The Importance of Archives – handling our history

Sometimes we are asked why an environmental technology consultancy works within archives and collections. For us, preserving and understanding the stories that these can tell is crucial to our environment, and our community. Finding new ways to assist in the amazing work already being done in this sector, and helping to bring these stories into the eyes of the public is an important part of what we do.

Gaia Resources first began working with the Queensland State Archives (QSA) in 2017. Our relationship started when we collaborated to launch the collection sharing site Q-Album (see the blog post about our involvement here). We were then engaged to implement and support their new Archival Management System (see blog post here). Currently, we are working with QSA on a new Digital Preservation System.

Few people realise the treasures tucked away for safekeeping in archives around the world, be they personal, community, or government records. In the case of QSA, they are the permanent repository for records owned and created by the Queensland state and local governments. Any item deemed to be of enduring value to documenting the operation and history of the State of Queensland finds its permanent home at QSA and is protected and carefully stored for perpetuity. Special precautions are taken to maintain a physical record’s longevity, including but not limited to temperature, humidity, and handling procedures. As hinted at previously, once the Digital Preservation System is in place, QSA will also collect digital records. QSA also generates digital facsimiles of their most popular and/or at-risk items. As with physical documents, digital items require steps to ensure they are accessible for generations to come (read about Digital Preservation here). To date, the archival material in QSA’s holdings date from as early as the 1820s and stretch over 67 linear kilometres.

The Queensland State Archive holds over 67 linear kilometres of records

On a recent site visit, QSA Archivist Elizabeth Hawkins kindly toured a handful of Brisbane staff through a few of their repositories. The objective was to introduce new Gaia Resources staff to the purpose and procedures of the archives, subsequently providing context for the tools we build and support for QSA. 

While we work on QSA’s Archival Management System, we rarely have time to look at the records that it catalogues. One favourite item that Elizabeth pulled for us was one of the Brisbane prison ledgers. These logs hold the personal and physical details of each prisoner and a rap sheet of all their crimes. Of particular interest were the photos, in remarkably good condition, taken using a mirror so that individuals’ faces and profiles were captured in a single shot, saving precious film. A record like this can illuminate what acts were considered criminal in the contemporary period. While many larceny and assault charges resulted in incarceration, one surprising penalty was several months in prison for “supplying liquor to a South Sea Islander” (Queensland State Archives, Item Representation ID PR654070).

Elizabeth then took us through the repository of maps and oversized paper items. This room is wall to wall flatbed filing cabinets (and is not included in their count of 67 linear km of records). She opened a drawer to show us one particular item. We were looking at a map of Northern Australia from the 1940s. Upon closer examination, all the notations, place names etc, were in a Japanese script. From here, it’s easy to jump to conclusions, but none of that is documented. Instead, what we do know is these maps were found amongst a group of records from a Queensland government agency. How the maps came into the possession of the agency we may never know.

Upon entering QSA, key items of historical relevance to Queensland are displayed

Elizabeth included the Conservation Lab on our tour. Kristy McCullough, QSA’s Conservator, generously took the time to demystify the work of a Conservator. She took us through the process of assessing, planning, and actioning a conservation strategy for a book that had been a tasty meal for some determined insects. It had come to QSA in such poor condition that its pages were in countless pieces and the text was virtually illegible. According to Kristy the best course of action for such an item is to piece together the pages and take a high-resolution photograph of each page. The digital record then becomes the point of truth. Kristy explained that a choice must be made about the time and resources poured into the one object balanced with the value gained and the backlog of other conservation needs. Kristy further educated us about the differences between preservation and conservation, two often confused concepts. Preservation activities mitigate risks to items and include tasks like maintaining a stable environment with appropriate climate control, monitoring an item’s condition, and ensuring proper handling. On the other hand, conservation is an act of intervention on the objects’ condition.  It might include piecing together tears (with special inert materials), adding support, or chemical cleanings to eliminate hazards.

Sally Mitchell and Sarah Aldrich use the Historical Image Library Discovery Assistant (HILDA) to learn more about the history of Queensland

Throughout the tour, there was one factor that remained a highlight for our team; seeing the system we implemented and customised in use for each role. We watched the Reading Room team process requests from the public. Being able to observe their process illuminated how they use the tool and why some enhancements were monumental in improving their workflow. In the Conservation Lab, we saw how an item was updated, the condition reported, proposed treatments lodged, and then the circle closed as an item is returned to the repository. 

We only saw a minuscule portion of the collection, but it is evident that the records within QSA tell a web of stories. The narratives range from the personal which bring families together or they may pertain to Queensland’s role in global events. Also evident is that the work of an archive is never finished. We at Gaia Resources are privileged to be able to support the great work done by QSA to protect our history. Thank you to Queensland State Archives and especially Elizabeth for taking the time to walk us through a portion of their 60 odd kilometres of records. It truly elucidates the importance of preserving records and the role of archives.

If you’re responsible for collections, get in touch to learn how we can help connect people to your treasures. Reach out via email or get in touch on our socials: Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Sophie

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