The federal government has told the National Library of Australia to consider private funding of its award-winning Trove website, after it was revealed budget cuts meant the site would stagnate.
The service, which houses more than 473 million online resources from Australian libraries, museums and archives, will stop adding new content as a result of efficiency dividends imposed by the federal government.
The library had funded Trove from its own budget since it launched in 2009, but its director-general says that's no longer possible after cuts also forced the loss of staff and programs.
Both international and Australian researchers have thrown their support behind what many have called a revolutionary and world-leading service.
Anyone who has the internet can access the resources for free, and more than 70,000 people each day do so. Researchers say its search function is "extraordinarily powerful", and the site covers not only history and literature, but science and agriculture and a range of other subjects.
In some cases, it has led to life-changing discoveries.
American self-taught engineer Ivan Owen developed the world's first 3D-printed, body-powered hand prosthesis. He released the design into the public domain, and the hand is now used by more than 2000 people, including some Australians.
But it was years before, when researching the design in Trove, that he stumbled on records from the Health Museum of South Australia which detailed the Coles Hand – a prosthetic made out of whalebone and metal pulleys in 1845.
That record, Mr Owen said, was a "phenomenal contribution" to his design process, and he told The Canberra Times he was sad to hear the library would no longer fund Trove.
A spokeswoman from the department of communications and the arts said the library was looking for sponsorship to support future digitisation of material on Trove. Digitisation of some newspapers is already supported by organisations such as local councils and libraries.
It was not clear whether the search for sponsorship was an extension of this program, or to support the platform as a whole. The spokeswoman also said the library could access government grants, or look for donors or support from the private sector.
Either could represent a shift in how the site worked. In the site's about section, it reads: "Trove is many things ... best of all, Trove is yours, created and maintained by the National Library of Australia."
Australia's peak gallery, library, archive and museum bodies, and the country's Academy of the Humanities have also leapt to Trove's defence.
Academy president, professor John Fitzgerald, has argued the website embodied what the government's "Ideas Boom" was pursuing.
"This is a major digital innovation in the nation's research system," he said, adding that it had significant capacity to reduce the cost of research.
Australian Research Council laureate fellow and professor of history at Griffith University, Mark Finnane, said Trove brought Australia "great credit" internationally and no other service compared.
"It's really a world-leading innovation, in the way it ties collections together," he said. "[We] can't afford to be without this tool."
Three separate petitions online have together reached more than 10,000 signatures, and researchers have been sharing stories of the website's value using #fundTrove.
"Trove is not going to be suddenly turned off," former manager of the service Tim Sherratt wrote in a blog post in its support. "But its relevance relies on constantly growing the knowledge and content it contains."
When asked whether the government would commit to funding the service, the government spokeswoman said it was the library's choice how it allocated available funds to meet its priorities.
The library declined to comment on its search for sponsorship or private donors. It would also not say how much Trove cost to run.