History · Reflection

‘Clio’s clerk’- a historian’s experience of sustainable research methods at the National Library of Australia.

What if librarians and archivists are not gatekeepers, but “sustainable research scholars”? In this post, I share how an imperial artefact raised questions about preservation, censorship and national values. I then discuss how an unexpected encounter with the National Library of Australia’s Burke and Wills’ manuscripts challenged my previous understanding of preservation policies.

At the National Library of Australia, the National Archives of Australia and the Australian National University archives, there was no point when staff denied me access to research material. Yes, I was required to log my requests in advance and book time in the archives or library. Yes, I tend to focus on subjects and people that are outside of embargo periods and commonplace restrictions. For this reason, I found archival access relatively straightforward. I write this with the knowledge that access is a significant issue for many researchers. The Palace Letters are evidence of this.

The closest I came to being restricted in my viewing was in regards to time limits with certain materials. Numerous times at Australia’s national library I viewed particularly valued materials in the Special Collections room. It seems not all collection items are equally special. Some items have fragility issues, others are classified as requiring additional care and usage requirements based on portability, age, or financial value. In my realm of research- Australian archives and libraries, Pacific expeditions and missionary archives- my “special” encounters tended to be maps or rare books.

An anomaly in my research experience occurred when I examined the papers of Australia’s national librarian from 1927-1947, Kenneth Binns. I called up his collection from the stacks to improve my understanding of him as a librarian and an Australian. Was there any indication of his individual values in his professional archive? What ideologies drove his decision making? What could his papers and artefacts tell me about his role in association with the Australian Joint Copying Project? Who was he?

Kenneth Binns was Australia’s National Librarian from 1927-1947. He was devoted to the national library and the librarian profession, passionate about community projects that supported the intellectual growth of Canberra and a collector of local maps. Image source: National Library of Australia, Dupain, Max. (1944). Portrait of Kenneth Binns, Librarian Commonwealth National Library, 1927-1947 Retrieved April 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136629969

One item from Binns’ collection was delivered to me in the Special Collections room in a black archive box. With writing in black Texta, a bright yellow sticker proclaimed its place in the NLA collection. Otherwise, there were no descriptive details. Ever intrigued, I lifted the lid. A waft of the past- dust, smoke, dirt, oils, life– flooded my nose. A large clear plastic bag encapsulated various items before me. If I hadn’t been told this time was of great value, these protective layers would have indicated as much to me.

I removed the bag, so to identify the various items within the box. I started with the bottom layer of artefacts. A large envelope, 43cm by 35cm, almost covered the bottom of the box, the remainder of the space was taken up with the excess of the plastic bag; it was scrunched up and used as an additional buffer. The envelope’s colour was a rich cream, tending towards yellow if shadowed under the library’s light. I noted the recipient’s address as being in the nearby suburb of Forrest, possibly Binns’ home. So close to where I am now, at the National Library, but too far in the past for me to ever honestly know.

On the reverse side of the envelope, someone adhered the address

Central Chancery of the

Orders of Knighthood

St James’ Palace.

I looked again at a small brown box in the black archive box with the grey led K-Binns ACT. CBE. I set aside the envelope and I slid the brown lid up and saw a black box. The case looked like manufactured hard, mottled, plastic. The top is embossed, in golden block capitals, CBE. At this stage, I did not know what was a CBE. The case measured 15 cm wide and 10.2 cm long. There was a small pin button on the front. I didn’t hesitate. I pushed it. The lid sprung open. I saw a medal, bedded in beige coloured velvet. Suddenly, the box feels heavier in my hand. A CBE is a medal bestowed by the British monarchy.

In 1964 Kenneth Binns was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his work as a national librarian. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I paused my assessment of Binn’s collection to cherish the medal in my hand. The artistry was stunning, with a careful combination of enamel and metalwork. The enamel colours, blue and red, were incredibly vivid to my eyes, especially after working with typed memos and letters for the previous five weeks. I noted the words “For God and Empire”. Binns had accepted the medal, its conditions of use, this statement. I lifted a small ribbon tag on the edge of the interior and saw carded instructions. They directed the recipient on how to wear the medal during different formal occasions. I wondered if Binns ever pinned it to his pyjamas, just because he could, because it was his. After reading more of Binn’s archive- seeing the love he had for Canberra, the hours he dedicated to local community organisations, the temporal investments he made to ensure the growth of European-Australian culture- I decided, no, this was not an action that Binns would have taken.  His papers showed he valued the monarchy, the nation and the library. To pin this medal on clothing in a manner other than directed by the Queen (so to speak) would have been too flippant an effort for such a serious artefact. It would have disrespected the nation and cultures that he valued.

When I returned to the envelope I wondered if Binns’ hand shook as he carefully created a slit with his letter opener across the upper crease of the envelope. My hand was a little unsteady as I slid the contents out. Looking inside the envelope’s interior, I saw it was rough, reinforced with cloth, offering protection for what was inside. So many layers of protection, from the librarians’ timed restrictions to the envelope. I rested the document on the tabletop. My fingers barely held the letter. I was hesitant, but my curiosity was a stronger driver. I read the certificate. It was signed by Queen Elizabeth the Second. There was enough of the child in me who grew up on monarchy stories to appreciate that signature. Binns was awarded the medal when he became a Commander of the British Empire in 1964.

The medal was a serious artefact from Binns’ and Australia’s past. Binns received the CBE for his work on the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board and as Australia’s National librarian. The censorship aspect troubled me then, as it still does now. Censorship mutes minorities, it supports those in power, it creates unrealistic representations of body and mind. Censorship has been argued to improve society, but it can equally damage diversity of expression and community cohesion. On the other hand, a librarian’s vital work to provide researchers access to sources was acknowledged. Librarians deserve greater recognition for the work that they do. I returned the items, wrapped them in plastic, and closed the black lid. A little more informed about Binns, and with a lot more questions about the influence of librarians on scholarship.

In one of those delightfully unexpected research moments, the next day, in a special storage area of the Library, I saw the medal again. My visit to this secure space was thanks to a meeting I had earlier in the week with the Director-General of the National Library, Dr Marie-Louise Ayres. I mentioned to her I had seen so many samples of photographs, newspapers, maps, pamphlets, books, letters, memos, microfilm, microfiche, paintings, and sketches. She suggested that I round out my exploration of the NLA collection with a tour of the stacks. A follow-up conversation with the Fellowship team, some emails and a phone call, I found myself fidgeting outside the Special Collections room at 10am the day before I left the NLA, waiting for the NLA’s Emma Jolley to show me what I had missed.

One space we visited on the tour was the “special” storage room. It is a security checked space and very small. While carefully moving around one another in this space, Emma explained items were secured here for numerous reasons. They were a mixture of purchased or donated items. The articles exist in archival boxes of various shapes and sizes. Still, nothing is too big for a single person to carry. The shelves are the dove grey that I will forever associate with the storage backrooms of museums and libraries. There is no dust here. It wouldn’t dare appear on these shelves. Some of the items were in the process of being digitally repatriated to origin communities or nations. I find the notion of pluralistic existence fascinating. The air temperature was cooler than the rest of the building, but not uncomfortably so. My eyes look at more than my mind can remember. I dream about this space in the days to come.

After the tour, I mused over the most unexpected item. Not that I couldn’t see the item’s value or appreciate its fragility. It was unexpected because of my worldview. Before the tour, I expected my artefact daydreams to be about an item concerning the Pacific, produced by a woman or a rare, illustrated book. These are my biases. Instead, my thoughts were consumed by manuscripts from white European explorers. Specifically, the Burke and Wills expedition, 1860-1861.

Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper’s Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861, 1907, John LONGSTAFF. Source National Galery of Victoria.

Burke and Wills were mythological heroes from my childhood. I cannot remember when their expedition story was not part of my memory. Great men who set off to explore THE OUTBACK. Admittedly they lost their lives while trying to survey this immense, harsh land, but that, I was told by teachers as I progressed through primary school, was the price paid for greatness in Australia. As I grew older, the grandeur of this narrative was destabilised. Especially when I saw images like Arrival of Burke, Wills and King. I learned these “great [white] men”, despite having a well-equipped expedition, failed to consider Indigenous relations or weather. These were ordinary men, I explained to my daughters when they encountered this story in primary school, not heroes.

Therefore I was somewhat confounded to feel my fingers twitch to touch their manuscripts. A yearning to physically connect with this part of the European-Australian past. Ashamed of my undisciplined thoughts, I linked my fingers behind my back.

I nodded with relief and gratitude to Emma, on hearing that the journal was digitised to ensure easy access for researchers. I could view the item before me, on the shelf, online. The oils from my fingers would do no damage. If I had no internet, just a computer, all I needed was a willing counterpart to download journal images on my behalf. No computer? Screenshots of the manuscripts could be printed and distributed. Access points were varied, especially if a researcher was tenacious. While the manuscripts were locked away, they were not inaccessible. Many could undertake research, not just those with the finances to travel to Canberra. It was a comforting thought.

It comforts me because while Emma showed me a strong room, I was also being shown that these items are not being censored or hidden from view. There is no censorship occurring here. Researchers can access the original material. Librarians may pose questions about the scholars’ methodologies and their aims during the process. An assessment will be made. These questions are a librarian’s means of serving the researchers of tomorrow. They are not instances of gatekeeping. For example, as a social historian focused on the meaning embedded in texts, a digital record is often enough for me. However, were I a social historian in a hundred years, that has a new methodology or technology that reveals the text’s meaning in a new way, then the original is required. If everyone who wanted to take a peek at the journal did so, perhaps the binding, paper marks or leatherwork would have been too damaged to prove this new theory.

Scenarios such as this, I hope, indicate a sustainable preservation method is being enacted in our libraries. I do not dispute some librarians and archivists are gatekeepers. It is important to also acknowledge that librarians and archivists, such as those at the NLA, have to deal with this stereotype as they negotiate the tension between the needs of the past artefact, the needs of present-day researchers and the needs of future researchers. This past-present-future intersection was something that I encountered again and against at the library.

It fascinates me still.

Deborah Lee-Talbot