It’s time to treasure Trove, a search engine in need of rescue

Every Australian can find themselves on Trove, the National Library’s amazing search engine. With some it will be their name, or the house in which they live. With others, an insight into their town, or profession, or a moment of family history.

The funding for Trove runs out at the end of June. The National Library says that without additional funding, they “will need to cease offering the Trove service entirely.” For anyone interested in Australian history, or just their own history, this would be a disaster.

The National Library’s search engine needs saving.Credit:SMH

If you haven’t already, I urge you to try it before it’s too late. Then you might want to join the group of enthusiasts who are pleading with the Government to fund the thing properly.

It’s easy enough to use. Go to “”. If you live in an older house, start by whacking in your address. There’s a good chance something will come up. My place, for instance, features in the Sydney Morning Herald classifieds in 1914. A horse, resident in the backyard, was being offered for sale. The animal was 13 hands and was going “cheap”. It gives me pleasure to imagine it, chewing away on the lawn more than a century ago.

Let me try with a random address. Let’s make it “Church Street”, since it’s a common street name, and “25″ since that’s today’s date. So, searching Trove for “25 Church Street”, we find that in March 1900, Wycherley Prescott, a labourer residing at 25 Church Street, Pyrmont, had become the latest victim of bubonic plague. “The house was isolated and the family removed to the quarantine station.”

In the same year, Charles Campbell, of 25 Church Street, Richmond, painter, was added to the list of “New Insolvents”. As required, he listed the causes of his insolvency: “Losses on contracts, illness of myself, and pressure of a creditor.” His assets were short of his liabilities by £101/3/7.

Thirteen years later, we’re back at 25 Church Street, Pyrmont, home of the bubonic plague victim. It’s 1913, a woman and her four children are being evicted on the orders of the Railway Commissioners. The property has been resumed for the Glebe Island extension. Under the headline “A Family’s Awkward Plight”, the mother is said to have been “daily travelling to Botany, Daceyville, Burwood, northern suburbs, and other places in search of a place in which to make their new home.” The bailiffs have nonetheless thrown their furniture onto the street; the family are homeless.

You get the idea. Almost any address will tumble you into the most heartbreaking slivers of history.

Perhaps your own address comes up blank. Why not try again with some random word? Maybe you’ve just bought a canary yellow shirt. Again, throw it into the search engine.

I associate the colour with the 1960s, but I instantly discover it’s been around for far longer. Here’s the Townsville Daily Bulletin in September 1927: “Housewives visiting the Electrical Exhibition will blink their eyes and wonder if they are dreaming when they see the kitchen in the larger of two model homes. None is the chaste whiteness that they have been led to believe is the acme of good taste… in its place are canary yellow coloured walls, burnt orange cupboards, lined with blue and orange chairs.”

As Austin Powers might have said: “Groovy, baby.”

Of course, you can narrow your search to the 1960s and read about the heyday of the colour. In 1961 – under the modish headline “Oh Yeah” – the Western Herald in Bourke reports that “Men’s trousers soon might be canary yellow, or tomato red, according to U.S. clothes manufacturer Elmer L. Ward who arrived in Sydney recently.” Mr Ward also features in The Australian Women’s Weekly, who supported his love of canary yellow pants, despite opposition from local men who the Weekly described as “trouser-wowsers”.

What’s brilliant about Trove is the size of the database – newspapers, magazines, book collections, Government Gazettes, archived websites, letters and diaries. All can be searched with a word, phrase, location or name.

How can the government be encouraged to come to its rescue? I offer this morsel to the Prime Minister. The public housing in which Mr Albanese grew up at 41 Pyrmont Street, Camperdown was built in the 1920s on the site of terrace housing.

Throw that terrace house address into Trove, and you are tipped into the employment classifieds of the late 1880s. In March 1888, a young girl is wanted at Number 41, “to make herself generally useful in small family”. She must be “Protestant”. A few months later, “a general servant” is required, so maybe the Protestant girl didn’t work out. By January 1889, they were more specific about age than religion; “a young girl wanted, about 18, to make generally useful”.

Of course, once on the page your eye roams to the other advertisements. To the “coloured boy wanted” or the “respectable girl seeks…” or the “capitalist wanted, with £3000, to invest in business”.

In every typeset line, a whole novel seems to beckon.

Trove is crucial for professional historians, but it’s also a trapdoor through which anyone can tumble and learn something new. Try it yourself and see why it so desperately needs to be saved.

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