National Library of Australia cuts back on Asian focus; contrast to War Memorial funding for expansion

ANU Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last week about the National Library’s decision to cease collecting material on Japan, Korea and all of mainland Southeast Asia, retaining only some reduced acquisition of information on China, Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

Professor Morris-Suzuki discussed how the decision has been taken and concludes, ‘Australia simply cannot afford this drastic downgrading of its Asia knowledge, least of all at the current turning point in regional relations’. She made this point about the link between reduced funding and the decision about Asian collections:

To be fair, the national library has been underfunded for years and faces unpalatable choices about its future directions. Although it has recently received some injections of funds for special projects such as digitisation, its routine budget has been steadily eroded.

In similar vein, Professor Edward Aspinall of the ANU, President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, wrote this in Inside Story:

The main reason [for the decisions about Asian resources] is depressingly familiar: funding cuts. Many years of “efficiency dividends,” as well as major cuts under prime minister Tony Abbott, have severely curtailed the library’s budget. It now barely has enough money to manage basic functions such as providing shelf storage for its constantly growing collection or maintaining its ageing ventilation systems. The shift to digitisation has placed new pressures on the library’s budget, which it has been able to cover only partly with special purpose grants (which don’t fix the underlying problem).

Professor Aspinall briefly analysed cuts in base funding at the Memorial and noted that government spending reflects political priorities.

This becomes clear when we realise that not all of the national cultural institutions have suffered in the same way. In 2018, for example, the government announced a funding boost of $498 million to redevelop the Australian War Memorial. Where there is political will, funding can be found.

Yes, indeed. Heritage Guardians and Honest History have tracked the story of those War Memorial extensions here. And we wrote this in 2015 about the differential impacts of efficiency dividends on cultural institutions. The relative funding position (War Memorial better off than the rest) has not improved much since.

David Stephens

1 June 2020

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