The past year has been one of great achievements and very great challenges, and I am proud that the Library has so clearly demonstrated its ambitions, capability, flexibility and resilience over that time.
Our national collaboration role and ambitions were both demonstrated and strengthened through the success of National edeposit—a partnership between the National Library and state and territory libraries that has collected more than 100,000 digital books, journals, music and maps, providing almost immediate access to Australia’s intellectual and creative publications and preserving them for future generations.
A much larger collaboration, made possible through the Australian Government’s $16.4 million Australian Public Service Modernisation Fund, saw the Library’s 1,000 Trove Partners participate actively in the first major refresh in Trove’s 11-year history. The refreshed site was launched on 26 June 2020 by the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, who also announced a further $8 million in funding over two years to support ongoing development of Trove. The new Trove is welcoming to all, offers many more opportunities for Australians to engage with specific aspects of Australian history and showcases the wonderful collections held by libraries, galleries, museums, archives and historical societies in every part of our country. Underlying the new Trove is the Library’s commitment to serving all Australians, wherever they are, and working at a national rather than single institution level.
To support our strategic goals in all areas over the next ten years, in 2019 the Library embarked on its first major organisational redesign in 20 years. The redesign will position the Library as a modern and sustainable organisation that is able to respond even more flexibly to opportunities and challenges. At the outset of this process, we could not have foreseen any of the calamities that occurred locally, nationally and internationally over the year. Canberra endured many weeks of hazardous air quality as bushfires began and spread in the south-east of the country. Daily monitoring of the Library’s air quality was required to ensure visitor and staff safety. As the fires crept closer to Canberra, we took all steps possible to protect our collection repositories on Canberra’s outskirts—and we were relieved when a wind change on Canberra’s most dangerous weekend reduced the risk to our collection. Many staff were affected by the fires, either evacuating from south-coast holidays or watching the growing threat from the south, knowing the impact on so many nearby communities.
No sooner were the fires under some control, and air quality back to its usual pristine best, than a fierce hailstorm raged over a narrow band of the ACT, including the National Library’s Parkes building. After a mere ten minutes, almost every staff and visitor vehicle in the vicinity was destroyed or badly damaged and the Library’s heritage copper roof was so severely damaged that the entire roof must be replaced in 2020–21.
At the same time, the earliest reports of a new novel coronavirus were beginning to circulate. It gradually became clear that the entire world would be affected by what has become a global pandemic. Along with other Canberra cultural institutions, the Library closed its doors to the public on 23 March 2020. It was a very sad moment for an institution that prides itself on being a safe, open and shared civil space for the community to gather, learn and converse.
However, the Library was incredibly well placed to deliver public value online during this time. While we could not provide access to our physical collections, we saw unprecedented demand for online reference services, licensed eResources, Digital Classroom and our digital collections via Trove. We also moved immediately to providing nourishment for the Australian soul through a strong series of online learning webinars and digital talks by our curators and other experts. When Australia needed the Library, we were open online.
We worked closely with fellow cultural institutions throughout this period as we adjusted our business, and we prepared for a partial reopening from 3 June 2020. I am particularly grateful to my fellow CEOs in Commonwealth cultural institutions, state and territory libraries, and international libraries for their camaraderie and willingness to share over this period. None of us needed to work alone.
Throughout the lockdown period, the great majority of the Library’s staff worked incredibly effectively from home. I particularly thank colleagues who worked so hard to enable this shift in working mode at very short notice and those who ensured the safety and wellbeing of our collections, our visitors and our staff during this very difficult time. I also offer heartfelt thanks to Library colleagues who volunteered for secondment to Services Australia, ensuring their fellow citizens could receive the assistance they needed as the economic impact of the pandemic hit hard.
Despite these challenges, we achieved astonishing levels of productivity and have delivered on almost all of our aims for the year. We will complete a few delayed projects in coming months, while taking stock of all we have learnt about ourselves and our community over this year.
At the heart of the Library’s business lies its collections and its connections with communities. Throughout the challenges of smoke, fire, hail and pandemic, the Library’s collection experts have selected and archived more than 1,000 Australian and regional websites, reached out to communities to collect physical and digital ephemera arising from the devastating shocks of fire and pandemic, worked with photographers to document the impact of these events on Australians and Australian life, and commenced planning for oral history projects to record these experiences at some distance from the trauma. Australians continue to place their trust in us and to work actively with us to ensure that their own and their communities' experiences are documented and available for future generations.
This year has truly shown the quality of the Library’s people, Council, Friends and volunteers, and I thank every one of them. Everything we have done over the last year has amply demonstrated our ability to collect today what will be important tomorrow, to connect with communities and connect communities with their national collections, and to collaborate with others to maximise the national impact of those collections.