A Trip Down the University of Melbourne’s Archives
by Danielle Scrimshaw
A security tag is swiped to unlock the heavy door and reveal a long, narrow path. Everything is in darkness, the temperature kept at a pleasant 18-22 degrees, and as the lights are flicked on I see rows and rows of ceiling-high shelves, stacked with books and boxes. It doesn’t look very exciting; the large room itself is dull and feels kind of like an industrial storeroom. But it’s knowing what the boxes contain, what the books are, that gives me such an extraordinary buzz. I’m in the University of Melbourne’s Archives, surrounded by mementos of the past. Not just books but typewriters, political T-shirts, skis, photographs, protest posters, letters, models of buildings, film, and a sleeping bag from a trip to the Arctic. I feel a little like Indiana Jones – except I was in Brunswick.
The University of Melbourne Archives was established in 1960, at that time only preserving records of the university and Victorian businesses for the use of historical research. Now, it holds almost 20 kilometres of shelved records, from trade unions, the women’s movement, political organisations, and key figures of Australia’s past. It is one of the largest non-government archives in Australia.
I was lucky enough to be shown around by Sophie and Katie, whose enthusiasm for the archives made me more excited to be there. I was expecting some sort of hospital quarantine type thing, where I’d have to keep my hands in my pockets or all three of us would move around the shelves in lab coats, gloves, and masks. This wasn’t the case at all, as I soon found when Sophie pulled a huge, thick cash book from the shelf and placed it in my arms so that I could see how heavy it was (extremely heavy). We opened it and a cloud of dust flew into the air – how long had it been since someone retrieved this early twentieth-century cash book? Most likely years; some of the archives sit untouched on the shelves for decades, waiting for a researcher to take interest in that area of history. Others are digitised due to their significance, as continuous handling would only deteriorate the paper over time. This doesn’t stop Sophie from showing me a note written by Malcolm Fraser, while he was on the phone to Governor General John Kerr the morning of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal.
Although the digitisation of archives is undoubtedly useful for researchers, and is another form of preserving history, the digital versions lack a certain emphasis. It is always much better to see them in person, to fully comprehend their physical being. You cannot digitise the cash book I cradled, and if it was you wouldn’t be able to understand its weight or the feel of its green leather. Sophie compared it to studying Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, seeing a picture of the painting on the Internet and then viewing it in real life. The painting is 1.72 by 2.78 metres – that’s huge! But it doesn’t really sound like it; like all archives, you have to actually see it to properly understand the meaning of its physical structure.
Why was I even being shown around the university’s archives? As I near the end of my Arts degree, the panic of what do I do next?? continues to rapidly grow. I would like a career in the history field, but I don’t know what to do or how to get there. Katie was in a similar position, telling me, “all I knew was that I didn’t want to be a teacher.” Same.
I thought working with archives would be cool but didn’t know what that’d entail. I know now that cataloguing is an important aspect. With almost 20 kilometres of shelf space, you can understand that a misplaced archive would be difficult to find. If something that isn’t catalogued correctly is placed on the wrong shelf, it could be left there forever, lost to all potential researchers. What a terrifying concept.
The staff at the university archives come from a range of different career and study backgrounds (graduate diplomas, Masters, library studies, museum studies, journalism), so it’s not just one pathway if you want to become an archivist. Though nowadays there are specific courses (mostly postgrad) you can study to become an accredited archivist. It’s also not necessary to be an expert in everything – with so many records on so many topics, it’s not impossible (well, maybe) but would be extremely impressive. Each archivist brings their own perspective to a collection through their distinct study areas, which benefits the research of the archives by not viewing the history just through one lens.
Something I’ve only recently learned is that the archives are available for student use. What? It’s strange that I’m now in my third year and nobody has ever told me this – imagine the quality of my essays if I had known! The archives staff welcome and encourage students’ enquiries; they’re happy to help with anything from a research assignment to discussing a potential thesis topic. Utilise that!!
If there’s a particular archive that you want to look at, you can request it through the library’s website and it will be sent to the Reading Room, on level three of Baillieu Library. You can’t borrow archives (imagine the potential chaos), so instead they have to be viewed within the Reading Room under supervision (the room is always staffed) and following certain rules. This process may not be as convenient as scrolling through Trove until you find a relevant newspaper article, but its valuable. The archives expands your options for primary source research, giving you access to information your fellow peers might not be bothered to attain. It’s also worth noting the value of primary sources, which wasn’t really drilled into me in my first and second year as I continued to primarily rely on books and journal articles. Primary sources are the physical history, however, whereas secondary sources are just the product of history – it’s the work and perspectives of historians, which is obviously useful but you can’t exactly make a career out of borrowing other academics’ ideas.
Sophie led me out of the archives before I realised that the tour was over. You mean I have to leave? Sadly, yes. As much as I would have liked to wander the shelves and gape at all the archives for as long as I wanted, that isn’t ideal. I would have been disturbing people’s time, and after a while be in need of some fresh air. Still, who needs sunlight when I have the entire Germaine Greer collection to get through?
For more information on the University of Melbourne Archives, visit their website. A staff member can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for further enquiries.