Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

Reminiscences

Michael Piggott

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:

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.

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