National Library of Australia brings 10-year-old Trove research portal into the 21st century

Users can now easily navigate, search, browse, and access digitised files of Australia's history online.

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Image: National Library Australia

Following a four-year modernisation and digitisation project and a AU$16 million backing from the federal government, the National Library of Australia (NLA) has launched the revamped version of its online culture and research portal, Trove.

Attracting some 68,000 daily visitors, Trove is an online portal that gives users free access to approximately 6.5 billion digital records of content from 941 organisations, including the NLA, state and territory libraries, and other Australian cultural and research institutions.

Some of the content includes Banjo Paterson's original manuscript of Waltzing Matilda, architect models of the Sydney Opera House, and radio stories from the ABC chronicling the first mentions of Wi-Fi when it was invented.

NLA assistant director-general Alison Dellit explained how when the 10-year-old research portal was built, it was designed to be "relatively small and experimental", which meant the technology underpinning it was no longer fit-for-purpose.

"Over the course of the last decade Trove has grown incrementally -- that's been great for innovation and providing new services -- but it's been difficult keeping the technology stable and being able to provide an efficient and effective service," she said.

She highlighted how one of the biggest issues the team frequently faced was when it came to changing text on the website.

"Trove was built as an app and in order to provide any -- even to change a single word on the homepage -- it's weeks' worth of work," she said.

To address this, the team completely reconfigured the portal's frontend with the integration of a Drupal-based content management system so users could easily navigate, browse, search, and access thumbnails.

"We wanted to make sure the new interface would be a lot more accessible and able to be used by a broader range of people. It was really our key objective to broaden our user base ... and to develop a piece of technology that would allow that," Dellit said.

The new-look portal also has Microsoft Power BI built into it, which provides collecting institutions that contribute data with access to statistics and analysis.

In addition, Preservika has been integrated to assist with managing the digital preservation of its content, as well as ArchiveSpace and DocWorks that are used for archiving materials.

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Physical records are scanned by the NLA to create digital copies, which are then ingested into Trove. 

Image: National Library of Australia

Dellit explained, for example, how having these systems in place allows NLA to develop a process called atomisation, which allows users to automatically search for information within archived files, something that was not previously possible because physical materials were often digitised as single files and only allowed users access to surface level information.

She used the digitisation project of Sir John Monash's personal papers, which is still ongoing, as an example.

"We've developed a way to break PDF files into automatic metadata, so instead of having a single entry in the file that might say 'letter of Winston Churchill to Sir John Monash', we can now create a record in Trove where that's the title of the item, and we do that automatically. We're able to generate thousands and thousands of records out of a single document," Dellit said.

Biographical indexing is also another feature highlight of the new Trove system, Dellit said.

"If you're reading a newspaper article and there might be a mention of someone … [such as] Ernie Dingo somewhere in the text, but instead of finding via only text search, when we integrate an index -- and we use a bit of machine learning here --  what it will then do is notice it's Ernie Dingo and connect it to a biographical file, and ... look for all mentions of Ernie Dingo," she said.

In completing the transformation, the NLA has been handed an additional AU$8 million for the next two years by the federal government to support the development of Trove.

"'The federal government is proud to support Trove, which is a critical national resource preserving our culture for all to access and explore," said Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher.

"The National Library and its partner network are to be commended on maintaining, building and contributing to an accessible and free online resource of such cultural and historical significance for all Australians."

The funding will be put towards the escalating cost of running Trove, Dellit said.

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