Anna Kent – ‘A Road Trip to the Archives’

Postgraduate student Anna Kent recently spent time at the National Archives in Canberra:

A Road Trip to the Archives

The drive to Canberra is quite long, but with five kids in a Tarago it can seem interminably long. All in aid of a noble goal however, with the five children enjoying the upside of a week of rare cousin time, and me getting to spend a week in the Parliamentary Triangle – largely at the National Archives.

With my requests for files sent well in advance, I was able to enjoy the reading room in its last week in the current building – until the end of renovations late next year (hopefully). My three stacks of files kept me busy, as is the case with much research – the trick is all about sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Nevertheless, it was a hugely valuable experience, because:

  • Reading the marginalia is interesting and insightful (when the author has legible handwriting).
  • Decision making was clear across files. A file on aid policy in 1974 and 1975 gave the impression of frenetic, but often fruitless, activity. Ministerial changes, fights over responsibilities and general snark would not have been clear in one document – but when seen in full it was obvious.
  • Documents I otherwise might not have read provided great insight into the way the organisations worked. For example, a request for information about the number of ‘experts and their wives’, and a document reading ‘the amount payable to the expert will be determined prior to his engagement…’[my emphasis], show exactly how male dominated the public service and aid delivery was. It was only in documents from the later 1970s that female names (other than typists) were mentioned. [This is not surprising, but still interesting.]
  • Having spent much of the last few months looking at hundreds of Hansard records, the debates in parliament are also played out via briefing notes, lobbying and requests for information. This really helps to demonstrate what areas we should be focussing on for our project on Australian aid.
  • The weather in Canberra was outstanding, even if I was inside most of the time.

I also lucked on what I think is a really effective method of collecting copies of the documents, efficiently, easily and importantly – in a searchable format! I have used Evernote for notetaking for my whole candidature, but in the app on my phone I was able to take photos of documents, then synch with my laptop immediately and note the file reference, and any striking elements. This saved me noting down each photo or (as I attempted at the start), writing a file reference on the photo using the phone function. I did have to upgrade to the premium app version in order to have sufficient upload space, but I think it was money well spent!

I would highly recommend a trip to the National Archives over paying the money for digitisation. However, if you plan to visit in the next 12 months, they will be based in a smaller reading room at Old Parliament House. The staff also mentioned that if you are coming, request files as early as possible (at least 5 days), as space is going to be an issue at OPH. The process is easy, just register on the website, find the document you want and you can request in one or two clicks.

Finally, my trip made me think a lot about my own public service writing. How many of my hand written scrawls will make it to the archives? Or more likely, my Director’s hand written scrawl on my carefully crafted sentences? And how will the archives work when the paperless public service organisations of today are looked at by historians in 40 to 100 years time? Will tracked changes really have the same insight as those handwritten snarky comments of decades past?


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