A few weeks ago, after playing our April Fool’s Day prank earlier in the morning, Fiona and I set to some serious business – to interview Richard Gore, Manager of Archives Control and a key member of the Committee responsible for the development of the 50th Anniversary Digital Gallery. We wanted to find out what goes on behind-the-scenes, to discuss the process and the unseen production work, preparation and enormous effort undertaken by staff to produce something of this scale.
AB: Good morning. This is Anthea Brown and today the Archives Outside team is talking with Richard Gore, the Manager of Archives Control, to discuss the development of the Digital Gallery which is part of the celebrations of State Records 50th Anniversary. The Gallery, which has been published in stages, will eventually display 50 items to represent the 50 years of State Records.
Richard has been a key member of the Committee responsible for its design and development.
RG: Thank you
AB: …And over to Fiona for the first question.
Vision, inspiration & audience
FS: When the Committee first approached the idea of an online gallery to showcase treasures in the State archives, where did you draw inspiration from and what was the broad vision?
RG: Well, I was lucky in that I started with the advantage of a reasonably broad knowledge of the collection over, the alarmingly long period of 37 years (!), and also particularly having planned and coordinated a large exhibition for the Bicentenary in 1988, which involved more than 100 original items. For that we produced a substantial catalogue which gave us a whole lot of ideas in the early stages of the current exhibition. In the end, we did choose some items from the earlier exhibition to display.
The broad aim of that exhibition was to showcase the richness and diversity of the collection, and that is an extremely broad aim and perfectly appropriate as a guiding principle for this one and we’ve certainly used that. However, we wanted to limit the number of items (or groups of documents) to 50, to match the 50 years, so, unlike the ’88 exhibition, it wasn’t possible to be comprehensive in terms of all the functions of government that we’re illustrating. But we’ve tried to touch on a good cross-section of areas, including: convicts, crime and punishment, exploration, Aboriginal affairs, education and health.
In terms of who we were trying to reach, we were certainly looking for a general audience, but we also wanted also to show the collection in a new light to those who already had some awareness of archives. A particularly important aspect was that we took a very broad view of what constitutes a ‘treasure’. We wanted to strike a balance between highlighting important records – which can sometimes be boring when you actually read them – and interesting or unusual content. We also went for a mix of the typical, such as convict indents, and the atypical or unusual such as rare, actual tickets of leave that were originally held by convicts themselves. I should say at the outset that the exercise was very much a ‘brains trust’ exercise. The other members of the anniversary committee, Christine Yeats (Manager, Public Access) and Amanda Barber (Manager, Government Recordkeeping), were a vital sounding board and source of ideas, and with 67 km of records, it was also essential to draw on the knowledge of other experienced staff familiar with the collection, like Gail Davis (Senior Archivist, Research) and Christine Shergold (Manager, Special Projects).
Selection criteria & methodology
AB: As you said, 67 linear kms of archives, I imagine it might have been a daunting prospect selecting just 50 items. How did you break down this task? And what were the criteria used by the Committee?
RG: Well, as I mentioned we didn’t attempt to cover all the functions of government, you couldn’t do that in just 50 items. So, it was Amanda’s idea that we take a chronological approach, and that’s worked very well. So we divided up the period between 1788 and 1961 into five manageable chunks of 30 to 40 years. And we allocated between 9 and 12 items per period to give a kind of reasonable, even spread over the whole time. We’ve attempted to illustrate some of the important historical themes in a particular chronological period, for example convicts, exploration and settlement, immigration. But of course it has only been possible to illustrate a few of these for each time period because of the constraints on the number of items.
We’ve also have featured a few famous people documented in the archives such as Florence Nightingale, Henry Lawson and Charles Kingsford Smith but we didn’t want to over do that. And we’ve also got the odd iconic building such as the Sydney Opera House. However the majority of documents give glimpses into the lives of little known or unknown people with interesting, sad, inspiring, funny or quirky tales to tell. And it’s important to note that this is really, largely a result of the nature of the government’s involvement in people’s lives – a big proportion of government resources have been devoted to dealing with people in trouble of some kind or other – committing crimes, being arrested, convicted by the courts, going to gaol, etc., and the records reflect this. They also reflect the fact that the government takes on the role of providing services and assistance in important areas such as education, health and child welfare. So the records naturally flow from the nature of what the government’s trying to do. So you’ve got, in the end you’ve got a very rich source of information on aspects of the lives of ordinary people, in ways that can’t be matched in more exclusive manuscript collections within libraries which are much more selective and tend more towards the more sort of literary, artistic, sort of end of the spectrum.
Another factor to note is that we’re also aware that even with interesting content, archival documents (hand-written or typed) can be dull and bland visually. So we set out to include some items with a bit more visual impact and appeal, such as manuscript maps, hand-coloured architectural plans, and some brochures and posters. So, for each period, in summary, we tried to illustrate some of the major themes, include something relating to a well-known figure, put in an item with a bit of visual impact, and most importantly, to ensure that we had documents with plenty of ‘human interest’. All of these factors were kept in mind when selecting items, but it wasn’t a scientific process, it was also intuitive – some items just simply appealed to me, like the wonderful set of eccentric 1938 tourist maps with odd drawings, like a woman pointing an umbrella at a goat. I’ve no idea what that means! That’s in the final batch, that one.
Finding exhibtion items
FS: Great. It’s interesting that you mentioned the items with the visual impact because they tend to be some of the rarer items in our collection. As you mentioned you’ve broken down the Gallery into time periods and there’s quite an unusual mix of documents, so how did you actually go about finding them?
RG: Well, a variety of techniques, if you like. We had a really good foundation and had a lot of help with this, in getting going with initial suggestions. A group of interested staff across the organisation became involved, which was really helpful; they put together their list of 50 items, which included obvious things like the First Fleet records, and some more obscure material. And, that was helpful, and we ended up selecting 10 or so items from this list, and to that we added some from the Bicentennial exhibition which we felt were worthy of, sort of, displaying digitally. So that gave us a really good foundation.
We then turned our attention to the time periods chosen to give structure to the display, and then looked at the themes we wanted to highlight. So, most of the time that wasn’t difficult; for example, the 1788-1820 period was always going to feature the Convict system and exploration and settlement.
So starting with an initial list of 15 items, I got some excellent suggestions from Gail Davis, Christine Yeats and Christine Shergold; which brought the total to about 30. That left me with about 20 additional items to find and that required quite a bit of research, looking through a whole range of finding aids such as the Index to the Colonial Secretary’s papers, various lists of files and special bundles, indexes, lists of maps and plans and other guides and finding aids. And this gave us a number of promising leads, which then meant I had to inspect the records and then find suitable documents. That was probably one of the more demanding parts than just trying to pick the document or documents that just really jumped out at you. Files with interesting titles didn’t always have documents suitable for display. So, unfortunately things that sounded exciting ended up being, you know, very ho hum. I was looking for between one and three documents per ‘item’, so it wasn’t just always one page or one letter but they had to be related to each other. And also fairly brief (no more than a few pages) and capable of telling a story without too much explanatory text required. We also had some input from an experienced researcher, Terry Kass, who is a long standing reader in our reading room and he was the one who had, by chance. had come across the application to operate a peanut and popcorn wagon when looking at Lands records! So, I liked it as soon as I saw it and that’s in the exhibition.
Another important thing to note is when I found an interesting item, I was also on the lookout for additional records that could be linked to form a broader picture, around that item. A good example is, I knew that we had the Admission Register which records Henry Lawson’s enrolment at Eurunderee School in 1875, and this was on my possible list of items. I didn’t know we had other records for that school and when I discovered that we had the Visitors’ book, I just thought “I might as well have a look through this” and lo and behold I came across a lengthy entry in 1914 written by Lawson himself, which included a poem he had composed during his visit – which was an amazing find! I don’t think anyone knew that we had it.
FS: That’s fantastic!
AB: It is an interesting find that one, yes. And definitely one that we’ve highlighted.
RG: Yeah. I’ve also tried ‘flesh out’ the display by linking to related material on our own website or elsewhere where this was possible – for example, some of the records relating to crime and punishment, we may have had an external site with a court record or transcription of court proceedings, or in some other instances like the Sobraon, we had photographs on our site that related to documents and plans.
Challenges of item selection & research
AB: I imagine you faced a different challenge with each time period you researched, be it too little choice or too much?
RG: Well, to general, if there was a challenge, it was probably one of too much choice, with 67km of records. As a general rule, I would say, though, that the collection is broader in the Colonial period because it encompasses functions such as defence and immigration that disappeared to the Commonwealth after Federation. So the Colonial period is probably the richest but there was still no problem in finding useful and interesting material from our 20th Century holdings.
Just as an example to work through one of the batches, to show how we tried to get the right sort of mix, the 1880-1920 batch, I think has a particularly nice mix of documents. We’ve got some sad or uplifting personal stories that also show broader themes such as the expansion of care for the mentally ill and institutions for, you know, troubled youth, and also things like improved access to divorce for the working class. Diverse, sort of, social issues and social change. We highlighted some calamities such as the Bulli Colliery explosion of 1887 and the Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, and I’ve already mentioned the Henry Lawson poem. Our quota of quirky items was met by the bizarre proposal for defending ships from torpedo attack, complete with its wooden model. So this eclectic mix, I think, with a lot of human interest, just shows how diverse and fascinating an archives collection can be, once you get into it.
For the last batch, we have aimed to illustrate a mix of themes from the eventful period from 1920-1961. And there we’ve tried touch on some big issues like the aftermath of the Great War, things like Soldier Settlement and also civil defence during WWII, social unrest in the Great Depression; as well as , sort of, perhaps more obscure subjects like film censorship and mass tourism. Now we’ve deliberately not overloaded the exhibition with important documents like the Charter of Justice, but it is worth noting that the display begins and ends with really iconic records that we felt we had to include. We start with the extracts from the First Fleet Convict Indents, our founding documents, and then we end with absolutely vital records for the construction of the Sydney Opera House.
The awesome people behind the scenes
FS: It often appears to those of us who drop in to visit these online galleries on the web that they just magically materialise. Can you tell us about the production work that goes on behind-the-scenes to develop something like this?
RG: Yes, well we really got going about July /August last year; once we had a broad outline of what we wanted to do, I drew up just a very rough a timetable covering the main tasks and when they needed to be done by. And that came out to about a six month time frame which amazingly enough has proved to be a realistic one, thanks to everyone’s co-operation. Efficiency and professionalism of all the people involved has been fantastic so we’ve been able to meet all our deadlines.
Now, without being too rigid, we generally followed what you might call a ‘production line’ approach which was probably always going to be the most logical way to do this because most of the tasks really needed to be done in a particular order. Once we got to the stage of having a settled list of items, which of course was a lot of work to get to that stage, this was then passed to Conservation for assessment and repair of the original records; we didn’t want to be photographing material that was really in bad condition, so Conservation had to be the first, sort of, step in the chain once the records were selected. Fortunately, we had no great difficulty in finding suitable documents that generally didn’t have a lot of conservation work needed to be done on them, and each batch took about one and three weeks to be dealt with by our Conservation staff (that had to be fitted in around other jobs but that was all quite manageable). They then went to our Digitisation Officer, who was incredibly efficient and was able to copy them usually within a week or so, for a batch of records which has been fantastic).
During the time that was all happening, the Conservation and digitisation, the next phase was really Gail Davis and I having to work on one of the more labour-intensive parts which was transcribing the documents which Gail did (for all the hand-written ones that needed it ) and drafting captions for each item which was my job. Transcription, we think, is very important, we don’t do it for absolutely everything in a digital gallery, but where we can and where we want to have long-term value for the exhibition we really feel it’s worth the effort. It does take a while and requires a lot of careful checking and we try to, sort of, do an accurate mirroring of the original record so, for example, with a letter each line appears line by line as it does on the original document to make it, you know, an authentic and accurate replication. And because we also, with younger viewers, and even some older viewers are not necessarily going to be able to decipher handwritten script which is not always easy to read.
Now the length and content of the captions varied according to the nature and complexity of the documents. Some were very brief, especially when they had more visual appeal, you don’t need to do a lot description of an architectural plan; it’s all there in front of you. So, they had quite brief captions; others quite a bit more detail was needed when there was a story to tell behind the document that really needed to be brought out to give you context.
And once transcriptions and captions were done, the batch was ready for the various tasks involved in shaping the final product as it appears on the website. This usually took a week or so per batch, and again, was generally a very smooth process, with just a little bit of tweaking after the event.
AB: I agree that the captioning and transcription is very important and Fiona and I have discovered, too, with this new series of interviews that we’re doing on the blog that people do like to have a transcription to complement the audio, so it’s a quick scan down to see what’s of interest.
Richard’s top pick
One final question: do you have a particular favourite in the gallery?
RG: Well, as I didn’t want to put anything up that I didn’t like or didn’t think was interesting it was quite difficult to choose!
RG: Amazingly enough there were very, very few disagreements or arguments amongst the group. I mean, I basically put forward what I felt should go up and with a little bit of, you know, to-ing and fro-ing we got there. There were no, sort of, blazing rows or anything! But I have to say my favourite is an unusual one and these are the letters from inmates of Gladesville and Callan Park hospitals. I’ve got a particular connection with these records because I did the original arrangement and description of these more than 35 years ago…
RG: …so I always knew about them and thought “Well, an ideal chance to actually showcase them”. Fortunately enough time has so passed so the 110 year closure period had passed for the earlier of these records so I was able to put some of them on display.
Now, the records of the large psychiatric hospitals (from the 1830s to the 1960s) are notable in their extent and the amount of detail they record about patients. However, the main, official records are usually written from the perspective of the doctors and other officials. The letters are rare and unusual in that they give an account of the patients’ experience of mental illness and institutional life in their own words. They were usually writing to family members – to husbands, wives, parents, or friends – and they are very varied in content. Some are quite mundane, almost normal, if you like, others can be graphic, harrowing or even bizarre, as the inmate may have been particularly ill with something like acute depression, or in a manic state, or suffering delusions of persecution or grandeur. They are quite appropriately subject to a long closure period.
I particularly like the two we have included in the gallery, because they show how mental illness affects all levels of society; we’ve got the poor Irish labourer and a well-off English doctor both finding themselves in a mental hospital for a period of many years.
There are only a few boxes of these records from the 1880s to the 1930s, written by only a small number of the many thousands of patients in the large institutions. It’s interesting to note at the time, it was deemed appropriate to intercept and keep some of this correspondence; we know that some correspondence was sent and some was kept, it wasn’t all kept in the Case Books. But it was kept for, obviously, for medical/clinical purposes as an indication of the mental state of the patient. However, with today’s privacy laws and emphasis on patient’s rights, they would probably wouldn’t even be kept, but having them there as a snapshot in time; it’s a remarkable collection of great value for future social and medical research.
AB: Richard Gore. Thank you for your time.
RG: Thank you.