Researching Across Borders

Holder of library cards

Not all archives issue readers tickets but I have ended up accumulating a wad of library cards and readers tickets from my travels.

In the first three months of this year I have been researching in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. As readers of this blog will have noticed I often travel to research in the archives and libraries of other cities. I have lived in all four eastern states from Hobart in the south to Atherton in Far North Queensland. From a very young age I have moved around and consequently noticed the cultural differences between various places in Australia.This made me effective in public relations. It also informs the history that I research and write.

Because I have lived in so many places with so many histories I am sceptical of the term ‘Australian history’. Which Australia and whose Australia are we talking about? The history of Sydney does not equate to the history of Australia.There are many substantial differences in the histories of the various states of Australia.

The genesis for my honours thesis on Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum came when we were living in Atherton near Cairns in Far North Queensland. By the time I had the opportunity to explore it we were living in Sydney and I had found that South Australia and Victoria had each conducted a referendum on the same issue but New South Wales had not. The issue had played out differently in New South Wales. Some Queensland newspapers might be in Sydney, some may be online but the records of key people and organisations are kept in the state in which they were created. The only way to properly explore a Queensland referendum is in Queensland. So I took myself to Brisbane. In the same year I visited Melbourne, Geelong and Armidale (northern NSW) for the Teaching Reading in Australia project. Each collection I visited had particular strengths, especially in records relating to their local area.

The historic documents which historians need to access are generally located in libraries and archives where they were first created. While significant collections have been digitised it will be decades before all historic documents in our public collections have been copied and made available for remote access. Copyright laws prevent the digitisation of most records created from the mid 1950s onwards. We need to look at the research question at hand and identify the best sources for that research question, not just the easiest resources to access. The researcher has to go to the archives, the archives will not come to the researcher for a long time.

It is difficult for many historians to travel to visit archives in another city. The principal impediment is cost. I am fortunate I have family in some of the cities I visit with whom I can stay. Technology has enabled many researchers to create a mobile office so I can easily take my workplace with me wherever I go. I described this in one of my first blog posts.

I am very efficient when I am in the archives. I quickly flick through a file or a book and determine whether it is useful for the project. I check out the rules of the archive with regards to photography. If the archive allows it (most do now) I identify pages I want to photograph making sure I am keeping within the confines of copyright laws. I leave reading the material in depth until I have left the archive for the day. Where possible I run Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on copied pages so I can easily search them.

Using these methods I can churn through a large number of files when the archive is open and use the many hours when I don’t have access to the archive to carefully read and analyse the material. On a research trip this means my working hours are very long. I start at the archive when it opens and only leave when it closes. Then I go to where I am staying and read and assess the material I have found to work out what follow up is required at the archives the next day. If I am working for a client I like to give them some sense of the progress I am making and tell them about a couple of useful things I have found. I want them to know that I am making productive use of the time they are paying for and give them the opportunity to have some input into the research process. Frequently I am working until midnight.

An advantage of using different archives in different places is the ability to make up for the deficiencies in one archive. No archive is complete. Many archives are shaped by the idiosyncrasies of environmental damage such as flood, fire, mould and insect attack. Archives too are shaped by decisions by collectors in the past about what is worth keeping and what is not. And then there are the idiosyncrasies of those who created the documents in the first place – what they chose to record and what they did not. There is always something missing in an archive and frequently large amounts of material that should be there but for one reason or not is absent.

I have worked on a case where a nineteenth century government official was having a difficult time at home and was quite possibly suffering from depression. It was noted at the time that he was having difficulties and his administration of his office at the time was not up to his usual standards. I was looking for a letter from his office at the time and found that an entire year of correspondence was missing. A letter, a report or an article is a communication between a writer and at least one other person or organisation. The letter I was looking for was sent to counterpart government organisations in other states. So when I was next in another city I looked for the receipt of that letter in that government’s archives.

I am very fortunate not to be restricted to researching in one city. My ability to travel regularly and work efficiently in archives enables me to gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of whatever historical issue I am exploring. It enables me to broaden my perspective and avoid the pitfalls of thinking that the history of the city I live in represents the whole of Australia. Working in different places is stimulating and productive.

I love my mobile workplace.

The topic of this post was suggested by James from New South Wales. It was a great idea to write about – thank you James! Over the next few weeks I will continue to write about topics suggested by readers in their entries for my recent book giveaway. If you would like to suggest a topic, let me know via a comment below.

If you are interested in this topic you might be interested in other posts with the Archives tag. In particular, ‘Women and Archival Silences‘ discusses the issue of how people who were marginalised in the past are under-represented in archives.

4 thoughts on “Researching Across Borders

  1. I’m accumulating a wad of cards too – and the State Library NSW Special Collections Card is my favourite!


  2. I know this isn’t exactly what you were thinking of, but your topic caught my attention. Borders DO change peoples’ perceptions of culture and history. So of course we notice the cultural differences between various places in Australia – I notice it every time we leave my home town (Melbourne) to go back to where my spouse used to live with his parents (Sydney).

    And in Europe I found the meaning of borders to be even more significant, especially when the border moved from time to time. Often with terrible consequences!


    • I agree – borders are important. My mother noticed differences in school cultures as she moved within the state of Victoria across informal demographic borders. The differences are stark when it comes to education history between states. Researching across borders brings this into sharp relief.

      And the differences between Melbourne and Sydney are quite evident. We come from Melbourne and I had never lived in Sydney until about 15 years ago. I didn’t expect the differences to be so numerous.

      Your blog post about Alsace is apt. Thanks for sharing the link. It led me to think about the importance of borders in Aboriginal communities in Australia. Welcome to country and acknowledgement of country ceremonies developed to facilitate interaction between different Aboriginal peoples across country borders.


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