Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

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.

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