The National Archives is desperately looking to public donations and paid memberships in a bid to help save its deteriorating collection, but an expert warns the government first needs to get its priorities straight.
Thousands of records documenting Australia's history remain at stake as the national institution continues its struggle to get adequate funding and resource in order to collect, preserve and digitise its collection of records.
A review undertaken by former public servant David Tune and publicly released in March this year, recommended the government provide the agency with $67.7 million in funding over seven years to help digitise the materials most at risk.
But the government's budget, announced in May, committed only $700,000 toward the National Archives, leading it to turn to the public for donations and to sign up for paid memberships.
Twelve-month memberships range between $20 and $80, offering access to member-only events and behind-the-scenes tours.
"There are no backup copies. Once these records are lost, they are lost forever," the institution's website reads.
"Right now, we simply don't have the resources or the funding to save the huge amount of material that needs to be preserved."
Constitutional lawyer and researcher Professor Anne Twomey said the move wouldn't be enough to reach the needed multi-million-dollar target but it might signal to government its public value.
"Neither volunteering, nor public contributions will be sufficient," Professor Twomey said.
"But they might be a sign to the government that the institution is important, and the cause of protecting Australia's history is an important one."
Professor Twomey said digitising at-risk records was only one of the many problems plaguing the archival agency.
Years of under-resourcing had meant there were often long delays for researchers and academics in gaining access to important historical documents.
One requested document had taken seven years to be processed, she said.
"It's not that it's not doing its job for any sort of malicious reasons, it's just not doing its job because it's not sufficiently funded to be able to do its job," Professor Twomey said.
"We have a dysfunctional archive simply as a consequence that it has been run into the ground through lack of money, whereas at the same time, enormous amounts of money are showered over the Australian War Memorial, because for some reason our war history is more important than any other parts of our history.
"I think the priorities of the government are absurdly skewed."
The government has previously resisted calls to offer the agency the recommended funding needed, backing a more cautious approach.
The Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker, said the process of reviewing Tune's report and assessing the government's response must not be rushed.
"This is a complex process with significant costs, and we are working with the National Archives and a range of experts and stakeholders on developing a program to address this issue," she said.
"This collection is of national importance, and it is vital that we take the correct steps in its preservation."
Professor Twomey said the country, in the meantime, was in dangerous territory and without the necessary funding and resourcing being delivered to the archives, government accountability was at stake.
"We only really understand ourselves in the present if we can understand what has happened in our past," Professor Twomey said.
"If we don't have that kind of understanding because we lose access to what happened in the past, a particular risk is that a government of today will know that it can do whatever it likes, and not be accountable in the future, not be subject to the criticism of history.
"That's a very dangerous thing."
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