“If… we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”

“If therefore, we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”. The British Attorney-General for Kenya, Eric Griffith-Jones wrote in June 1957 to the Governor of Kenya. In the letter the Attorney-General shared how the policy over the use of physical violence on imprisoned Kenyans was being altered so that the beatings would be ‘legal’. (‘Sins of colonialists lay concealed for decades in secret archive‘, 18/4/2012).

In my last post I described how the quest for compensation by a small group of now-elderly victims started a process which led to the discovery of over one million historic documents that were illegally hidden from the inquiring eyes of the public. Some of these documents provide evidence of horrible crimes perpetrated by British personnel against colonial subjects in the dying days of the British Empire.

This raises many issues. The issue that I want to explore here is what we can learn about the construction of archives from this issue. This has then led me to wonder why horrendous crimes can be ignored for so long. Continue reading

Citizen Curators Unlock the Past

Old photo of fashionable woman on a boat on Sydney Harbour.

A photo from 1930 held by the Australian National Maritime Museum, part of a presentation given by the Museum’s Nicole Cama.

Everyone has a drawer full of old photos. Each photo has its own importance. The photographer used precious film to take the photo and paid to have them developed. They were kept because they were an important store of memory. But the memory has disappeared into the past. We gaze at the photos today, reluctant to dispose of them yet for us many of these images are meaningless. The person who first stored the photographs often failed to record identifying details with them.

Our cultural institutions also have these drawers of photos – hundreds and thousands of them like the one above. They were regarded as an important record of a society in the past, but today many of these images are mysteries. No museum, library or archive could dream of discarding these photos, but without knowing the context of these photos they are reduced to meaningless bits of paper.

This is where the citizen curator steps in.  Working through social media on the internet, citizen curators apply their knowledge, diligence, enthusiasm and generosity to help cultural organisations identify people, locations and the overall context of photos in their collections.  We heard about this exciting work at a History Week event, ‘From Glass-plate to Cyber-space’ hosted by the Australian National Maritime Museum. Continue reading

When Family History is All That is Left

The outside of the upper level of the House of the Báb in Shiraz, Iran before it was destroyed.

The upper portion of the building where the Báb declared His mission on 23 May 1844 in Shiraz, Iran, before its destruction in 1979. Reproduced with permission of the Bahá’í International Community.

I sat on the edge of my seat with my cup of tea in suburban Sydney listening to the elderly man recount a scene in the city of Shiraz in Iran.  It was 1955 when he saw the mob tearing down a house with their bare hands.  Fearing that another historically significant building (pictured above) would be torn down, Mr Noorgostar guarded it for three months.

Why were these buildings targets of such fury?  They were of great significance to the history of Iran because they marked the birth of what has become the largest non-Islamic religion in Iran today – the Baha’i Faith.  Since the emergence of the Baha’i Faith in mid-nineteenth century Iran, Baha’is have faced recurrent waves of persecution.

The dawning place of the Baha’i Faith can be traced to the building which Mr Noorgostar helped to protect.  It was here in 1844 that a young man called the Báb first announced that the long-awaited Messenger of God would appear very soon.  The windows of the room in which this event occurred are pictured above.  During 1955 when Mr Noorgostar was guarding this building he slept outside in front of these windows. Continue reading

Of Recalcitrant Staples, Paper Clips and Mould Mould Mould!

Instructions for mounting photos in a photo album from the early 1980s

The 'modern, easy and quick' self adhesive photo albums from the 1970s and 1980s are a bad place to store your memorabilia.

While the goals of a historian and those working on family history at times are quite different there is a considerable overlap.  I have found family historians very helpful while I have been researching the history of teaching reading.  Over the last few days I was reminded again about how complementary the two pursuits are.

I’m sorting through the archives of a local community organisation.  The work has been similar to the kind of work done by anyone who is securing the material that documents their family history.  An important task became evident while I was sorting through photos, letters and other memorabilia dating from the 1970s to just a couple of years ago.  I had to arrest the deterioration of the items in the collections and rehouse some of the material.  I am not an archivist but on the way I have picked up some basic do’s and don’ts of storing material for posterity.  It was the world of genealogy which first alerted me to the need to take great care about storage conditions of historical archives. Continue reading

History Without the Book???

Room lined with glass coved bookcases, table in the middle with open archive boxes, books, computer etc.

In the midst of my research in the reading room at the University of Wollongong Archives.

People worry about the ephemeral nature of information on the internet.  Web pages are easy to create and just as easy to remove or alter.  Many prefer to refer to a hard copy of a book because they believe that it will be accessible for longer than information found on the internet.

But the book is not an inviolable object.  It can be destroyed by disaster, carelessness and by a deliberate act.  Recently the Sydney Morning Herald drew attention to the destruction of thousands of old books, journals and newspapers by the University of New South Wales.  Unfortunately the library’s response does not seem to have had much publicity.  The library states,

Where duplicate copies are discarded, at least one copy is left on the shelves so the knowledge contained in the book is still available.

Andrew Well, University Librarian, University of New South Wales, ‘Statement on Collection Management’, 16/3/2011

Nowhere in this statement or in the library’s ‘Collection Development Policy’ is there any reference to removing all copies of certain books unless the library holds the last copy in Australia as suggested in the Sydney Morning Herald article.  I will leave this discrepancy for others to address.  My aim here is to explore the broader issue of the pressures faced by archives and libraries around Australia to balance retaining material for posterity versus the inevitable difficulties posed by funding and storage constraints. Continue reading