Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

An introduction

Helen McLaughlin
Principal Archivist

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.

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