Interviewing the staff at State Records about what they do
If you can’t access the audio file above (or you would prefer to skim a text version) we have included the transcript of the interview.
AB: Hello Archives Outside bloggers! This is Anthea, and Fiona and I are here today with Christine Yeats [Manager of Public Access at State Records] to talk QArchives. We did promise that we would interview Christine in February this year. She’s a very busy woman; we’ve finally tracked her down, we’ve caught her and we’re not letting her go until we have this interview. So welcome Chris and thank you for your time.
CY: It’s a pleasure.
In the beginning…
AB: To start with could we ask you what drew you to the world of archives?
CY: Well, it was a funny journey, in a way, because I started out wanting to be a reference librarian. I liked the idea of being able to find things out; I liked the idea of knowing the answer, but I also liked the idea of being able to give clients the answer….sharing that information. But, that isn’t what happened. I certainly did the Diploma in
Archives Administration/[Librarianship] but when I finished that course the first job that I was offered was a job as an archivist. An archivist for a bank. I worked there for three years and during that time I went the Diploma in Archives Administration part time and … quite amazingly there was a job going at the then, Archives Office of NSW, and I was successful. So, I then went to work there as an archivist for quite a few years until I had my daughter. Then I took a job working in an organisation known as Pacific Power. I worked there for a few years; I even did time there managing the library, the special library…
AB: …at last!
CY: [Laughter] At last! At last! So I got to be a reference librarian, for a time at least. And then, again, amazingly, there was a job going at State Records, or the Archives Authority, as Manager of Reference Services…so I came back to work at State Records.
FS: [Laughter] So when you were first working at the Archives Office of NSW what areas were you working in then? Did you always have a public focus?
CY: We had a reference desk, in the Mitchell Library, and we were all rostered on duty to do reference, an hour or so, or two hours a day. In fact, we used to go up in response to a phone call from the Mitchell Library staff. They’d say there’s a client, waiting, and so up you would come and you would speak to the client. We had almost no resources to work from; a few copies of guides etc and if someone wanted an index checked, we had some card indexes downstairs…you would ring up and you would say “can you please check the index for Ellen Doyle” and so you’d wait, smile at the client, and hope there’d be an answer. And they’d come back and say “No”. So then the poor client knew that if they were looking for an assisted immigrant, or any kind of immigrant, they’d have to go off and do hours and hours of rolling through microfilm.
I did reference, I did disposal, I did a lot of processing as we used to call it, these days arrangement and description…we all had to do a little bit of everything. There was a notion of staff rotation, but my heart was always still set on an idea of working with the public.
How important is community engagement?
FS:How important do you feel it is for State Records to play an active role in the community?
CY: Well, I have always felt there is really no justification for investing a lot of resources and efforts into accepting archives in the first place, then arranging and describing them ….putting all that effort into looking after them if, at the end of the day, we don’t promote the use of the records. Naturally, records have to rest a little bit, to be 30 years old generally, before they are going to be made accessible. But, nevertheless, we should always be looking towards the day when someone will use them…so I think we need to engage with the community because if the community isn’t aware of the records, of the records being transferred and even of our existence then we cease to be important?……Once we cease to be important to our constituency then it becomes a real question of why we’re doing what we’re doing. So, really, I would say it’s essential.
We have to modify and mould what we do to fit our resources and that’s always been an issue for State Records but I think there are lots of ways we can do that these days, particularly using the blog, using the website and all of the other technologies that we can really promote the collection and really play an active role in the community. I can sit here now and talk to you and people will be able to listen to what I have to say, hopefully, from all over the world. Just because we don’t have resources doesn’t mean that we can’t do things. I think we always cut the cloth, we do what we can.
We’ve had an exhibition In Living Memory,based on the photographs of the Aborigines Welfare Board, touring around, people have been able to identify those photographs….many of the individuals in the photos were un-named and people have been actually able to put names to them and that’s been quite extraordinary. Extraordinary for them because they’ve been able to get a photo of a close family member and also for us because we’ve actually got the documentation. But there are so many other ways that I’ve seen the material being used. I think there’s all that potentiality, particularly with the digital age and with Web 2 technologies.
Access to online documents
AB: We asked our Archives Outside friends if they had any questions for you and one of our regular visitors, Melissa, posted three questions about archives online. Firstly, what is your opinion of online access to documents?
CY: Well, I think it is wonderful, to be honest. I think it means that a records can be viewed anytime of the day or night and anywhere in the world. I have one slight, I guess, note of caution that in digitising particular individual documents without all of the other documents to which they belong we are in a way decontextualizing them. I know that’s one of those archival terms and I apologise but we’re taking the records away from the context in which they were created. We know, when we look at them we recognise them immediately for what they are. But by digitising isolated examples, sometimes what we’re giving people is an image and they don’t really know who created it, why it was created or even when it was created. They might just look and see a beautiful image. I think all it means is that we have to be mindful, that we make sure we use the M word, the ‘metadata’ and that whenever we display material that we always provide that information. I think, certainly, it protects the original, there’s no question about that and it is certainly desirable to have an online version of the records as compared with microfilm, although microfilm still is very important for preservation it’s limited to a location and place where you can go and view it and it’s also limited to equipment which is probably very rapidly becoming obsolete.
So we do have to think about how we do things in the future in terms of digitising, so that people can access the material. It certainly isn’t the same as the original. There is nothing quite like looking at documents that were created 200 years ago, just feeling the paper, the texture of the paper but we also have to be mindful that every time we touch paper, even with gloves on there is the potential that we are doing damage…and also online access means that I can get up at 3am and have a look at the First Fleet Indent, I think that’s fantastic.
Impact on access rules
FS: Many sites now have digitised records available to view, alongside the indexes to records. Does this raise issues with the current access rules or permissions to publish?
CY: In terms of State Records and that’s really all I can speak about, anything that we have made available in digital format or anything that we’ve indexed, and made available publicly, is open to public access under the State Records Act. That is, we’ve got direction from the responsible public office saying that “Yes it can be viewed; it is open to the public” and of course once it’s open that’s it, there’s no qualifier there. I don’t see it necessarily as a problem, only in the same way, perhaps, as having anything online and the issue that I raised previously about having records available without the background information which really explains why they were created, who did it and when and all that kind of thing. Once you publish something on the web, and I think it doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s a personal blog post about what you did on the weekend or if it’s Archives Outside, it’s there for the whole world to see and people can use it, you hope they’ll use it responsibly, but people can use it.
So from that point of view we have to be prepared to let go a little bit. We do ask people to get a permission to publish if they’re going to be using archives; we do that largely because we want to know how the records are being used. It’s nice for us to be able to see, I suppose like a mother with her children, it’s nice to see how the archives are being used and whose writing books and making TV programs and telemovies and so on. So what we want to make sure is that whatever we put out there in the public domain, we have no concerns about any issues of whether it’s open. Copyright issues, there is material in our collection which we know we don’t have the copyright for, obviously we wouldn’t publish that.
Has technology increased the awareness of archives?
AB:Melissa’s third question is: do you think the advances in technology have led to more people becoming aware of the role and resources of Archives, in comparison to what was previously the case, say 10 years ago.
CY: This is a very sad question, sad answer I should say, the question’s great…
AB: …Thank you, Melissa…
CY: …Thank you Melissa! I wish I could say that it has but I don’t think it has at all. Although we have been doing lots of exciting things and making new friends, certainly lots of new friends through Flickr and the Archives Outside blog, I still think we somehow fall under the radar. Regrettably whenever people talk about material and about archives and about records, we somehow never quite match what the State Library has. I hate to make the comparison and it’s always disappointing because the State Library does indeed have some wonderful resources but we still somehow don’t seem to rate the same profile. We’re doing so many things in the online environment, we are very visible out in the community, even more so than we were 10 years ago but somehow …I don’t think there are more people, I think there are the same groups of people but I don’t know necessarily that our profile is more widely known…
FS: …which in a lot of ways, as you say, is very surprising because SRNSW basically holds the cradle of Australian history in its hands….
CY: Exactly so …and in the archival community we are very well-known but that’s a very small pond and it is ….I’m not quite sure….I try to analyse it sometimes and I wonder if it is because we’re competing, but then we’re not consciously competing and I think it is just that lack of appreciation of just exactly what we do hold….there is generally less emphasis on history these days, it’s not as popular in schools…well not the kind of history that we’ve got. What is very popular in schools is ancient Egypt and Nazi Germany, I understand the two are very, very popular areas. And although…well we have nothing to do with ancient Egypt…we probably do have records which would be relevant to the second world war and to Nazi Germany.
We are just still not really engaging with the younger groups, although I am prepared to concede that probably over the coming years, it’s quite possible that we will get better known.
One of the other things too, which I am just thinking out aloud about, is that the work that we’ve been doing with the API that Richard Lehane has been doing is probably going to make us better known because that’s opening up what we’re doing and all of the work that we’ve done in a Archives Investigator, which is very much following an archival model, is going to suddenly open up the records and people will be thinking imaginative ways of tracking who knows what! And maybe that’s going to be the sort of thing that we have to do in order to, I guess break through, the artificial ceiling that we just have to find some clue. And I think perhaps something like that [API] is going to do that.
In 50 years time…
FS: As this is State Records 50th Anniversary we’d like to ask you where you see State Records in 50 years time?
CY: I think…I would like to think we are even bigger, better and more fun to work for. But seriously, I think it will be a very, very different organisation. I think that access, and that is of course the area that I’m most interested in, will be done very, very differently. I suspect that we will have almost like two parallel universes; that we will have all of the ‘born digital’ records that are currently being created, yes, we will have a digital State archive well and truly up and working and people will be accessing those records from terminals, from home, various other options, who knows – kiosks all around Sydney, one hopes. And that will be fantastic.
There will be all this wonderful material that’s available online and people won’t have to come into the reading room. That said, they might need to come into the reading room to look at some of the records that haven’t been digitised and never will be digitised because we do have 67km of records and that is growing all the time. And they’re records which only have a life as paper-based record, some of them may be digitised over time but I would still expect that even in 50 years time some of those records will still have to be viewed in original format.
So I’m imagining there might be a State Records which exists, almost in cyberspace itself, however there will be hubs, or rooms, which will almost be like a museum, they will almost be like the reading room of today except that they’ll be located who knows where, and where people will come in and view records and they’ll tell their friends that they were in the reading room and they were looking at pieces of paper. Original records [laughter]. And people will say “How extraordinary!”…
AB:… “I’ve never seen paper before”
CY:… “I’ve never seen paper; what’s it like, what’s it feel like”. So I think that we, optimistically, would like to think much of the collection would be digitised in 50 years time. But we know ourselves that even if we were to be given a huge amount of money and were able to digitise forever more that we would still only do high priority records. Records that get regular use: probate packets; primary applications; deceased estate files…there’s quite a list that goes on. And there’s all the other records which are very important and need to be kept because they document citizens’ legal rights in some shape of form or they’re important for administrative or legal purposes and we probably would never digitise them…..they’re the ones that people would have to come in to these wonderful reading rooms which would be like a museum…
AB: …possibly in space…
CY: possibly in space! Possibly, it’ll be like Doctor Who, you’ll go into the telephone box and when you go in the phone box it’s actually a great big room…
AB: 67km of archives also translates into something like 7 million items…
CY: …about 10 million items we think…but yes an awful lot of scanning has to be done.
AB: Christine Yeats, thank you for your time.
CY: It’s been a pleasure.