Historian on tour: silences, permissions, and diversity at the National Library of Australia.


This week begins with a historian’s joy and a curse– absences. I consider an archival silence as a place of assumptions. The reader often assumes the reader knows what they are talking about. When I am reading letters in an archive created before I was born, that’s a bit problematic. I highly doubt there was any consideration by NLA staff that they should include additional detail into their letters should a feminist, Australian-Pacific historian decide to read their archives one day. For instance, last week, I mentioned that, during the postwar period, UNESCO become a guiding force for some decisions being made at the NLA about record keeping. Yet, the authors of the letters in which UNESCO was mentioned, NLA librarians, did not expand on this role other than to say they must attend the upcoming UNESCO meeting in Paris. The multiple mentions of this meeting, across numerous letters, indicated it was a notable event. As the NLA was a significant partner in the Australian Joint Copying Project, alongside the Mitchell Library of the New South Wales State Library, I wondered if these UNESCO connections influenced the AJCP. Consultation with the National Archives of Australia revealed I would have to wait a week to know what they held concerning Australian delegations to UNESCO in the 1950s, as a booking was required. In the meantime, I used Graeme Powell and Stuart Macintyre’s NAA guide Land of opportunity: Australia’s postwar reconstruction to ensure my archive order was on the correct track. Then, with a sigh born of impatience and understanding, I mentally spun my project focus for the moment. Then, I brought the AJCP corporate documents and linked manuscripts into focus.


Unlike the basic policy files, which seem to be a depository for communication, the corporate documents were often used. The marginalia and the copies of letters within are valuable to understanding the mechanics of the AJCP.

Permissions were a significant aspect of my NLA archive work this week. Historians used to copy manuscripts by hand. This process hasn’t really changed, as notetaking remains a significant element of my research. Unlike previous generations of historians, I also take photographs on my smartphone camera. These act as a whole documents reference point for once I depart the archive. Occasionally, something that I see in the AJCP policy files- a line from a letter, a letterhead from a government department, a sketch, a map- captured the past in an enchanting manner. These images I wish to share with a wider audience. To do this, I need permission. In my ‘intention to publish’ submission to the NLA, I wrote a list describing the various photographs I wanted to publish on this blog. The wonderful NLA staff- who seem to be exceptionally patient with this historian’s never-ending supply of questions- provided precise details as to copyright risks associated with each image. The aspect of this exchange with the librarians that I found to be most beneficial was the recommendation to visit the Australian Council Copyright fact sheets. While exploring the site, I came across Historians and Copyright. After careful consideration, I invested in the book. Suppose I am going to haunt cultural institutions for material during my career. In that case, I need to know how to use content from GLAM institutions legally, not just ethically. By the time this process has played out, it was a matter of minutes across a few days and I’m better informed about ownership and legal usage of items from the archive. And I now have photographs to share with you in the coming weeks.

I also sought permission to gain access to the AJCP corporate documents. This set of files were suggested to me by NLA staff after my Summer Scholarship project proposal had been accepted. The NLA fellowship staff provided a spreadsheet that gave titles of the folders and little else, there were no descriptions of content in the files. I used my framework of 1939-1966, and the subjects of the London Missionary Society, Pacific Islander history and global connections to guide my document requests from this collection. Since the folders appeared to have started in the late 1940s to when AJCP filming ended in 1998, such a framework was critical to ensure I didn’t collect information outside my scope. I was granted permission to view these files by the NLA soon after my arrival in February.

Examining the AJCP basic policy documents last week provided me with a strong understanding of the various people involved in the AJCP from the NLA, Mitchell, and Public Records Office (London) and other archives in Europe. As I examined the NLA corporate files, I was given insight into the institutional voice of the NLA; the organisation’s ambitions for the AJCP. The NLA voice dominated my reading and, I soon realise, my thinking. This perspective is not necessarily bad, as I want to understand the relationships played out through this nation-building cultural institution. Still, it is something to be wary of. I don’t want to lose the connections and ambitions of other organisations involved in the AJCP. Dealing with words all day, and sometimes into the night, I decided something visual was required to counteract the development of a restricted perspective.

I created a map to show the AJCP’s global outreach and relationships. I concentrated on tracing the specific journey of AJCP Miscellaneous Series London Missionary Society archives in addition to making markers that signify the larger AJCP acquisitions, outside of the Public Records Office (London), from Spanish, German, French and American archives. Delighted to be working with maps again, I entered the movements of the AJCP from 1939 onwards. I created a key to distinguish between the different project stages; a purple pickaxe for where archive records were created and extracted from, yellow lookout towers showing archive locations that were surveyed for texts to copy, red film to indicate where AJCP microfilms were created, and green readers showing where the microfilms were deposited. As I worked on creating this map, I saw the AJCP was bringing in material into Australia for Australasia, but it was also distributing microfilm reels to other archives (you can zoom in on these details from the map link above). One example is Jean Guiart’s request of Phyllis Mander-Jones. He obtained Pacific exploration records from the AJCP for retention at the Centre de Documentation Recherche sur l’Oceanie, France.

P 1939-1966 map I created. Information from the AJCP basic policy and corporate documents provides insight into the transnational relationships required to make the project a success. Zooming in on the map (link above) will provide additional details about the archives and periods involved.

Examining the NLA corporate papers and creating the AJCP map highlighted two significant issues regarding Australia’s archival interests in the postwar period. The NLA was a crucial contact point for other nations to request archival records that Australia held. The corporate files show White communicated with librarians, archivists and diplomats. Requests for archival material from Australia arrived from New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, the United States, and Russia. These requests were opportunities to build stronger diplomatic ties. The foreign archives requests were often tied to the High Commission, as it was in Fiji or New Zealand’s case through Internal Affairs. In the instance of America, the NLA suggested the presentation of archival material from Australia to their government representative, as a gesture of “good faith” between the two countries. From Russia, the archivist, Mr Belov, requested Russian naval records that were held in Australia and Australia in return requested Russian exploration files regarding the Pacific. This quest for Pacific exploration materials did not develop beyond the exciting stage of conversations about items in the stacks. The folder concerning Russia contains only two letters, both from staff within the NLA. F.W. Torrington, the London Liasion Officer for the NLA in 1965 wrote to Harold White:

I am hoping our negotiations will not peter out for lack of further action on his part. It would certainly be very gratifying if we could obtain copies of this important body of records to add to the great range of material on Pacific history which has already been copied under our [AJCP] Project.’

There is nothing else in the folder. Perhaps our diplomatic ties to Russia were not strong enough to secure the collaboration and consistent communication required for archival transferrence?

The second finding from examining the corporate files was that librarians discussed the development and ambitions of the AJCP at conferences in the 1950s. This is valuable information. Locating conference papers or proceedings from these events assist with understanding the worldview of national and state librarians- the main actors in the funding, creation and distribution of the AJCP. From various letters between the London liaison officer and the National Librarian, White, I gained the conference dates, 9-10 November 1953, and a title, Report on the Progress of the Project for Copying on Microfilm Material of AUS NZ & Pacific interests. There was no report in the files. When my efforts to locate this Report come to nil, and I found myself in a library where all the librarians had departed for the day, I reached out to my Twitter followers. Within minutes (blessed be the online librarians) I have avenues of further research. One, Sir Harold White’s papers I order without delay, delighted at the finding aid which shows me Box 8 is my target for this project. Informed the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) papers have been deposited at the NLA I order the box containing conference proceedings papers. I soon learn from NLA staff I need permission from the organisation to access these papers. I was quickly granted access by sending an email to ALIA in which I explained the documents I wished to access and my intentions (all honourable, my good library people). During the email exchange, I made the promise to send my thesis to ALIA when it is all said and done (tick, tock goes the thesis clock).      

Material diversity within the NLA Pacific Collections

Here I hold the LMS records of IDC on microfiche. I compared the microfiche content with digitised AJCP microfilm records. This comparison showed that microfilmed and microfiche records offer unique files to researchers as original file structures were lost to institutional reorganisation or deaccession.

The diversity and depth of the NLA collection were at the forefront of my mind this week as I engaged with various items related to the AJCP. To access sources, I travelled from my office to Special Collections to view manuscripts, down to the book collection point in the Main Reading Room and finally across to the Newspapers and Family history desk. At the latter site, I examined microfiche and microfilm reels from the AJCP and the IDC collections. The IDC collection is new to me. I learned of its existence from a series of letters between NLA librarians, the London Missionary Society administration and IDC from 1967 until the 1970s. The IDC collection consists of missionary archives on microfiche filmed in 1978. The AJCP LMS records (filmed between 1955-66) are embedded within the IDC microfiche. Microfilm within microfiche. When I saw this material for the first time I shook my head at the idea of generations of archival material before me. All those layers of meaning! Then I got down to business contrasted AJCP microfilm against the IDC microfiche. I examined their content for distinctions. The ‘Papua Odds’ and ‘Papua Personal’ collections I know well, being they are the foundational archive for three of my book chapters. Here exist the letters of James Chalmers, Jane Chalmers, George Lawes, Fan Lawes from their time working in Papua, 1873-1907, as missionaries. I noted there were a few new additions and omissions in the IDC collection. This is an example of what makes microfilmed collections like the AJCP so valuable. Microfilm collections maintain texts that do not exist in original format any longer.

Besides manuscripts, microfilm and microfiche I also worked with audio material this week. I had wanted to access a recorded interview with Jim Davidson, Pacific historian and driving force behind Australia-Pacific history at ANU, however, this is unable to be accessed until 2035 (yes, I am thinking about how to set a reminder for then). Instead, I contented myself with listening to a recorded interview with the Australian-Pacific historian, Harry Maude.

As I listened to Peter Biskup’s interview with Harry, recorded for the NLA’s folklore and oral history collection in 1995, I revelled in the unusual experience of listening to historical evidence. As a historian who specialises in the 19th and 20th centuries, oral histories are critical, especially in Pacific history, however, I rarely hear my subject’s voice. There are chuckles, sighs, concessions, and disagreement in Harry’s voice as he tells Biskup about his experiences. Harry’s life course coincided with British colonisation in India, the Pacific Islands and Africa. He worked as a civil servant, studied anthropology, and shaped Australian-Pacific history at the Australian National University. It is for the last reason I really want to hear Harry’s perspective. Have I come to the correct conclusions in my own work, how Pacific History came to be, after reading about Harry and his work from the 1950s and 1960s?

After reading the corporate files about the NLA’s involvement with Harry’s Pacific literature project I was very curious about distinctions in perspective concerning past events. Harry wrote a proposal to the NLA for a new microfilming project in the 1960s. This eventually became the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau.[1] Harry’s letters from this period discussed the NLA as a collecting institution, and one that offered tardy responses, with people such as the bibliographer, and librarian Phyllis Mander-Jones. The letters in Harry’s archive at the University of Adelaide indicated a strong working relationship and some tension between the national librarian, White, and Maude, as a historian. I listened with fascination as Harry explained-

‘I was a friend of his [White]- I knew him fairly well, and- you know- what he was like, if you’ve ever met him. He’s a dear soul…I spoke to him about the marvellous collection of Pacific books, manuscripts, and everything in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, and he said, “Yes, but the function of the Mitchell Library is to specialise in New South Wales, and the books and things of the Pacific Islands should be transferred to the National Library.’

When questioned on the date by the interviewer, Harry quibbled. Instead, he spoke more about his relationship with White. It was not an official position. This aspect of the conversation indicated Harry felt his personal relationship with White allowed such a judgement, one without factual historical evidence, to be made. Clarifying, Harry stated,

‘I don’t know that he’d [White] have written that in public…[H]e made it quite clear to me and told me so in those words, because at a later stage I mentioned it to Ida Leeson and I thought she was going to have an apoplexy!’

At this point, Harry bursts into delighted chuckles, and then Biskup changes the line of questioning.

After I listened to Harry’s interview, I reflected on the unexpected delight at hearing Honour Maude’s involvement in the recording. Honour, a researcher of Pacific string figures and Harry’s wife, was present during the interviews, excluding one. At the beginning of the recordings, her voice can be heard in the background of the interview tapes, offering contributions to the discussion. By the end of the seventh tape, she was side by side with Harry next to the recorder as she made commentary about their past. Harry spent the last minutes of the recording praising Honour as a researcher and wife, but more as a researcher. Considering Honour’s research, the various archives holding her research notes, and her presence in this recording and transcript, I leave a comment for the NLA on the catalogue entry of the recording. Perhaps they can include Honour’s name in the metadata? She had a lot to say about imperial and Pacific history too.

Next week, on Historian on Tour:

– the National Archives of Australia gets a visit.

– the work of defining Australia’s interests in foreign archives continues.

– Can I find maps and photographs or sketches in the NLA catalogue to enhance my presentations concerning the AJCP? Besides Captain Cook, what other expeditionary materials exist in the NLA collection? Do these items compliment, or counteract the AJCP microfilms? Does working with original documents make a substantial difference to my reading of a text? What is gained and what is lost by working with surrogates (copies)?

–my hypothesis of whether the policy records can be used to improve the catalogue metadata is tested. The AJCP basic policy letters and corporate letters reveal librarians, researchers and the occasional historian discussed archives in detail, they also shared indexes and bibliographies that supported research in a particular archive.

Deborah Lee-Talbot

When I speak to people about the AJCP, one of the first things they mention is the difficulty of finding their chosen subject. This issue comes, in part, from reels made by researchers and external contractors. Here is a sample of the markers offered to researchers.

[1] The Library holds PMB as microfilm and provides access to the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau Catalogue (Australian National University) database, which enables registered Library users to view digitised records.