Has Tony Burke "Secured the future of Trove"?

The Trove funding crisis is symbolic of a deeper problem, but things are looking up

7 April 2023

On Monday Minister for the Arts Tony Burke announced that "The Albanese Labor Government will secure the long-term future of Trove, one of Australia’s most significant historical and cultural resources". This was to come in the form of a $33 million commitment over the four year "forward estimates" of the upcoming federal budget, and a "commitment" to ongoing funding specific to Trove of $9.2 million in future years. Importantly, this $9.2 annual stipdend for Trove (assuming Labor wins at least one additional term of government of course) is to be indexed to inflation. The importance of this will become clear as you read on.

The Australian library and research world was excited by this, and by the further news, announced a couple of days later, that the National Library of Australia (NLA) would receive $146.2 million over the four years of the 2023 budget. It's a little unclear what this money represents, though Tony Burke's press release indicates he expects it to be "ongoing" and to be indexed to inflation, and a reference to staff having "certainty over their jobs" implies that this is not merely for capital works to fix Canberra's disintegrating cultural buildings.

After Monday's announcement I was rather sceptical. In Minister Burke's announcement he claimed that "The previous Liberal and National Government made a decision that Trove funding would end on June 30 this year." But whilst it's true that the Morrison government left the NLA chronically underfunded, this is a mischaracterisation of the nature of the crisis. The fact is that there has never been "Trove funding" in the sense Burke implies. The reason that "Trove funding" was due to end is that the NLA's Director General, Marie-Louise Ayres, played a very successful game of chicken with the former and current governments. $16 million earmarked for Trove "revitalisation" was provided by Liberal-National governments between 2016 and 2020, and then a futher $8 million over two years to 2022, to "support ongoing development". Both these funding announcements were carefully described as project funding for improvements, rather than ongoing funding to maintain the system, but Ayres has been increasingly vocal about the impossibiity of maintaining Trove within the NLA's general operating budget.

To get a sense of what has really been going on with the NLA's funding, I looked at the last two decades of federal budgets to understand how much money has been provided. In some ways it's what might be expected, but there are a few things that surprised me. Let's take a look.

Twenty years of NLA funding

Above you can see the breakdown of NLA funding from 2003/04 to 2022/23, as expressed in Federal Budget papers. "Receipts" represents income the NLA is expected to bring in from sources other than the federal government - consulting fees, and licensing fees charge to other institutions for things like the LADD inter-library loan platform, and what's now called "Trove services". "Equity Injection" represents things like the aforementioned special purpose funding for Trove and other initiatives, whereas core operational funding is not tied and can be spent as NLA management decide.

A few things are noticeable from this chart. Firstly, both receipts and equity injections have been fairly static since 2009. And second, after a sizeable drop in funding in 2008, it more or less flat-lined through both Labor and Liberal-National governments until 2020, when we started to see an increase again. However, this misses a key factor that Tony Burke mentioned in his announcement: indexation. These are the raw figures from the budgets, but things look significantly worse when we take inflation into account:

Here we see the truth: it was actually the Rudd Labor government that subjected the NLA to the largest cut in the last two decades, and funding has been slowly decreasing in real terms ever since. When Trove was launched in 2009, it was possible because of work done in the preceding years — what is visible here as the 2005 to 2007 funding boost. An important thing to understand in this discussion, however, is one made well by Bongiorno, Black and Arrow in a recent article on The Conversation:

While small and specialised – and therefore poorly placed to absorb continuing cuts – they are legally mandated to grow. But these institutions, required by law to “develop their collections”, can barely afford to preserve their existing materials.

The National Library doesn't merely need to "maintain" existing collections and systems. As a legal deposit library, it is required to collect everything published in Australia, in perpetuity. That means the collection is always increasing, requiring more staff time to manage it, more space to house it, all whilst providing access to a growing Australian human population. The NLA annual reports have changed over the years in terms of what they report, but I extracted the figures from most of them regarding how many items they added to their collection, and the pattern is quite consistent:

In this context, providing merely a static amount of funding in real terms is negligent, let alone an amount that has been slowly trending downwards for at least a decade and a half. This — rather than a cutoff date on funding earmarked for Trove — is the real nature of the National Library's funding crisis.

What next for the NLA?

I was expecting to write in this post that the current Minister for the Arts is just as cynical as his predecessors, that continuing to separate out "Trove" money from the core NLA budget is a political trick to avoid some of the political impacts of underfunding the core budget, and that the total funding provided is actually less in real terms than any government in the last two decades. That would have been true on Tuesday. However, Wednesday's announcement of an ongoing increase in recurrent base funding of $36.5 million per annum — and the promise that this will be indexed to inflation — could genuinely be a complete reset for NLA funding. It still remains to be seen what this actually looks like in the 2023-24 budget papers. But if we take the government at their word, what they are proposing is to fund the NLA more generously than any government of the last two decades, and to at least maintain that at CPI:

We might argue that this is still insufficient given the increase in collections under management, the damage to the NLA building from hail storms in 2020, the need to replace Australia's zombified library resource sharing technology, and the increasing complexity of managing both print and electronic legal deposit. But not even I can be that churlish. If I'm understanding this funding announcement correctly, in real terms it gets us back to the heady days of 2005 — precisely the time that Trove was being developed. It's not perfect, but it's certainly nothing to be sniffed at, and with the inclusion of indexation perhaps we're finally seeing the end of the "efficiency dividend".

I can't wait to see what the NLA do with it.

(updated 11 April to fix charts not displaying)