The NLA is a place where resources of national significance are collected, preserved and made accessible to the public. It is a place with a wealth of knowledge that ensures that the nation’s experiences are shared. As the country’s largest and most important reference library, the NLA has the objective of ensuring that Australians have access to a national collection of library material to enhance learning, nowledge, creation, enjoyment and understanding of Australian life and society. It ensures that a representative record of Australian life is collected and preserved for the future. The NLA is not just our national library. It is internationally recognised and we can be absolutely confident that it has the esteem and respect of many of the great libraries of the world. Like all libraries, the NLA is a place of peaceful repose for those who want to read, study and think in surroundings so conducive to these activities.
But the NLA is not just a place to read books. One of its important and longstanding functions is to stage exhibitions that offer an insight into our national life and culture. Many and varied temporary exhibitions are on show at the National Library. For example, in 2008-09 the Nick Cave exhibition looked behind the music to the man himself through a collection of original lyrics, notebooks, artwork, photography and books as well as personal items from his home and office. These kinds of exhibitions will continue to be an important part of the NLA’s activities.
One can appreciate the potential here when one realises the nature of the NLA’s collecting activities. The extent of these additions just over the last year has been truly impressive. The collection includes pictures, manuscripts, maps, music and dance, oral history and folklore and national and international publications. They all contribute to a rich tapestry of knowledge and historical insight over which the library exercises its custody. Some of last year’s acquisitions included drawings of John McDouall Stuart’s famous expedition of 1861 to 1862, which crossed the Australian continent from south to north
But it would be misleading to suggest that, for all the distinguished work that the library is undertaking, it is not facing some enormous challenges. The NLA, like the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Archives of Australia, requires additional funding to ensure that the work that it does is preserved to share with future generations. The digital age has certainly arrived. As a result, digitisation has become an increasingly important medium for Australian government agencies, authors, researchers, film makers, musicians and creators. Australia’s ability to maintain a permanent and accessible record in this area is therefore linked to a national capacity to cope with this digital tidal wave of images and sounds.
The reality is that the national collecting institutions are not resourced to cope with this digital tidal wave. The NLA certainly has the commitment, skills and vision to embrace the digital world. But currently it lacks the resources to undertake the task effectively. There is little doubt that saving Australia’s digital cultural heritage will require significant funding. In this context, I was delighted to see that the 2009-10 Rudd government budget provided some funding for a business case to be set forth for comprehensive funding for digitisation into the future. I very sincerely hope that the government will see fit in the forthcoming budget to further fund this important national activity. Investing in Australia’s digital heritage is an investment for the future. I therefore trust that, despite the difficult budgetary situation, this will be a serious priority in relation to the NLA’s activities.
The library is also engaged in several other exciting projects. One of considerable importance to all Australians is the creation of a national treasures gallery. This will be a permanent space in which to display iconic, rare and interesting items from the NLA collections. I commend the library and its development committee for the entrepreneurial way it is supplementing its existing funds with an active private donations program for the gallery. Funding support for the national treasures gallery is an ongoing challenge.
Finally, I would like to mention the desire on the part of the NLA to persuade the government that the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards should have their institutional home within the NLA. The awards celebrate the contribution of Australian literature to the nation’s cultural and intellectual life. There is a
compelling and persuasive logic to the proposition that the annual ceremony of the nation’s premium literary awards should be hosted within the confines of the National Library. I know the library’s director general is passionate in her hope that the awards can come to the NLA. It will not only allow the recipients to be celebrated; it would provide a focus for the awards as an important part of the nation’s cultural life.
There is a great deal more one could celebrate about the NLA. But in closing I would like to recognise the dedicated staff of the library. Under increasing financial constraint, a constraint imposed now over many years, the NLA staff have maintained their good humour, commitment to serving a growing library community and superb level of professionalism. I especially wish to acknowledge the role of the director general, Ms Jan Fullerton, in providing the leadership that makes the NLA such a valuable national institution. Indeed, it is a national treasure.