire community—staff, volunteers and Friends—is on a journey of learning and reconciliation in this International Year of Indigenous Languages. In 2019, across all dimensions of our work, we are building on the capability strengthened during the development and staging of Cook and the Pacific. Tens of thousands of visitors to the exhibition left with their views about Australian and Pacific history changed. We, too, changed. We continue to learn through the generosity of the First Nations communities with whom we engage as we seek to build, understand and—most importantly—return important cultural knowledge to those to whom it is most important. I thank all communities who have graced us with their presence, knowledge and openness to working with us, and pledge to do all we can to deserve the trust they have placed in us.
I thank my colleagues for the work they do to collect today what Australia’s citizens will need tomorrow; to initiate, sustain and deepen connections with diverse communities; and to drive the structures and relationships that underpin the collaborative cultural infrastructure it is our honour to lead.
Last, I thank all members of the Library’s Council. I look forward to their assistance in coming years as we grapple with the confluence of diminishing appropriation— increasingly characterised by injections of short-term, special-purpose funding— and critical challenges. These challenges include safely housing and preserving our ever-growing physical and digital collections; meeting growing community expectations about access to our shared national heritage; and leveraging our national leadership role to create effective and efficient partnership models across the many dimensions of our mandate.
As the Australian community changes the ways in which it produces, shares, consumes and uses knowledge, the Library will continue to seek support to build on its world-leading capability and create ever higher public value for the people of Australia.
Dr Marie-Louise Ayres