Lifeline funding protects Archives’ records, but shortfall looms

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Lighthouse logbooks and photographs of Darwin after tropical cyclone Tracy were among 850,000 at-risk records digitised by the National Archives last year after securing lifeline federal funding from the previous government.

The National Archives of Australia on Monday tabled its annual report in the Senate, revealing its progress towards saving records that were at risk of disappearing forever after years of funding and staff cuts have caught up with the archives.

It shows the $67 million boost last year helped start a four-year preservation and cybersecurity project but some targets were missed and the agency still faces a “funding shortfall” to implement the changes recommended in a damning review of the Archives.

The National Archives Parkes office. Image: Hawker

The 2019 review warned the National Archives had “struggled to fulfil its mandate” to secure, preserve and make public the archival resources of the Commonwealth, and recommended more than $200 million of additional government spending.

The former Coalition government took 18 months to respond to the review, eventually accepting the recommendations and promising a larger role for the agency.

But it allocated only $67 million of the recommended funding to help with the preservation of the most at-risk records, additional staff, and to bolster cybersecurity.

The records preservation component known as Defend the Past, Protect the Future, received $19.5 million, which is being used to digitise at-risk records in the collection through inhouse capability and outsourced bulk digitisation.

Last year, the program was established, a panel of vendors selected, 13 providers were contracted, and a digitisation hub in Canberra was set up for paper-based records.

More than 70,000 at-risk records were digitised, exceeding the yearly target of 65,000, with the program expected to ramp up over the next three years towards a final goal of 270,000 of the most “critical at-risk” records.

The agency also launched a pilot program to transfer Australian Government digital records to the National Archives collection and continued its usual preservation work. The Archives missed its overall goal of migrating and ingesting 700TB of data from fragile platforms to secure ones, reaching 84 per cent of the mark.

The latest annual report also warns last year’s lifeline funding won’t be enough to address the pending loss of audiovisual Commonwealth records stored on magnetic tape. Around half of these records – approximately 140,000 items – is yet to be copied.

“Although much work has already been done to preserve these records through digitisation, and the implementation of recommendations is on track, there is still a funding shortfall,” the report said.

“Additional funding is required to protect all these records from being lost by ensuring National Archives can digitise and preserve them through a cybersecure digital archive.”

The agency is also seeking a commitment from the government for a new national office for National Archives in the Parliamentary Triangle. The lease for the current national office expires in 2030.

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