Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New England & Archives Outside

I have often mentioned Archives Outside on this blog. Archives Outside is the State Records NSW blog.

On 20 January in What can we do you for?, we were asked what we would like to see on the blog over 2011.  I responded with a comment, leading to a follow-up. I decided instead of commenting further to do a full post free of the limitations imposed by the comment space.

The Comments Thread

In my first comment, I suggested:

I would like to see:
1. More information on particular records systems. For example, a description of cabinet records. I found them very fragmentary.
2. More Hunter Valley & North Coast material. That would help me in the writing I am now doing.

I would be happy to do a guest post from time to time. I have a fair collection of material, some of which would be of broader interest.

Melissa was the next to comment:

Thanks for providing us with the opportunity to comment.

I have really enjoyed the ‘Can You Date’ series both on this site and the flickr account. I would like to see heaps more photos made available and, like Jim, I would be particularly interested in photos from the Hunter Valley & North Coast of NSW.

In terms of other items, I would be really interested in a couple of posts from Archives staff describing what they do (like a ‘day in the life of …’) and the techniques they use in accessing and storing records. Perhaps even an account of how changes in technology have impacted upon archival work.

Anyway, keep up the great work!

Fiona Sullivan then responded with two comments. First:

Thanks for the feedback Jim, it is much appreciated!

1. When you ask for more information about records systems do you mean information about how different types of systems worked (e.g. top file numbering systems) or information about the records of a particular agency and why there are gaps etc. ?

We would love to have you as a guest poster, if you would like to discuss this you can either use the “contact us” form on the blog or email us directly. Most staff members at State Records can be reached using the following formula for email addresses: firstname.lastname@records.nsw.gov.au

We will definitely take on board your request for more Hunter Valley/North coast material. It is such a rich area for NSW history it would be a shame not to feature it more.

And then:

Melissa, thanks so much for taking the time to let us know what you are interested in seeing on the blog.

Making more photographs available is definitely a long term goal for State Records. With the celebrations of State Records 50th Anniversary our crack digitisation team are much in demand at the moment. The good news is that this will give us the opportunity to feature some of the gems held in collections of the members of our Regional Repository network. A number of them been embarking on digitisation programs of their own and the results are stunning.

Your request for more posts from staff about their jobs and “A Day in the life of” is a great one and mirrors some of the offline feedback we received. This is something that we have been talking about amongst ourselves as well. We are lucky to have access to a lot of expertise here, however, one of our biggest challenges has been that the people with that expertise are very busy and don’t have the time to contribute. We think we’ve come up with a fun way to get around that so stay tuned!

Bill Oates finished the comments stream with this comment:

The UNE and Regional Archives does have a couple of good collections of North Coast photographs. Whatever we have is only a fraction of the wonderful glass plate collection held by Kempsey. We will provide State Records with a choice of our material as well as responding to any specific research requests.

I know that there will be more comments, NSW has been in the holiday period, but wanted to respond now with a much more detailed response than can be accommodated in a normal comment. Because this is a personal response, I am going to add some personal material that will explain some of the axes I am grinding away at.

NSW Cabinet (and other) records

I joined the Commonwealth Public Service all those years ago as an Administrative Trainee with the Public Service Board. At the end of my training year I went to Treasury. That department had a records system stretching back to Federation.

I used the older files quite often. For example, one of the things that I was working on was farm reconstruction. Another, the Department of Primary Industry estimates. I found myself accessing files back to 1933 to gather evidence.

In the 1970s I enrolled in a PhD. My thesis was a biography of my grandfather, a leading Country Party politician, the longest serving NSW Minister for Education and a key founder of the University of New England. I submitted in 1983. The thesis examination process dissolved into a fight among the examiners. The two senior examiners liked it, the third did a hatchet job. It then went to an adjudicator who came down against me on a completely different set of arguments. It was eighteen months before I got advice that simply said rewrite, taking everybody's views into account. I finally walked away from the whole thing.

Before going on, I have finally brought the thesis minus introduction on-line. You will find it here. If you read it, remember that it was submitted some 28 years ago. I think that it still stacks-up, but it contains elements that I now know to be wrong.

In criticising my thesis, the adjudicator said first that there was a danger of David Drummond being of insufficient importance to warrant a PhD thesis. Leaving aside problems with what used to be known as big men in history, this is an odd comment about a man who was both a leading political figure and, to quote a later writer, the leading Australian education minister of the first half of the twentieth century.

The adjudicator also criticised the thesis on the grounds of my failure to adequately consult NSW records. This criticism really stung. I had spent weeks in the State Archives. It is this element that I want to address.

The Drummond family papers in the UNE Archives contain his ministerial letter books. An activist minister, Drummond kept a copy of every memo and direction he sent to his Department over the twelve years he was minister. This is a real treasure trove of a period of key change, a trove that I suspect is still little known.

When I went into the State Archives I had read all this material, all of Drummond's personal papers, as well as a range of other primary and secondary material. I also went into the Archives knowing the Commonwealth records system.

The first thing that I looked at were the Cabinet records. I focused on Cabinet as a key decision making body. I struggled because the records were so fragmentary, so unlike the Commonwealth records I knew.

I then looked at the early Child Welfare and Public Instruction/Education Department records. I could find almost nothing on the State Children's Relief Board, while Education records were dominated by individual school boxes. I sampled a hundred or so to check issues, but learned very little.

At the time there were very few finding aids. More Importantly, there was nothing about the history of records. How did Cabinet work? How were records kept?

This is basic stuff. If you don't know how records were kept, what is there, it is very hard to access. A simple list of series, of what is there, is not enough. It is very hard to make a judgement of what to look at and where. I wanted to know how record keeping systems actually worked. Then I could make a judgement as to what I might find, where to look.

I know that NSW Records have changed over the last twenty years. Now there is a new variable.

Time constrained, working from home without access to the normal academic resources, I struggle to research and write. I know that I should go into the NSW Archives, I really must do so, but time is an issue.

To help me, what I would really like is history of the individual records systems. How did NSW Cabinet work? How were Cabinet records kept? Where do I find them? And so it goes for other records series. The material may now be there, but I need to be told.

New England Focus

Those who read this blog will know that I am writing a history of the broader New State New England. They may not realise how history affects records and the presentation of those records.

The University of New England was founded to be the Sydney University of the North. When it began, it collected material from the broader New England.

In 1967, the New State plebiscite was lost and the New State Movement collapsed. This affected both the way records were kept and presented. As a simple example, UNE''s local history collection, the best regional history collection in Australia, narrowed its focus to cut out some areas, focusing especially on inland New England. From my viewpoint as an historian, this was something of a disaster. Areas such as the North Coast diminished from view.

I must emphasise that this is not a criticism of UNE archivist Bill Oates who does a remarkable job. Rather, it is a simple statement that UNE's contracting focus meant that there was nothing left to bridge the gap between the narrowly local or regional and the state level.

The North Coast suffered most in this contraction. It actually vanished from the historical radar. This may sound extreme, but I do try to monitor this stuff quite closely.

There are so many broader New England and especially North Coast stories that are now just unknown. I cannot rebuild the broader New England memory of its past on my own, although I try. The Robinson family, New England Airways, steam navigation on the coast, Nimbin and counter culture, all are being lost. They remain as fragments, isolated memories diminishing on a sea of time, footnotes in the broader Australian story.

You see why I want more Hunter and North Coast photos?

With a photo, I can link a story, something that tells New Englanders a little about their past.


I accept that I mainly write about a slice of NSW. However, I think that the points are valid ones. I would like to see Archives Outside continue to develop as a living link between our present and past.

What do you think? What would you like to see covered?      


Fiona Sullivan said...

Jim thanks very much for the thoght provoking companion post. There is a lot of food for thought there. You've asked questions on two specific areas so I've separated them to respond to you.

To help me, what I would really like is history of the individual records systems. How did NSW Cabinet work? How were Cabinet records kept? Where do I find them? And so it goes for other records series. The material may now be there, but I need to be told.
Some of the information that you are seeking can be found in State Records search engine Archives Investigator( http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/ ) by looking at the Agency registrations for the Cabinet Office ( http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/Entity.aspx?Path=\Agency\48 ) and Department of Premier and Cabinet http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/Entity.aspx?Path=\Agency\10 . These Agency registrations also contain listings of some of the series that we hold which in turn have additional information. As a general rule agency registrations are a good palce to start when doing this king of research. There are also a number of record series from the Cabinet Office in State Records collection that are unprocessed, additional steps are required to gain access to these so I would suggest consulting with a public access archivist before you visit.
New England Focus
In terms of State archives the University of New England and Regional Archives (UNERA) is the designated repository for archives from the New England and the North Coast regions. In fact right now we are in the middle of negotiating the transfer of records from a North Coast Council to the repository. I had assumed this was the case for their private archival collections as well, however, following your post I rang the University Archivist, William Oates to check on this. He confirmed that the North Coast region is still very much part of UNERA's collection policy, however, the reality is that they are being offered less from that region than the New England. . Perhaps this is a reflection of the shift in regionalism over time. When UNERA was initially established the University of New England had a Vice-Chancellor based in Grafton and travelling across to work. Since then the North Coast has established it's own university, Southern Cross, which merged then unmerged with UNE. It's also worth noting that there was period of time in the late 80's when the Unviersity of New England was without an archivist. The sheer fact of geography also makes the North Coast a more challanging region for UNERA to collect in. There are also a number of strong Historical Societies in the North Coast region who are activiely collecting and maintaining archives. So in a sense it's not that archives from the North Coast aren't being collected it's more that not all of them are ending up at UNERA. I hope this helps to answer some of your questions.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this long response, Fiona. As I said on AO, I am bringing it up in posts to give it greater visibility.