Historian on tour: findings from an orange notebook

Have you ever felt it? The rapid heartbeats and quickened breath that comes from a sense of anticipation that is born from your imagination. If you have, you will know what I felt as I walked up the National Library of Australia steps on 14 February 2022. The coming weeks of research as a Summer Scholar is the result of a generous contribution to the NLA by an anonymous donor. I plan to provide a good outcome for this gift with articles about my research appearing in academic and mainstream publications, while also enjoying myself in the archives, exploring what is on offer.

Coming to the NLA as a Summer Scholar

Before we consider some of my findings and experiences from this past week, you may be curious to know why I put myself forward for this program. I’m writing a chapter for a History PhD thesis, and access to part of the NLA collection is crucial to the chapter’s development and conclusion. The tentative title for this book chapter (which I hope my thesis will become) is ‘A Unique Copy: The Australian Joint Copying Project, 1939-1966’. I have previously examined some of the AJCP administrative files from 1939 to 1966 at the NLA (MS 8983). This analysis indicated AJCP officers, such as Phyllis Mander-Jones, created a unique national archive from these copied files. After seeing a letterhead that said ‘Department of External Territories’ last time I was researching the AJCP policy documents at the NLA, I wanted to take a broader approach towards these materials. To consider the political circumstances surrounding the AJCP.  This summer scholarship is an opportunity to understand the collaborative international research relationships AJCP officers formed with foreign national organisations, including New Zealand’s Alexander Turnbull Library, government departments like the Department of External Affairs, and transnational organisations such as the London Missionary Society. Examining MS8983 for traces of these relationships produces new knowledge about librarians and researchers’ political roles, especially in settler societies such as Australia. It is also an opportunity to deeply engage with the NLA Collections, talk and learn from the staff here. This scholarship is a dream come true. 

Experiencing heart-pounding delight as I arrive at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 14 February 2022.

Finding my way at the NLA

Before losing myself entirely in the NLA collection, I attended an information session with their Reader Services. This time with experienced staff worked as an excellent reminder about features in the catalogue that I had forgotten. For example, did you know registered users can ‘Favorite’ and annotate items in the collection? As someone who frequently collaborates with others for journal papers, and I like to share findings and collection materials in general, the best aspect of the ‘Favorite’ list is that it can be shared through a direct link. Here, you can see what materials have taken my interest this week, why, and my plans for these items.

This session with reader services, in which we discussed the NLA holding photographs, maps, artefacts, music, audio files, newspapers, as well as manuscripts and books. This conversation prompted me to consider what could I use from the NLA collection beyond the immediate MS8983 to enhance my thesis. I am very conscious that I am probably one of the few people in this world that finds joy in examining multiple folders of the ‘Basic Policy’ of the AJCP. I often ask myself, how do I make this material more engaging to other people? There are maps, photographs, and audio files that seem linked to the AJCP which may help with this issue. When I finished this meeting I couldn’t help but consider that, while our meeting took place off the floor of the library public-facing area, this is the kind of expertise and knowledge that is freely available to other library users.     

Special Collections- AJCP Policy Correspondence

It is in the Special Collections I find the manuscript material to drive this research trip. I ordered 15 archive boxes for my first day. The folders were delivered to me on a trolley that was packed from top to bottom, and side to side. At my first sighting of this trolley my heart did a delighted ka-thump. I noted, since the last time I was here, the closed stickers that appeared on the front of these boxes have been removed. I wondered if others will use these records more now, I reach for the first folder in Box 1.

The AJCP ‘Basic Policy’ communication papers were the focus of my life for the next five days. I gently lifted the manila folders, and flipped the contents, minding the pin that holds the letters to the manila folder remained in place. I did this so I could read the letters in chronological order, which was reverse to the presentation order. I kept a copy of my project aims open on my computer screen as I did so. There are many fascinating threads to be pulled on, in this archive. But I have limited time and deadlines ahead. I will be focused (I am sure I mutter this aloud at times) as a particularly distracting letter from the 1980s temps me to deviate from my plan.

As I paged through boxes of correspondence concerning the surveying, acceptance, or rejection of materials I made numerous notes. About the people I encounter, the changing definitions of the Project, moments when the Project stalled, and instances when my curiosity is prompted. For example, why did a Western Australian historian seemed to almost set off a diplomatic catastrophe with his demands for open records from PRO, London? What relationships were at play here? What was he asking for? Who stepped in to correct the situation, and why?

Writing notes as I process the material takes time, which is a precious resource in Special Collections rooms. It is a means of keeping track of the curious details embedded in the AJCP policy archive and noting emerging patterns. Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

The Basic Policy letters, invoices, notes and survey sheets indicated the AJCP team, both in London and Australia, were active in acquiring material beyond the borders of Britain. During May 1939, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library representative, Kenneth Binns, and the NSW Principal Librarian, William Ifould, agreed with an Officer at PRO, London, to copy records for permanent acquisition. Together, these libraries intended to locate and microfilm all government, naval and scientific records, relating to Australasia (Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands) and New Guinea, the latter often defined as separate from other Pacific Islands. The microfilmed records, were to support the production of the Historical Records of Australia and address the ‘immediate research needs of [Australian] students.’

To successfully realise this transnational project, letters flowed from Europe to Oceania and back again. Correspondence was sent out frequently from the NLA by people named Binns, Key, Burmester (Assistant National Librarian), Lynravn (National Library of Australia), Torrington (National Library of Australia Liasion Officer), Mander-Jones (researcher, Mitchell Librarian, AJCP London Liasion Officer), and H.L White (Commonwealth National Library Librarian from 1947) to NSW Library, Australia House (London), Public Records Office (London) and numerous research and archival institutions from the United Kingdom, Africa, America and Oceania.

The microfilms of the AJCP, I learn, after reading six boxes of material, were kept at Australia House in London, the site of Australia’s oldest diplomatic mission. White wrote to Burmester in 1948, the diplomatic connections of Australia House were crucial to obtaining permission from institutions that had ‘holdings of material of Australian interest.’ Repeated phrases such as ‘Australian interest’ gain my attention. White often wrote about locating files for ‘Australia’, but then, post-1948, the AJCP included items regarding the Pacific Islands. During the 1950s and 1960s Mander-Jones wrote often about finding files of ‘Australian interest’. No one clearly states what those interests are. By 1950 New Zealand was invited to partake in the AJCP, and their Cabinet approved their involvement around 1952. With NZ comes a request for Tongan documents to be copied. I kept reading. Australia was mandated to administrate Papua and New Guinea after the Second World War, but they also collected Fijian files. Then the AJCP scope was expanded to include the West-Pacific. Eventually, the AJCP covered, through PRO and the Miscellaneous series, images of letters, reports, paintings, photographs, sketches, maps relative to Oceania, South-East Asia, and Antarctica with the distinction created by the different archive types, government records or public, private institutions and people. In the post-war period, former colonies in the Pacific obtained their independence. And the world was trying to find a new political order after the Second World War. What, then, were the Australian interests at this time? 

The letters written by White and Burmester take up most of my attention. Initially, a significant proportion of the AJCP was the organisation of the Public Records Office, London. The AJCP teams requested that the copied records ‘have the longest possible life’, so it was best that the ‘highest quality possible’ was obtained by the copiers, often external contractors to the archives, hired for the copying job alone. When recording at PRO stalled it seems the NLA and Mitchell representatives liaised directly with researchers, historians, to gain materials from elsewhere. The Mitchell Library liaison officer, corresponded with Father Kelly, who was at work in Spain, locating and copying records for Australia (‘What was in those records?’ whispered the white rabbit on my shoulder. ‘Take a peak in the folder.’ I shake him off. ‘I will be focused’, I reaffirm to myself). In the June of 1948, letters show Mander-Jones went to France for a series of archive meetings. During that journey, she planned her time to visit London, Scotland, and Switzerland and search for possible AJCP records. By the late 1950s Pacific historians were producing Island centric histories, and government organisations were still trying to grasp what had happened during WW2. Both ambitions led to the acquisition of captured German files through Waddon Hall and missionary records concerning the Pacific. The acquisition of German papers was later adapted, as AJCP liaison officers worked directly with the American archives that held these files, not the British (the latter were too disorganised for the Australian’s liking). In the 1960s, the AJCP became involved with a “consortium” with Mayalysian government organisations to copy records. South African scholars requested copies of the AJCP material from PRO. Canada was also copying documents from Europe and placed orders with the AJCP team. It seems to be an era of settler and independent nations gaining records from various locations. At 2.52 pm each day, when an NLA announcement reminds me to do so, I pack up my folders, notes and laptop for return to Special Collections. I often wished for a global map, push pins, different coloured thread, and an extra 12 hours in the day. 

Puzzles in the AJCP

The liaison officer letters as a whole from 1939-1966 indicate these people adjusted policy as the project took place. They learned about microfilm as postwar information technology, sent financial reminders, liaised between various government departments, hired researchers to survey material across Europe and America, and redefined what was the AJCP as time passed.  I noted that I need to create a clear chronological order of who is in what role and when and then link this information with governments in power and their international policies. And I want to know what worldview liaison officers had as archivists and librarians during this period. This information would help to understand why someone would write the following,

‘Mr Bernie agrees that history cannot be kept in water-tight compartments and that material relating to one Dominion may well be useful in the study of a subject relating to another Commonwealth Country. (The Librarian sees this point more clearly, perhaps, even than the historian.)’

As a historian who writes, ‘it is complex’ more than she would like, I have issues with that statement. Am I being anachronistic? Was social history not popular in Australia when this was written? I made a note to follow this line of questioning later.

One of the largest puzzles I have from this week’s research is why various governments and departments were involved in the production of the AJCP. The folders that contain the AJCP basic policy correspondence carry the letterhead of the Office of the High Commissioner for Australia. This, I learn, is an office charged with promoting Australian interests and providing assistance to Australians overseas. The Prime Minister’s Department, the Department of External Territories, Agent-Generals of NSW, QLD, VIC, TAS and WA and UNESCO also played a part in organising access and export of the AJCP. There are a lot of mentions about “sensitivities” and who has the right to act on behalf of Australia. It is decided, with no clear indication by whom, that the NLA liaison officers have that role. There is a standout letter from 1955. It is on transparent copy paper, torn. Unusually bad condition for the AJCP letters. A third of the letter, the right-hand side, is missing. I can make out aspects of what is being discussed, current trends in archives and libraries, and there is a mention of the ‘Archival Authority of Commonwealth’. Is this linked to UNESCO? The NLA? When did the Australian Archives Act pass? Who was involved? I made a note to request books about the creation of the War Archives and the national library’s early history from the reading room when back at my desk.    

There are unexpected delights in the AJCP policy archives. The following seems the most appropriate for this post. I laughed, quietly, into my mask when I read an AJCP report written for Mander-Jones, 

‘Thank you for your letter of 30th January 1962; I am glad that you liked our attempt to do something better with the Annual Report. I am never quite sure whether this is worthwhile since probably very few people really read the Report anyway. However, it seemed worthwhile trying.’ 

I wish I could find the author and reassure them that more people have read the Report than they realised. It was kept in archives. It was treasured. Examining this document highlights to me what mattered to librarians at this time. It allows me to understand how Australia-Pacific historians came to use London Missionary Society records to develop their sub-discipline.

Next week, on Historian on Tour

I do hope you have enjoyed this excerpt from my research experiences this week. After another week of making requests from the main reading room stack, examining AJCP manuscripts, and perhaps listening to some audio files, I hope to write more about the following:

– the NLA’s procedure concerning one’s intention to publish material from the collection

– the importance of UNESCO to libraries and archives in post-war Australia

– defining what were Australia’s interests in foreign archives

– how to piece together archival records that have been fragmented due to bureaucratic filing systems

– whether the policy records can be used to improve the catalogue metadata.

I’ll leave you this week with the observation the library is not a quiet space, but it is a thinking space. As I scribbled my findings in the NLA orange notebooks, there are conversations about new technology, donations into the collection, favourite books, books that need care, gasps of delights over slides, magazine covers and advertising material. It is a glorious, alive, evolving place- rich with Australian histories and ambitions.

Deborah Lee-Talbot

Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash