History · Reflection · Resources

Historian on tour: home again, home again…

After six weeks in Canberra, my time at the National Libary of Australia as a ‘summer scholar’ has come to its conclusion. This post offers an excerpt from my NLA findings presentation and I share my delight at the realisation my time with the AJCP will not end in August once I submit my thesis, as plans are being made for my return to Canberra in the spring.

Early Friday morning, 25 March 2022, I watched my journey into Canberra unfold in reverse. St Andrews church, Parliament House, the NLA, Australian National University campus, the Australian War Memorial, and the training site of Duntroon flashed by the taxi window and I was transported to the airport. Unlike previous times I had left this city, I didn’t lament half-finished conversations and collections unseen. I fidgeted in the taxi, and comforted myself with the thought, ‘I’ll be back soon.’ It was reassuring to have some plans for post-PhD life.

Just after 6.00 am I was seated in the domestic lounge of the Canberra airport. The seats around me were largely empty. There were two middle-aged men in the same gate area. They were reading, sitting apart but brought together in my mind by being dressed similarly in polo shirts, slacks, shiny leather shoes, and branded canvas duffle bags at their feet.

The designers of this space tried to break the starkness of airport décor- a reflective slick floor and marble coated pillars. A living wall was installed opposite my chair. It is, reminded of my wanderings too and from the NLA each day, a minuscule testament to the green life of Canberra. I squinted my eyes at the ferns, and peace lilies in the harsh white light of the airport, as I tried to determine if they were real or imitations. They are, I decided, real and in need of dusting.

Too hyped up about seeing my family after six weeks away from home, I hoisted my backpack straps over my tired shoulders and wandered off to the café I had seen near the security check-in. I was too wired to drink a coffee but too tired to bypass the opportunity to purchase some food and a beverage altogether. I reverted to simple comfort foods. I ordered the juice of my childhood, apple, and the pastry of my adulthood, a ham and cheese croissant. Once I had my snack in hand, I glanced around for an out of the way place to write while I waited to board the Melbourne flight.

I had thoughts.

On Thursday, I presented some of my findings from my time as a summer scholar at the NLA. It was the first time in over two years I had presented in front of a live studio audience. And I was nervous. There is something exhilarating about presenting new research. On the one hand, there are the nerves of offering my thoughts to others for critique, on the other hand, there’s the joy of offering new research to others for critique.

In the audience were people I’d seen in the elevator, halls and office space of the NLA. Other attendees were colleagues, some were friends, others academic family. It was a goodish number to present to– about 22 people were seated in a room designed for 214. It was, I thought as I stood at the podium and shuffled my papers, a few less than I would have seen had the Australian Historians Association been an in-person event last year. I had been informed the Australian Joint Copying Project appealed to many library users and staff. There’s something charismatic about its surrogate form, despite people’s annoyance at its scroll-like formatting. I find it playful- it is a collection you can take apart, put together in a different format (like shifting from microfilm to digital pages). I fidgeted, looked at the audience and willed my heartbeat to descend from my throat to my chest, where it belonged.

I was, thoughtfully, run through the processes of how the presentation would proceed prior to the start time. I assured anyone who asked that I was, indeed, ready. After a generous introduction from Kathryn Favelle, I stepped to the podium. And blinked. The bright lights needed to video the session made me feel off balance. My hand played with the mouse, I went forward, back, back again on the presentation slides. My breath hitched, and then the longest moment occurred. In which I assured myself the lights were nothing, the words and the stories I was going to tell were everything. And I exhaled. It was an experience that would come in handy the next time I spoke in front of others, I told myself. Now, get a move on.

I acknowledged the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on whose Country I was living. I paid my respects to the Elders of these communities- past and present.

And then I said the following-

The ambitions of evangelical Christians during the nineteenth century were global. they documented their social movement in journals, maps, and letters, making their archives a boon for present-day social historians. Image: Gilbert, John & Evans, Edmund & James Nisbet & Co. (1861). The pictorial missionary map of the world Retrieved March 20, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-232361632

When I first encountered the Australian Joint Copying Project I did not expect to examine the creation of this unique Australian archive. I initially intended to use AJCP microfilms to examine London Missionary Society records and discuss the experiences of women associated with this evangelical social movement, especially in the Pacific Islands of Rarotonga, Niue and Papua, from 1861 to 1907.

To do this I searched the State Library of Victoria catalogue for information about LMS women’s experiences. There are 118 reels of AJCP LMS material.  I found myself with the unusual experience of being directed to other libraries, like the NLA, for more information about the SLV collection. To negotiate the LMS reels in the Australian Joint Copying Project I used three catalogues, two finding aids and one Guide by a woman named Mander-Jones. From these materials, I created a methodology to search the AJCP LMS material.

Then, scrolling through the microfilm, I had the disquieting experience of reading letters, journals and reports about Pacific Islanders, written in the Pacific, containing Pacific languages and images, in a library space that was built during the colonial period, dominated by the English language and under the watchful gaze of SLV security guards. I wondered who had brought these Pacific records to Australia, and why?

That question was the foundation for this summer scholarship, considered the political agency of librarians associated with the AJCP.

This project involved examining Library’s AJCP corporate and administrative files, from 1939 to 1971, and questioning the NLA’s institutional relationships with organisations like New Zealand’s Alexander Turnbull Library, Australia’s Department of External Affairs, and the London Missionary Society.

To fill gaps in the NLA correspondence I broadened my search parameters. I examined digtial archival materials at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, archives at the National Archives of Australia, digitial material at the University of Adelaide Library and files at the Australian National University.

Before I speak about my findings, I’ll offer you a broad sketch of the AJCP.

In 1939 the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library and Public Library of NSW found themselves with growing Pacific collections, not so extensive Australian collections, expert librarians, and in a competition to create an innovative copying project to secure Australian records, largely from Britain, for use by Australian scholars.

Dupain, Max. (1944). Portrait of Kenneth Binns, Librarian Commonwealth National Library, 1927-1947 Retrieved March 20, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136629969.

Kenneth Binns was the national library representative. Under his guidance, the library perceived a copying project as part of their efforts to obtain ‘records of the genesis of Australian nationhood’ for student researchers. In contrast, the NSW library, which was represented by William Ifould, was more concerned with the acquisition of nineteenth-century materials.[1]

In 1944 these libraries sent the first copying project library liaison officer, Cliff Burmester, to London to survey for the material. On 16 October of that year, Burmester wrote a passionate argument for the realisation of a larger-scale project to Binns.  Given the events of the recent war years, Australia was considered a safe haven for archival material.  Burmester wrote the project must begin at once.  The ‘danger of delay’ risked the loss of Australian ‘records should another war take place…Only the making and distribution of copies of unique material’ would be the right course of action. Then Burmester made a suggestion for the project that added a defining characteristic to the AJCP. He asserted the Commonwealth library should build collaborative relationships, to support ‘any other Dominions who may wish to undertake the copying of records relating to their own history. In that moment the world’s most extensive collaborative project, the Australian Joint Copying Project, was imagined.

The Project’s researchers commenced actively surveying material in 1945. Then the national and NSW libraries agreed ‘to share the task of microfilming material of Australian and Pacific interest held in the United Kingdom.’ The Australian High Commission in London initially negotiated with the local Public Records Office on behalf of the libraries for access to film Colonial Office manuscripts, pictorial and cartographic materials. [4] After that moment of diplomatic action, the staff of Australia House mostly served as functional support to the AJCP- a place to create microfilm, export reels to Australia and write letters back home.

Building delays at PRO and a lost microfilming camera hindered the Project’s planned development. To keep momentum, funding and the goodwill of the libraries Board of Trustees, Binns and Ifould agreed Burmester should liaise with institutions outside PRO.

This led to another distinctive element of the AJCP being created. They split into two sections. The Public Records Office of London Series [PRO-Series] and the Miscellaneous Series [M-Series]. Both series now contain images of letters, reports, paintings, photographs, sketches, maps relative to “Australian interests”. Distinctions between the collections were created by the different archive types from which material was gathered, PRO were government records the M-series contained texts concerning public, private, and government institutions and people.

The AJCP active recording period ended in 1997. By then there were 10 419 reels of microfilm. The files were closed in 1998. In 2017 the NLA received Australian government funding to modernise the Project. With the production of more than 8000 digital pages created from microfilmed material, the NLA created the second generation of AJCP archival records.

Australia’s consideration of their regional neighbours needed much work during the mid-to late twentieth century. Australia. Department of Home Security & Associated Newspapers (Australia). (1943). Pacific war map Retrieved March 20, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-233270189

It’s the curatorial period and processes concerning the first generation of the AJCP content that I’ll discuss today.

In the immediate period after world war two, there was an awareness in cultural institutions that Australia, as a nation, needed to improve local researchers’ output and access to sources. This intention was a response to Australia’s involvement in the Pacific War. During the second world war, the Allies prompted Australian librarians to gather information- geographical, political, cultural and historical- about the Pacific. It was expected Australia’s premier cultural institutions, including the NLA and Mitchell Libraries with their exceptional Pacific collections, would provide access to detailed and accurate information about Australia, its territory of Papua and the League of Nations Mandate of New Guinea. As Australian archivists and librarians were unable to realise these requests, particularly in relation to the British colonies of the Pacific, the demands of the second world war exposed Australia’s ignorance concerning its island neighbours.

After the war the need for these materials did not change. At this time Australia was fostering close ties forged in the Pacific, and becoming less reliant on Imperial ambitions.

This new, intellectual, Australia needed infrastructure. The Prime Minister and Treasurer, Ben Chifley funded Australia’s National Library and National University. With these new national institutions being planned for, Canberra became a location to imagine, draft, and realise Australia’s intellectual future.

Initially, “Australian interests” was realised in the AJCP as the acquisition of Australian and Papuan records. The first agreement between the State Library of NSW and the national library occurred in 1939. By 18 December 1945, close trade, government and intellectual links between the former colonies of Australia and New Zealand saw the latter join the AJCP as a financial partner. New Zealand’s Department of External Affairs was motivated to secure surrogate records for their research institutions as they believed gaps in their history could be filled by locating ‘copies of early records which are in the Public Records Office and elsewhere in England’.[6]

‘The quality of a library’s service depends not on the magnificence of its building nor on the size and extent of its book collection…it depend[s] on the calibre of its administrators and staff, the people who assemble the collection, who harness its resources and make them available to the library’s public.’

Norman Lynravn, AJCP liaison officer, discussing the purpose of librarians, in Libraries in Australia (1948)

In time, the Australian States, of VIC, TAS, SA, WA and QLD joined the AJCP. They dictated what particular records they wanted for their communities. The collaborative element of the AJCP saw Pacific focused materials from European archives purchased and traded to representatives from Malaysia, the United States, Canada, and France. The AJCP records from former European Empires in the Pacific were acquired by universities around the country or independent researchers. The latter resulted with sections of the LMS microfilms being delivered to a private office on Thursday Island.

Each inclusion of a new AJCP partner had the potential to change the AJCP scope of acquisition. In her general report for the years, 1961-1962 AJCP library liaison officer Phyllis Mander-Jones explained the 1958 agreement meant collections previously filmed needed to be revised, expanded, to incorporate “Malaya, Indonesia, Borneo, the Philippines, Australasia, and the South Pacific Ocean, Eastern Indian Ocean and Antarctica”. This immense remit was catered to the needs of state, institutional and independent intellectuals at that time.

The discussion of German records in the AJCP correspondence is a particularly fascinating instance of the power of principal librarians involved with the Project. While I expected that the funding of the national library by the Australian government, meant the AJCP was beholden to the nation’s foreign policies, this was not the case. To provide some background, until the beginning of WW1 Germany was a significant force in the Pacific.  They were the colonial power in New Guinea and Samoa and parts of Micronesia. In 1966, the Australian government didn’t recognise East Germany as a potential AJCP partner, but they recognised East Germany had archives Australian researchers requested. From that time until 1971, the National Librarian, White, coordinated AJCP teams across Canberra, New South Wales and London to ensure German documents were copied for distribution. Because state funds could not pay for these items directly, and the German Democratic Republic had no money to spend beyond the “Iron curtain”, White proposed a ‘frame for frame’ agreement. While the arrangements and correspondence took place through AJCP, it was a historian with an interest in German New Guinea who led the physical acquisition of these records. Dr Marjorie Jacobs, from the University of Sydney surveyed and copied the GDR materials. While brokered through the AJCP these items exist today in the NLA’s general microfilm collection, not the AJCP.  A demonstration that the AJCP is larger and more diverse than the catalogue information allows us to recognise.

The AJCP started as a nation-building exercise, but it did not stay that way for long. While principal librarians at Canberra and Mitchell libraries made funding and political decisions each liaison officer left their mark on the AJCP collection. These officers were active in archives, libraries, conferences, exhibitions, at thesis presentations, front rooms of people’s houses, and at diplomatic meetings, trying to secure material for copying.

Coming of age after Australia’s Federation in the Pacific region. •J. Creffield Pty Ltd & Woodhouse, Clarence. (1914). Map of the Islands of the South Pacific Ocean Retrieved March 20, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-234324422

Phyllis Mander-Jones was an AJCP officer whose actions supported the acquisition of materials that benefited Australian-Pacific studies scholars. Born in 1896, just prior to Federation and as Australia took over Papua from Britain as its first Territory, Mander-Jones formational years were backgrounded by conversations about Australia’s role in the Pacific, sensational children’s stories about missionary explorers and narratives of Empire. Fascinated by history and languages since childhood, and with a gift for sketching and painting, she toured the Pacific for texts during the 1930s and 1940s, and to increase her understanding of the region in which she lived. Mander-Jones was a librarian, a bibliographer and an Australian historian.

As Mitchell Librarian 1946-1957 Mander-Jones argued her support for the AJCP as it would facilitate ‘the discovery and copying’ of manuscripts onto microfilm. This process, she believed, would improve researchers’ access to manuscripts so they could analyse Australia’s settler past, and consider Australia’s relations in the wider Pacific for the future.

A letter written on 26 November 1948, while she was on a Carnegie study tour in the United States, showed Mander-Jones was involved in the AJCP technical and logistical planning phase long before she was officially appointed as an AJCP officer in 1960. From 1948 Mander-Jones communicated with Burmester and White regarding the progress of the copying project. On January 3, 1949, Mander-Jones wrote to Burmester, advising what machinery and technical knowledge was needed to ensure the Project’s success.

A memo from White dated 10 November 1960 was titled ‘Miss Mander Jones’s Responsibility’ highlighted her agency in this role. He stated she was to ‘make a number of surveys of records not yet microfilmed to indicate the quality and, so far as it is possible, such practical and other considerations as affecting the order in the copying program.’ With this statement, Mander-Jones had the potential to adapt the AJCP collection as she saw fit. And she did.  Mander Jones set strict research boundaries for her research team. These staff were instructed to locate ‘letters of interest from a policy, scientific or historical point of view.’ Such content was to be ‘filmed unless obvious duplicates or copies of originals existed in Australian libraries.’

Analysing the Pacific Historian Dorothy Shineberg’s letters to Mander-Jones from the 1960s we see Pacific historians were interacting with AJCP officers, refining the Project’s focus by requesting specific, Island-texts from European archives of former empires. Such materials, like diaries of traders and missionaries, held echoes of Pacific Island voices as well as colonial officials.

In 1965 Shineberg contacted Mander-Jones to request information about Captain Thomas Beckford Simpson and Captain Edward Woodin, general traders in the Southwest Pacific. This information would significantly inform Shineberg’s book, They Came for Sandalwood: A Study of the Sandalwood Trade in the South-West Pacific 1830-1865. Sheinberg created a nuanced Pacific history, where Indigenous agency and traders’ desires were analysed. When she moved onto a new project in 1967, Dr Shineberg corresponded with Mander-Jones about acquiring Noumea consular records. Through a mutual connection, another Pacific historian, Harry Maude, Shineberg passed on record details from the Foreign Office to Mander-Jones.

As much as Mander-Jones was pushing manuscript information out to scholars, they were pushing manuscript requests or surveys towards her, thereby shaping the AJCP acquisitions and adding to the complexity of what were “Australian interests” in the 1960s.

Due to the various actors involved with the AJCP, the national and state libraries, the liaison officers and Australian researchers there are reflections of competing interests in the AJCP. There are, in consequence, archival tensions.

The AJCP archive is held in two parts at the NLA. There is a record collection and a manuscript collection. Each element provides insight into one factor of this fantastic project. Had my access to sources been limited to the basic policy documents I would be standing in front of you today asserting liaison officers were the drivers of the AJCP, as they built relationships between libraries and scholars. Likewise, if I was only granted access to the NLA corporate correspondence I would have contended the Canberra and NSW librarians drove the AJCP, with funding and political connections. Juxtaposed, these records show complex transnational archival power flows across Australia, New Zealand, Asia, the Pacific, Europe and the Americas.

Librarians attached to the AJCP did what they thought was best to acquire, preserve and provide historical data to Australian researchers. The benevolent principles of the library profession in Australia- access, preservation, and improved education- were employed by the AJCP librarians. This created an ambiguous understanding of what were Australian interests. At times it meant librarians agreed with government policy. Other times their intentions seemed to work outside of the Australian government’s formal line: for example, arranging for the historian Jacobs to extract Pacific records from East Germany during the cold war. Or it was democracy in action. As librarians realised research requests from independent researchers at the Mitchell in New South Wales, rather than following the acquisition decree put forward by the National Librarian Harold White prompted by Jim Davidson, the founder of Pacific studies historian at ANU.

‘Research on the history of the Pacific Islands territories is carried out mainly in Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, if the owners of Pacific materials are interested in its being effectively used, they would do better to deposit it in one of the major libraries in the area.

Jim Davidson, Pacific Historian at Australian National University, in ‘Letters to the Editor’, Pacific Islands Monthly, 1963.

During my time here in Canberra I also considered how the AJCP is a colonial archive and how that archive might be re-imagined for the post-colonial Pacific. Copying records from imperial archives of Holland, Germany, Britain, France, Spain created echoes of imperial power relations in the AJCP. For instance, the London Missionary Society records were copied for the AJCP with assistance from the LMS librarian and archivist of the 1950s and 1960s, Irene Fletcher, in the shelf order of the original archive. The LMS catalogue was also copied. This meant colonial frameworks were carried over into the AJCP catalogue and collection. It may be possible to decolonise this archive.  A linkage project with Pacific Islanders who are the intellectual owners of this material could more fully realise the shared pasts of Australians and Pacific Islanders with the inclusion of Pacific voices.

The JACP is a kaleidoscopic archive, one of many surrogate collections created for the benefit of researchers in the postwar period. Source: pixabay.

To conclude, the AJCP was a post-war project that evolved to represent a range of Australian-Pacific interests.

The AJCP is difficult to negotiate is it was influenced by the desires of many people, from national, to transnational to local considerations.

Some historians have described the AJCP as illogical and fragmented.

To me surrogate collections. such as the AJCP, are kaleidoscopic archives– structured, logical and varied. The AJCP has a set framework; “Australian interests” and library principles. These reflective gems indicate each folder, each reel copied and deposited in a research institution or with a scholar in their home office, is an offering to a curious mind from an attentive and future-thinking librarian.

The best part of this presentation was the aftermath. I had great questions and comments from Kathryn, Dr John Seymour and Professor Bronwen Douglas. People took the time to tell me about their experiences with the AJCP. Follow up questions were posed in the hallway, as I was saying my goodbyes, or on Twitter.

I was thrilled to realise, from these conversations, my learning about the NLA collections was not going to end as I walked out the front door of the library. There are collaborations afoot. Isn’t that the most delightful aspect of research?

In the meantime, I have these findings to write up and include in my thesis. There are a few papers I wish to revisit from the AJCP correspondence. There’s a report to write for the Fellowship team at the NLA. I need to submit my thesis. The tick-tock of the thesis clock was slow on the morning I started drafting this post. I was on airport time. Then, my watch stopped completely for 72 hours. As you read this, I am relishing being with my family. Tomorrow, the research continues. This blog, thanks to my joy at writing and research and the kind encouragement of readers, will continue. For now, new material will be posted on Sundays, every fortnight.

In the meantime, don’t forget you can contact me here or sign up to receive regular notifications about my Australian-Pacific research adventures from this blog.

Deborah Lee-Talbot

[1] Powell, email communications.

[2] 16 Oct 1944 Burmester to Binns 16 Feb 2022 115924.jpg

[3] Pattison, 349–353 (p. 350).

[4] M-A Pattison, ‘The Australian Joint Copying Project’, in Government Publications Review, vol. 13, 1986, 349–353 (p. 350).

[5] Powell, 9–24 (p. 22).

[6] Department of External Affairs Wellington to High Commissioner for NZ 18 Dec 1945