Primary sources: 50 years of the Archives
Primary sources: 50 years of the Archives
8th Dec 2010 - 25th Feb 2011 at Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne
To celebrate 50 years of the University of Melbourne Archives, UMA staff chose 50 of their favourite stories to showcase the range and scope of UMA’s vast collections.
To be able to celebrate the selection and collection of primary sources over 50 years at the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) is a testament to all of those who have worked for and with UMA over that time. To preserve, maintain and provide access to primary sources for the University's researchers and students is the most important reason for our continued existence. While the foundation of UMA was ostensibly to benefit the aforementioned researchers and students, the myriad of collections assembled within its walls have also had a far-reaching impact on the general community.
In 1995, with the imminent retirement of founding archivist Frank Strahan on the horizon, a review of UMA was undertaken. Led by Paul Brunton, then curator of manuscripts at the State Library of New South Wales, it remarked that:
This collection is a national asset unrivalled in Australia. Given Melbourne's long dominance in national business and trade union affairs, it is a vital body of documentation which if it did not exist would result in a serious distortion of the national historical record.
Beyond the hyperbole, it is quite true — 15 years after the review UMA remains a treasure trove of primary source material, which continues to grow. The original collecting remit — to document the history of the University and to collect records of business for research and teaching purposes — continues, but has dramatically expanded to meet the demands of time and social interests. The stories that follow in this publication exemplify this. On our golden anniversary, we have taken the time to examine some of the rich resources within the repository and relate them as stories. In doing so, it is obvious that no one collection stands alone, and that UMA's united collections are not so disparate, but weave a web of history. Many of them, drawn from the 18 kilometres of records held, draw on various independent collections. Of course, all research is open to interpretation. The collections themselves are subjective in nature — glimpses into a recorded past, which — whether by chance or deliberate design — remain available to us today.
In compiling the stories, we were all drawn into the wonderful time capsule that is UMA. In pursuing the facts, the search for documentation, both written and in the form of objects, was at times all-consuming, enlightening, frustrating and for myself, led to the suspension of the temporal sense of time. The hunt to find one more 'thing', or getting lost in the beauty of a collection was an ever-present hazard.
Today at UMA, the past continues to inform the present and the acquisition and documentation of collections, some only a couple of centimetres, others hundreds of boxes, remain integral to our daily work. It's surprising to note that while such day-to-day operations may have evolved in practice from a re-active to a much more considered and pro-active approach to collecting records, and our methods of documentation and promotion of collections are likewise evolving in the context of social and technological change, we are still working to the original ambit outlined by the then Vice-Chancellor, Sir George Paton, to co-operate with outside organisations, provide expert advice as to best-practice recordkeeping and, where appropriate, gain possession of collections for research use.
Please join us in exploring the intriguing examination and interpretation of some of the well-known and not so well-known treasures from our vast array of collections, and perhaps follow this by weaving a web of discovery of your own.
UMA: A Brief History
Dr Cecily Close
Even before Frank Strahan arrived as the University of Melbourne's first archivist on 29 June 1960, University staff had promoted the importance of preserving historical records. Professor (Sir) Ernest Scott of the History Department had been prominent in campaigns to establish government record offices and had encouraged the collection of private records by historical societies, and over some years, under his successor Professor R.M. (Max) Crawford, efforts were made to locate Victorian historical records and make them known to scholars. Gwynedd F. James's search in 1940, interrupted by war, was diverted into his and Crawford's attempts to save official records from wartime paper salvage drives, but from 1947 until 1949 a revised project saw graduate students of Crawford surveying and listing records in the Public Library of Victoria, then moving into regional areas. From 1952 until 1956, A.G. Serle led parties of staff and students to various parts of Victoria to find and either acquire or copy historical papers for transfer to the Public Library.
Connections can be traced between these efforts and the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA), soon to be founded: James had in 1939 energetically argued for the collection of business records for the use of economic historians, commending the program of the Business Archives Council in Britain. At least three collections located under Crawford, including Crawford's own papers and those of G.F. James, reached UMA in due course. Frank Strahan had been introduced to research from original documents and archival fieldwork through Serle's teaching and record-hunting expeditions, and Serle warmly supported the University's proposal to appoint an archivist and Frank's candidature. Nevertheless, the impetus to establish UMA arose elsewhere.
In 1954, reader in economic history Noel G. Butlin began to assemble records for his research at the Australian National University (ANU), forming the nucleus of the archives now bearing his name. In 1954 too, economic historian Dr David Birch and David MacMillan arrived from Scotland in September as the University of Sydney's first University Archivist. In October they organised academics and businessmen to form the Business Archives Council of Australia (BAC). Though not established to take custody of records, the BAC did so, depositing them with Macmillan at the University.
The BAC (Victorian Branch) — planned in 1955 in consultation with the Sydney Branch and Commonwealth National Librarian Harold L. White — was formed after the arrival from England of William Woodruff to be professor of economic history, holding its inaugural meeting in August 1957. With Professor Sir Douglas Copland as president and Sir Alexander Fitzgerald as chairman, White as vice-president and Woodruff as secretary, the committee included senior businessmen, Professor J.A. La Nauze from the History Department, Dr C.I. Benson from the Public Library of Victoria (his place later taken by the state archivist H.W. Nunn) and soon also the University of Melbourne Librarian Axel Lodewycks.
The University's own records, which remained the Registrar's responsibility under the University Act, had been consulted by researchers over many years, including Sir Ernest Scott, author of The History of the University of Melbourne (MUP, 1936) and Geoffrey (Professor) Blainey, who had included in the bibliography of A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (MUP, 1957) his tribute to the value of the University's records stored 'in the old cellars below the quadrangle'.
Following the Sydney precedent the BAC turned for assistance in its program to the University Library, soon to have a new building. In October 1957, Woodruff's colleague, Professor of Commerce Donald Cochrane, sought the Library Committee's support in requesting the appointment of an archivist in the Library to work with the BAC, and Edgar French, a lecturer in education familiar with University records from his graduate studies, suggested that a trained archivist might both organise the University collection and work on business records. His proposal that information be sought from the University of Sydney as to its archivist's duties was followed up, and the view confirmed that such an officer was needed at Melbourne to organise the University's archives and to support the academic program in history, economics and other fields.
Vice-Chancellor Sir George Paton was sympathetic when approached. He had recently familiarised himself with current thought on archives, including their relationship with libraries, as chairman of the National Library Inquiry Committee, which had in 1957 recommended the separation of the Commonwealth Archives from the National Library. He was also in favour of the University collecting records for the use of its scholars and students. However, funding was not available when he first raised the matter with the relevant committee in July 1958.
Meanwhile, the Victorian branch of the BAC had begun an 'investigation and collection of business records' with a postal survey in late July until September 1958 by Ian Castles of Harold White's staff and under his direction. When the results suggested the need for a more personal approach, White funded the appointment of a survey officer, the young Melbourne history graduate Frank Strahan in July 1959, who had had a year's training in the National Library Divisions of Australiana and the Commonwealth Archives before returning to Melbourne as a research student. Now, attached to Woodruff's department, he commenced his vigorous, life-long pursuit of Victorian business records. By early 1960 his harvest, filling a Baillieu Library carrel, included records of Permewan Wright Ltd (a trading company), the Australian Mutual Provident Society, Melbourne, dating from the late 1860s, and builder Clements Langford Pty Ltd.
K.F. Russell, associate professor in anatomy and reader in medical history, now chairman of the Library Committee, was conducting the case for the appointment of a University Archivist (he suggested Frank Strahan as a suitable candidate) and for space to accommodate the records overflowing from the library carrel. At Paton's second approach the University Council agreed on 2 May 1960 to the appointment of an archivist, and acceded to the BAC's request that the University accept responsibility for housing business records for use as historical documents, provided these were not removed without the University's permission.
Paton placed UMA under his own direction where it flourished under his sympathetic eye, and continued to do so from 1970 when placed under its own Board of Management, and from 1985 when it became a division of the University Library with an Archives Advisory Board. UMA owes much to the encouragement and wise guidance of the academics and businessmen who chaired and served on these boards, and to the assistance of library colleagues.
The move from the library carrel and an overflow space in the Grainger Museum was the first of many for records, staff and readers. Rooms in 'Hartcourt', on the corner of Morrah Street and Royal Parade, soon filled and were vacated for the terrace houses at 28–30 Story Street, Parkville in 1962. Other terrace houses, at 16 Wimble Street, Parkville and at 103–105 Barry Street, Carlton, in turn housed the archives, until a single-storey building was obtained at 129 Barry Street, the first with loading bay and without stairs. All were supplemented by storage areas in other buildings, notably in Palmerston Place and later at 168 Leicester Street. Hopes had been high for a purpose-built repository in 1965 and an appeal launched. Never raising enough for this purpose, the fund nevertheless was of great benefit when the building at 120–122 Dawson Street, Brunswick was purchased and refurbished to a high standard as an archival repository. It was occupied from December 1998, with arrangements for researchers to order and consult material in the Cultural Collections Reading Room in the Baillieu Library on the Parkville campus.
On taking up his post, Frank inspected the University's central records, advised on their better storage (not achieved for some years), listed major series, arranged for more up-to-date packaging and undertook many reference enquiries. The Librarian Axel Lodewycks, formerly the first archivist at the Australian War Memorial, soon transferred University records in his custody, including correspondence relating to the appointment of early professors, the admission of women students and other closed matters, the University's first bank book, and records of the University's jubilee and centenary celebrations. Frank began at once to gather records from academic departments and administrative sections. With the appointment of the University's Records Management Officer in 1985 the transfer of official records accelerated, though lack of space delayed the acquisition of some major series. Student bodies were approached for their records and a number, including the Students' Representative Council, responded favourably.
Personal papers of former professors soon arrived which, like academics' papers received to the present day, sometimes documented activities in the wider community as well as University teaching and administration. Those of W.E. Hearn, one of the first four professors and by 1873 Dean of Law, include items from his drafting of the Victorian legal code. G.T. Tucker's papers include many articles and addresses on the importance of education in the classics. Those of Harry Brookes Allen (anatomy and pathology) illuminate his work in public health. The papers of W. Harrison Moore (third Dean of Law) are particularly broad in scope, including records concerning the Melbourne bookseller Robertson & Mullens and numerous organisations concerned with Commonwealth and international affairs, letters from politicians, legal work and the Boobooks, a literary dining club. By 1983, papers of University staff and graduates in the professions accounted for some 110 collections. Growth in this area was assisted when in 1985 Professor R.W. Home established the Australian Science Archives Project, led by Gavan McCarthy, which located, processed and deposited with UMA records of numerous Melbourne scientists, Sir Macfarlane Burnet being a notable example.
Business records were sought in Melbourne and, in early years, in regional Victoria. In 1963, along with University-related material and the commencement of the University photograph collection, Frank reported 74 acquisitions of business records from a very wide range of industries: photographers, flour millers, pastoral stations, a newspaper publisher, woolbrokers and stock and station agents, insurance, estate agents, brewers, solicitors, retailers, a builder, a druggist, instrument and eucalyptus maker, wholesale hardware merchant, wine and spirit merchants, engineers, graziers, finance, general agents and merchants, a fruit and produce merchant, gas engineer and company, shipping, fire engineers, farm machinery manufacturers and miners.
The number of collections in some of these categories grew considerably. The records of large drapers closed in the 1960s were acquired: Hicks Atkinson, Foy & Gibson, the Mutual Store and (much later) Ball & Welch. From 1966 mining and metals treatment became increasingly important, with the acquisition of records from North Broken Hill Ltd, then Broken Hill Associated Smelters Pty Ltd, Broken Hill South Ltd, Western Mining Corporation Ltd and, from 1984, Conzine Riotinto of Australia Ltd (CRA Ltd). Western Mining Corporation Ltd funded the indexing of its records and generously offered for ten years from 1993 a prize for an undergraduate essay based on records in UMA. CRA Ltd, later Rio Tinto, has funded an archivist's position since 1984. These records were joined by the papers of mining engineers, prospectors and promoters. Family papers documenting extensive and varied business interests were also received, notably those of the Bright Family of Bristol, Liverpool, London and Melbourne, with connections to Africa, the Americas and Jamaica, the documents extending over four centuries.
In 1973 collecting extended to include trade union records, following a survey funded by Professor Blainey of material not likely to be transferred to the ANU and generally complementing business holdings. The Australian Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees' Association was the first of a rich collection of union and associated labour history records to arrive. Also from 1973 the group of collections centered on the women's movement was formed, beginning with the Women's Electoral Lobby. Papers of community groups were drawn to UMA by their links with the University and its geographical location (the Carlton and Parkville Associations for example), or by association with an organisation or individual already represented at UMA. Having been approached to discuss organising and cataloguing the archives in the Grainger Museum, to be brought to life in 1974 under the direction of Kay Dreyfus, the University Archivist administered the Museum until 1978. It rejoined UMA 20 years later.
Opportunities were sought to make known and increase use of the collections by researchers. Frank took particular pleasure in mounting and publicising exhibitions, gathering objects to 'dress up' cases: a digger's pick, a glove-stretcher and Chinese goldweighing scales were early finds. In September 1963 the archivists (now three) filled Wilson Hall with business records and artefacts, including two (borrowed) early cars and, from Hugh Lennon & Co., agricultural implement makers whose records had recently arrived, a 90-year-old plough. In June 1967 the Lower Melbourne Town Hall housed a mining exhibition, 'The Fortune Finders'. The Business Archives Council sponsored both, joined by the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in the second. Such large exhibitions were to be rare, but smaller displays inside and outside the University were frequent, and UMA regularly exhibited at University Open Days.
Staff gave talks to students and occasionally lectures on possible essay topics or collections relevant to their studies in history, economic history and engineering history. Later, the History Department incorporated subjects into the course units based on particular collections or groups of collections. The Guide to Collections (1983), the first of its kind published by an Australian archival institution, was welcomed by reviewers and sold quickly. The first UMA Bulletin appeared in 1988. In 1989 acquisitions were entered for the first time in a computer, with retrospective cataloguing pursued in ensuing years so that the richness of the holdings, which can only be outlined here, can now be explored by all with computer access.
With Frank Strahan's retirement approaching, in May 1995, Paul Brunton, curator of manuscripts at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, was commissioned to review UMA. His brief was wideranging, but his praise of its collections, their range, depth and 'national significance' gratified those inside and outside UMA who had worked to build them. After Frank's departure in November, Cecily Close served as Acting Archivist until July 1998; Michael Piggott became University Archivist in September 1998, with responsibility also for the Grainger Museum and the Library's Special Collections. Under new leadership and ready for fresh directions, UMA moved into its fine quarters in Dawson Street, Brunswick.
For a partnership to last 50 years is exceptional. In the case of a married couple, we call their anniversary golden. So it is right and proper that we celebrate the University of Melbourne Archives' (UMA) half century — for its achievements of course and, if we are being honest, its continued existence too.
Why, particularly? Because during most of UMA's history, universities experienced almost continuous internal upheaval. At Melbourne University, for so long thought a place apart, it seemed in recent decades to be in an endless loop of review and reconstitution. Comparing the University's 1960 and 2010 organisation charts, be it disciplines, departments, faculties, administrative units or position titles, little now still exists. Yet here we are.
There were indeed moments in the 1990s when some in Raymond Priestley, including lapsed historians whose reputations were built on years of scholarly research in archives, asked why UMA should not be closed. The threat passed, for reasons which someday may be frankly explained, though it was not due to any clever emulation of FBI director Edgar J. Hoover's survival of seven Presidents through sinister recordkeeping. Survival came at a price however. The head of UMA position was downgraded and broadened to include the Library's Special Collections. Around the time I took up this role in September 1998, the Australian National University began to dismantle the Noel Butlin Archives Centre, a reminder of the bullet we had dodged.
Thinking over my time as University Archivist relatively soon after leaving, my memories are scatty and unbalanced, and the kind invitation to contribute to this publication without restriction helps little.
But I will never forget my first day at the now dismantled Barry Street premises: the 14th of September 1998. The incomparable Liz Agostino showed me to a large office as Frank Strahan had left it in 1995, still furnished with what seemed nothing more than brica- brac. He was a literal continuing presence, in the reading room and beyond, presuming emeritus privileges and clearly still adjusting to retirement. Like Charles Ryder, I had been there before, down from Canberra to consult the Sir George Paton collection for a paper on a Commonwealth inquiry into the National Library of Australia which he chaired. The hospitality shown me as a researcher then was still evident. In the middle of a very challenging move, and still coming to terms with a new head, it was not the time to insist the staff start banning pens and selfservice from the stacks.
The University was in some senses familiar, the vast Wilson Hall for example having been the venue for secondary school exams. Professionally too UMA staff were known; they had contributed strongly to the 1981 conference of the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA), Frank Strahan clearly the energy behind a huge concurrent exhibition at the Myer Mural Hall and Gallery. Cecily Close I knew from her contributions at library history forums on publishing history, and Jenni Davidson in Records Services was a former colleague at the War Memorial.
Earlier still, in the late 1930s, my father had attended Melbourne Teachers College in Grattan Street. Much later, going through his papers, another connection emerged, and doubtless somewhere in UMA's 15 metres of Swallow & Ariell records is the file copy of the reference they sent him in December 1934, following nearly two years of 'steady, honest and industrious' work baking biscuits. There had also been an uncle farming at Balnarring who had consulted agricultural scientists when preparing to take up a Nuffield Scholarship in the UK.
Nothing however prepared me for an early summons from a departing Registrar to be handed from his safe documents (too sensitive for the files) about a long-gone vice-chancellor to start a second half-life embargoed in UMA, nor the warning in the look which accompanied them. Just as unexpected was the question, put when paying a duty visit to the alumni office, 'And Michael, are you one of us?'
So much changed in the ten years which followed that first day. In the early months I answered directly to the University Librarian Helen Hayes. The target of understandable if usually counterproductive representation from the then Archives Advisory Board, she was soon directed to abolish the Library in favour of the first of several iterations of an Information Division. By my final year, the Library had been restored, a new Board was into its second stage of renewal, the UMA repository in Brunswick was already in need of repair and upgrade, and procedures to operate a reading room in the Baillieu Library long established. The 1998 UMA staff are all gone too, save for one part-timer: some retired, one tragically dead, and the rest pursuing their careers. Now, as a former staff member, I qualify to be 'one of us'.
Building, managing and providing access to collections for teaching and research sounds straightforward: essentially, work of leadership, professional challenge and patient curatorship. Even so, for me the managing part was the most troublesome because it was so resource dependent, and the collection building the most rewarding because of the people one ended up approaching. There were times when, returning home at the end of a day, I felt like a kid who could hardly wait to announce 'You'll never guess who I met today'. The ANU historian Tom Griffiths has written of his five years during the 1980s working as the State Library of Victoria's field officer: his 'cup of tea' job which took him into the lounge rooms of Victorians to discuss family papers, often quite private, and their acquisition for public use. For me in field officer mode, being University Archivist was more a 'coffee or glass of red' job, the quarries including the company secretary of a global mining company, a master brewer, an ex-Royal Commissioner, a knight of the realm, a Nobel prize winner, the secretary of Trades Hall Council, and an ex-Prime Minister.
Though I began this reflection with a gloomy focus on survival, by any measure a lot was achieved and initiated between 1998 and 2008. Thanks to its staff, volunteers, benefactors, advisory board, depositors and university and external supporters, UMA:
- safely relocated and co-located a dispersed collection to a new repository and established a reading room on campus with the systems to enable this;
- was the first archives of its kind in Australia to provide online access to its accessions database;
- strengthened relationships with Rio Tinto, resulting in improved support for a funded position for business archives;
- re-established the UMA Bulletin, and made it available online;
- gained, through the work of one or more of its archivists, an Australian Society of Archivists' Mander Jones award, a Public Records Advisory Council Hamer award, and a Vice Chancellor's Knowledge Excellence award;
- obtained research funding as lead agency to establish a national online gateway to information about trade union archives;
- negotiated and established the Malcolm Fraser collection;
- forged partnerships with external bodies such as the Public Record Office Victoria (resulting in our gazettal to hold certain Victorian public records), the ANU's Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Co.As.It/the Italian Historical Society, and the Victorian Law Foundation;
- internally, forged partnerships with such programs as Records Services (e.g. helping establish the Victorian Higher Education Records Management and Archives Group) and the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation;
- was the first university collection in Victoria to join Picture Australia; and
- gained internal university funding to develop a framework to guide the acquisition of business archives and, in support of the University's 150th anniversary celebrations, to produce an online history resource Keys to the Past.
Anniversaries may be occasions for celebration, but beyond the retrospection and momentary froth and bubble, they should encourage us, like Janus, to look to the future too. Having just nominated some post-1998 achievements, one might look again over that period, now with a more critical eye, to offer a further set of observations as the UMA's and Library's advisers and leadership set their plans for the next 50 years.
The first observation arises from the neat division in UMA's history, the first 25 years under the Vice Chancellor's and a Management Board's control, the second under the Library or equivalent. There are cogent arguments for both and, rarely seen, other alternatives too — the best fit at any one time dependent on what the University sees as UMA's core role, and how critical it sees linkages with records management, community development and teaching programs such as history and conservation.
My own experience, both in a variety of settings before 1998 and as University Archivist watching my seven supervisors and the parent unit (the Library, then Information Division, then Information Services Division, then in my last year the Library again) try to make sense of the Archives, is that senior management's intelligent appreciation of the work, its nature, challenges and potential, can overcome even the strangest organisational location. Can, though surprisingly in the case of librarians, such appreciation is often confident yet superficial. If the nominated achievements are to be balanced, my limited success in fostering such an understanding must be admitted.
Second and related is the position of University Archivist. For decades it was supported within a statute, making it in one sense the equivalent of the University Librarian. At Melbourne the position has combined a university-wide role as keeper of the official memory and secrets, with a broader community archives role too. Still with considerable feeling, one has to stress that that post alone, done properly, is more than a full-time job. And indeed for most of its 50 years, the archivist's role had a single remit: lead UMA, save for a brief period when in the mid-1970s the Grainger Museum curator Dr Kay Dreyfus reported to Frank Strahan. All that changed during my time, a gradual eroding of primary responsibilities reaching a low point in 2005 when UMA was just one of five responsibilities. No better 50th birthday present could have been imagined than the recent advertisement of a new University Archivist to be just that.
A third cause for diffidence, still frustrating to recall, is having rarely made a sufficiently convincing case for archives. Collections are the laboratories of the humanities and social sciences so conventional wisdom has it, though we struggled to gain even a few crumbs comparable to the endless banqueting of bio nano synchro neuro everything. Yet the unprocessed DNA 'locked' in the endless boxes of historical documents can support dozens of doctoral questions and numerous proposals to the Australian Research Council and Melbourne University Publishing.
UMA's holdings are a genuinely distinctive asset, and one of few which may justify the University's marketing rhetoric. Negotiating a large rich archive, and weighing up open-ended costs and returns, can be fraught. In 2007 Thomas Bartlett described the complications surrounding the acquisition by the University of California at Irvine of the Jacques Derrida papers, and, discussing its more general implications, wrote,
The very presence of such archives confers prestige. In academe such prestige is not trivial, or easy to quantify. In 2002 the University of California at Los Angeles purchased the archives of Susan Sontag for $1.1 million. That deal included Sontag's correspondence and her 20,000-book personal archive. Why were her papers and books worth so much? Certainly part of the reason is that now the two entities — Susan Sontag and UCLA — are forever linked.1
As for teaching, sadly the message that so much unique untapped content was so conveniently to hand rarely seemed to stick. Knowing we had the world's largest collection of primary sources on Australian business history, I would cite the Harvard Business School's programs and its Baker Library, and Advisory Board chair and true stalwart David Merrett would gently explain the realities of history-free full fee paying online short courses in finance and economics. He and other academics such as John Lack, Andy Brown-May and Janet McCalman knew 'Dawson Street', once a warehouse for Seagrams Wines, held a truly magical pudding. In a university famous for founding a school of history, however, they always seemed in a minority.
At the aforementioned 1981 ASA conference, Portia Robinson described a foundation source for European Australia, the 1788 official victualling list. An excellent example of an archival document, the historical value and significance of which far exceeded its original purpose, Robinson told how she had based a research project for all her full-year MA program students at Macquarie University on just that one list. Digitisation aside, nothing fundamentally has changed since then. Her students of course had to travel to the State Archives; Melbourne's simply need to walk to the reading room in the Baillieu Library.
An inspirational University of British Columbia archives professor, Terry Eastwood, once wrote that there were three classic ideas about archives, styling them arsenals of history, arsenals of administration and arsenals of law, or in sum, arsenals of democratic accountability and continuity. Melbourne's own important records, identified by Records Services in partnership with UMA and provided safe custody there, are its accountability paper trail, its corporate memory, and an authentic resource which help underpin its standing as one of Australia's oldest and proudest universities. The 2003 sesquicentennial, a PR opportunity as much as a justifiable celebration, depended in innumerable direct and indirect ways on UMA's collections and services. None demonstrated this better than two wonderful scholars, Dick Selleck and Stuart Macintyre, and in their histories they offered heartfelt acknowledgement.
One final cause of sober reflection is UMA's relationship with depositors — including businesses, trade unions and other nongovernment organisations. In its earliest years UMA operated to an extent in rescue mode, preserving long-forgotten, neglected or abandoned caches of files, minute books, registers and similar documentation, including material whose creator had long been defunct. The ideal of course, incorporated in the archival concept of the records continuum, is a continuing partnership where UMA's role is not that of a janitor gathering abandoned 'offcuts', but one which integrates archiving and recordkeeping and actively assists the business or union to decide what activities should generate records and which need continuing preservation for ultimate transfer to UMA.
During the present decade, UMA began trialling such a role with depositors such as Liberty Victoria and Rio Tinto, and helped develop a generic retention and disposal schedule for general application across the trade union movement. Far more of this 'knowledge transfer' might have been undertaken, resources and staff skills permitting. With the business mergers and acquisitions and union amalgamations, however, and archival records being increasingly digital, a close working relationship with their source is critical. There can be other potential rewards too from sustained depositor stewardship which are easy to imagine.
One of my final tasks in 2008 was to work with the Archives Advisory Board in drafting a submission to the Information Futures Commission. Its resulting 46-page report did actually mention archives, noting that the University had 'valuable collections and archives of international significance that remain under-utilised and inadequately housed', and that 'Funding is needed for cataloguing and preservation of archives, special collections and cultural collections.' The Board's submission had anticipated this bracketing of course, stressing that the Archives was not just another branch library or special collection. It made nine specific proposals which I commend to UMA, its new advisers and its new head as they take their first steps towards the next 50 years.
1. Thomas Bartlett, 'Deconstructing Derrida's will', Higher Education section, The Australian, 3 November 2007.
Excerpts from the opening address at the exhibition opening, Wednesday 8 December 2010
President, Royal Historical Society, Victoria
Member, Archives Advisory Board, UMA
In the week of Wikileaks we are reminded of the power and the politics of Documents.1 As a one-time archivist and as an historian I find myself inclined to anthropomorphise documents, to give them human characteristics and perhaps super-human too. Mild mannered for the most part, documents have the power to make and break reputations, to tell truth and lies, to force us to confront our prejudices.
In his biography of William Golding – the man who wrote Lord of the Flies, John Carey writes of Golding’s early fascination with all things ancient Egypt. In time the novelist had a moment of illumination in ‘his yearning for direct communication with the people of the past’.
‘I would give all the Egyptian treasures ever discovered [says Golding] for one cedar box of papyri. Documents are what count: they speak to you, and there are too few of them.’2
Sometimes archivists and historical researchers have the opposite reaction: that there are too many of them. But better too many than the eternal silence when memory has been lost.
For the past century archivists have been arguing over, trying to define, where Archives belong – both documents and the institutions in which they live. Do you file them, as it were, under H for Housekeeping or under C for Culture? Are they Memory, Gossip, Detritus or Entertainment? Are they Administration or do they belong with the Arts, with Libraries or with History?
UMA has an usual nature, as the archival institution for the University itself and also as a distinctive collecting institution, holding the records of a wide range of enterprises and individuals and encouraging research. The breadth of records matters as documents are at their best when surrounded by other documents. The solitary document often refuses to account for itself. You can’t trust it to tell the truth or even to say anything useful at all. But bring other documents, other evidence, your particular knowledge and wisdom to it and it might just be a key to understanding. And that is why we have those long aisles of shelving and those endless runs of seemingly anonymous archival boxes whose contents may lie dormant and unscrutinised by researchers for years. They are there to give testimony, one day, when they are needed.
The keeping of archives in large repositories, as in the University of Melbourne Archives, seldom repays strict economic scrutiny if defined by the demonstrated making of profits. This again places Archives into the cultural category, along with libraries, galleries and museums which have to argue that they earn their keep in indirect and ultimately immeasurable ways. It is possible and sensible to make a defence of the keeping of archives on the basis of the money you save, by good housekeeping if you like. You retain your corporate memory, you are efficient, you avoid expensive lawsuits perhaps. But that is not the chief justification for keeping archives, and keeping them well.
There are some institutions that keep books, as Archives keep documents, simply because they show provenance, scale, perspective, change. Unpredictably some of the documents will turn our to be essential, maybe at a personal level, maybe to illuminate a hypothesis, maybe at a level that has economic meaning. How can you measure the goodwill that the University of Melbourne Archives has brought to the university, the scholars that have been attracted to study here and the scholarship that has resulted?
I will give my own testimony of the power of Documents in the UMA. One of the small collections consists of the business records of the defunct Melbourne goldsmiths James Steeth and Son. These are the people who made the annual Melbourne Cup trophy from just after the first world war until the death of James’s son Maurice in 1970. The contract then went (till 2000) to Maurice’s former apprentice, Fortunato Lucky Rocca who you will still find in business as a goldsmith in Elgin Street, Carlton. After Maurice’s death the Steeth children deposited the company records in the University of Melbourne Archives chiefly, I think, to ensure that the family contribution to goldsmithing was not forgotten. For it is a fact that many items the Steeths made went into the world with the brand of the retailing jeweller on it, usually William Drummond and Co. Steeth and Son had a lovely, eclectic trade, relying heavily on the Catholic church for chalices and crucifixes but also they made dog collars in silver and gold for greyhound racing trophies, and gold wonders for horse racing prizes.
So it was through informal notes in sketchbooks and seemingly inconsequential jottings about weights and dimensions, that I was able to collect and compare data to build the case ultimately to denounce as a fake a gold Melbourne Cup trophy brought to light by a Port Macquarie car dealer and purporting to be Phar Lap’s missing Melbourne Cup trophy from 1930, inscribed as such by forgery.
By matching this information with what might easily have been discarded as unimportant finance ledger entries at the Victoria Racing Club I was then able build up a data base that proved that some Melbourne Cup trophies, chiefly in the 1950s, were not made new at all but had been repurchased second hand, had been stripped of their original engraving by repolishing and had been presented to unsuspecting owners as new. Two or more sets of records, with associated enquiry and research, came together to tell much of the story. In the case of Steeth’s note books, apparently arbitrary comments and numbers became imbued with immense significance.
Many of you may have heard the story now that one of those trophies turned out to have been recycled not just once, but twice, and has been three times a Melbourne Cup. And the most likely hypothesis is that this trophy, last presented in 1980, had started its career in 1930 and was the Phar Lap cup we had been looking for all along.3
Archives tantalise, and each new fact discovered, each new document, modifies a hypothesis. You must have found this in your own researches, whether at the highest academic levels or in your own efforts to climb your way through your family tree. Last week I thought I had found a convict ancestor on the Calcutta, the first settlement ship at Sorrento in 1803 that went on to found Hobart. This week I discover instead he was on the other side, one of the oppressing soldiers who arrived to keep them in check in Van Diemen’s Land. What will I find next week?
1. In the first week of December 2010 the release of confidential US diplomatic cables through the internet site Wikileaks and the arrest in Britain of ‘Australian-born Wikileaks founder’ Julian Assange were the main items of news interest.
2. John Carey, William Golding – the man who wrote Lord of the Flies, Faber and Faber, London 2009 (2010), p. 210.
3. Andrew Lemon, ‘The Mystery of Phar Lap’s Cup’ in Stephen Howell (ed.), The Story of the Melbourne Cup – Australia’s Greatest Race, Slattery Media Group, Melbourne 2010.
2010 marks 50 years since the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) was founded. Created mainly for the benefit of researchers and students of the University, but with the wider community in mind, UMA remains a treasure trove of primary source material which continues to grow. Two such primary sources, relating firstly to the establishment of the University and, more than 100 years later, the establishment of the archives, are included in the collection.
A letter book documents the early correspondence of the University Council, temporarily based at the Supreme Court, and includes Redmond Barry's notification to the colony's Lieutenant Governor of his election to the position of the Chancellor of the University in May of 1853.
While UMA's anniversary date can be pinpointed to the appointment of the founding archivist, Frank Strahan, on 29 of June 1960, proposals regarding the establishment of a formal University Archives had been in train for at least two years. Driven by a number of academics from both history and commerce, various proposals discuss the feasibility of appointing an archivist and include an architect's design of desired facilities. The need to document the history of the University and its day-to-day administration was accompanied by the opportunity and desirability of collecting Victorian business archives that would enable research in the relatively new field of economic history.
Vice-Chancellor G.W. Paton was integral to the appointment of Strahan and a staunch supporter of the archives well after their establishment, granting access permissions and remaining personally involved in acquisitions and the general activities of the archives. This letter, while succinct, is an indication of his interest and involvement.
Explore the stories
Assembling the archives: Frank Strahan
Reclaiming a collection
Redmond Barry: The University of Melbourne's first chancellor
An illuminated recognition of service
'A special fondness for beetles'
Through the optical glass: The University's war effort
Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack: Bauhaus in Victoria
'For God, home and humanity': The temperance movement
The fight over conscription
The Cold War comes to Australia
Cold War: Meanjin under suspicion
Malcolm Fraser's 1953 preselection speech
'Hello! This is Radio Resistance'
A momentous phone call
José Ramos Horta's difficult mission
Postcard from the CIA
Women's Liberation Switchboard
Rally against Thatcher
A letter from Gallipoli
Alfred Derham, medical officer, Changi
'Designing evil, yet creating good …'
Change for gentlemen travellers
British Antarctic (Terra Nova) expedition
Proof of identity and permission to travel
Drawing our history
Life on the goldfields
National Gallery Art School
A measure of democracy
The birth of a suburb
Hunting Ned Kelly
Palace of industry
Dante, Darwin and Dickens
Nettie Palmer's European diary
Should there be tax on toilet paper?
'A hovel of a place': Documenting inner-city Melbourne
Rhubarb, cardamom and opium
Victorian business tokens
Honey and horses, treacle and twine
Beginnings of a biscuit empire
The retail face of Melbourne
Shell's aviation spirit
All in a day's work
Eight-hour day movement
The penal powers dispute
No sweet life for female confectioners
Mining the collection
Boxing and the Bishop of Coventry: Stadiums Pty Ltd
More than a mine