May 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Razor-gang blues

By Gideon Haigh
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

They think well of Kevin Rudd at the National Library of Australia. For all his posturing as Mr History, John Howard only visited the library once - and then to launch the government's online-porn filter while the children of staffers gambolled for the cameras. Rudd has actually been a library habitué. His mentor in Mandarin, Sidney Wang, was for 21 years the NLA's Orientalia librarian; the Wang family would have Rudd to dinner every Sunday to help hone his conversational skills. When the NLA dedicated a modest reading room to Wang, in November 2003, Rudd absented himself from the ALP leadership brawl that installed Mark Latham in order to honour his old friend with some gracious, well-chosen words.

All the more reason to wonder why Rudd's government seems so intent on lobotomising the country's premier collecting institution. While Wang's protégé was big-picturing all over the place a few weeks ago, the NLA was preparing to endure its deepest budget cuts since the Fraser government's Lynch razor gang. Since then, the NLA has been levied an annual "efficiency dividend" of 1.25% and seen its staff shrink by a third; now, the finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, wants to wring a further 2% from the budget, locked in for a minimum of three years, even as the library is squeezed from the other direction by annual public-sector pay rises. Meanwhile the minister ostensibly responsible for the NLA, Peter Garrett, lurches between climate-change photo opportunities in his ungainly push-me-pull-you portfolio of Environment, Heritage and the Arts.

Yet if every public institution worked like the NLA, 2020 Summits would scarcely be necessary. From without, the 40-year-old building is an impressive sight; within, it is all about function, human comfort subordinated to the interests of the 9 million items in its collection, to the extent that the air-conditioning is set way down for preservation purposes. "My philosophy is: bring a jumper," says its director-general, Jan Fullerton; to reduce electricity costs, she also frowns on heaters. The workstations and furniture are 1980s public-service surplus; the internal pillars are unsightly, but without them the building would crash from the weight of a collection growing by five semitrailer loads of material a year. The dowdiness, however, is deceptive. In expertise, esprit de corps and standards of service, the NLA excels virtually every comparable institution around the world. The curator of the library's dance collection, Michelle Potter, recently returned after 18 months at the New York Public Library. "Quite honestly," she says, "I felt I had taken a huge step backwards in New York."

The NLA has always had a perception problem, being seen by government as a place that just keeps old stuff. Indeed, the library recently learned that its print collection stretched 300 years further back than was thought. A collection of Chinese artefacts it acquired in 1961 included a volume of woodblock-printed sutras dated 1162; a question mark was added because nobody could believe it. Three painstaking authentications later, it can be given an 846th birthday party and, thanks to the extra plant fibre in period Chinese paper, looks fit for many happy returns.

But it is not such relics that tax the NLA most: it is the cornucopia of digital materials in technologies dying almost as soon as they are born. The collections-management chief, Amelia McKenzie, places the sutras next to a DVD of a recent East Timorese television drama about that country's history. "You'll be able to read the sutras in a hundred years," she says. "You may not be able to read this disc in three."

Information overload is a familiar complaint; information perishability is both less obvious and more insidious. As often, the NLA was way ahead. Its Pandora web-archiving project has been underway since 1996, while robot web-crawlers have retrieved more than a billion unique documents in three "whole domain harvests" since June 2005. Yet the NLA is bedevilled by legal-deposit legislation now almost a century old: it is entitled to a copy of every Australian book published but enjoys no such rights digitally, the Howard government having left a turbid review incomplete. This uncertainty is already responsible for some staggering disappearances. To make way for new management, government departments started folding their websites on election night. Fortunately, the NLA had already archived them - with one exception. When Kevin Andrews recently sought an item from his old website he found that, because his department had turned the NLA away, his speeches and press releases had vapourised.

For technology is not just about the next thing; it is about the last thing, and the thing before that. Appropriately, the digital-preservation specialist David Pearson is a former archaeologist: he inhabits a pokey office stuffed with 200-megabyte hard-disk cartridges, giant Magmedia reels and a row of tired-looking but operative computers dating back 30 years. He and his colleagues, including an honours graduate in computer games and a graphic designer with a background in microbiology, have pooled their expertise in a skunkworks digital-media project called MediaPedia. You can learn a lot trying to prise workable files off 200 disks created in the '80s by the Nobel laureate Dr Robin Warren. This isn't so much mission creep as mission leap: imagine if the National Gallery was faced with a new, revolutionary and hugely popular art form whose otherwise-unpreserved creations would disintegrate in three years - and then the institution received crippling budget cuts.

The irony is that digital technology offers enormous possibilities. For more than five years, the NLA has been creating lists of URLs for search engines to survey, and almost 350,000 images in its collection are available free, at the touch of a few keys. The library's technological savvy is epitomised by Mark Triggs and Steven McPhillips, twenty-something system administrators who last September asked quietly if they could have a go at rebuilding the NLA's none-too-brilliant online catalogue, distinguished by its apparently random rankings and unsightly orange colour, using an open-source system devised at Pennsylvania's Villanova University.

They are the acme of geek chic: Triggs' hair is so elaborately teased it looks like his brain is exploding; McPhillips wears nail polish and Volleys. Management let them loose, and after three months they had a beta catalogue to share with the libraries' hardcore researchers in the Petherick Room. At first, people hated it: Christine Fernon, in particular, sent a toe-curlingly critical analysis. "She tore us a new one," says Triggs. "But we decided to show some maturity and listen to her." The formidable Fernon, the bibliographer of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, became the developers' "uber-researcher": if they could satisfy her, they could satisfy anyone using the system. And gradually, they have. The reworked beta catalogue, live from the start of February, has already attracted praise from Harvard and Yale, and will eventually supersede the old orange monster. Triggs and McPhillips are laconic, insouciant. When they rolled their brainchild out to senior management, it bore the cheeky slogan The Fewer the People, the Less the Stupidity. It might not have gone down well at the 2020 Summit; they don't take themselves so seriously at the NLA. Mind you, despite daily email contact they have still not met their harshest critic, Fernon. "We're a bit scared," says Triggs.

With potentially more punch still is the NLA's newspaper-digitisation program. The idea of scouring old newspapers electronically is a dream so compelling it has always seemed fantastical: nobody anywhere has done it cost-effectively. The NLA thinks it can. What it has accomplished for next to nix is already tantalising, and appealingly lateral. For instance, Dell recently marketed a widescreen monitor for people watching DVDs on their computers. It was a dog, and the NLA bought a bunch cheaply: stuck on their sides, the monitors happen to be ideal for reading newspaper pages digitised by optical character-recognition technology.

The objective is to digitise out-of-copyright editions of a major newspaper in every capital city and make them available on the internet. Its accomplishment would be a Rosetta stone not only for historical scholarship but also digital technology. Yet the project has had to be funded mainly by slicing other budgets. The Australian Research Council withheld support on grounds that newspaper digitisation was not research; a government all in favour of innovation apparently doesn't believe it can happen in a library.

In fact, budget cuts at the NLA suggest, disturbingly, a government that simply doesn't grasp the agencies it is meant to be managing, preferring to indulge in gesture politics like throwing laptops at schoolchildren while imposing arbitrary austerities on intellectual institutions that have been plaiting shoestring budgets for decades. They also suggest a minister struggling with a portfolio too big, various and outside his capabilities, and a prime minister overlooking the evidence of his own making: that nobody contributes more to the maturation of good citizens than those who generously share their knowledge.

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