|Issue No 46||17 March 2000|
A talk given by Jim Andrighetti
- the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (Sydney Branch)
Sydney's Mitchell Library archives house some of the most extensive records of our political heritage.
Firstly, I'd like to thank Beverley Symons for inviting me to address your Annual General Meeting.
I accepted Bev's invitation very much in the spirit of collegiality, and not just in recognition of her own bibliographical labours on the history of Communism in Australia. From when I began working as a reference librarian in the Mitchell Library in 1981 to my present position as a manuscripts librarian, I've enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with a number of labour historians. The information flow hasn't always been one way and conventional. A mutual exchange of sources has taken place not just in the reading room, but on the front steps, on the plinth of the Governor Bourke statue, and, in a few instances, over a quick beer on the way to Wynyard.
During my Mitchell apprenticeship I developed contacts and friendships with a number of researchers in various disciplines. Those among the students of the labour movement were chiefly Andrew Moore, John Shields, Greg Patmore, Bruce Scates, John Low and Peter Sheldon. John Low was a fellow librarian who worked in the Blue Mountains, and a most generous colleague. It wasn't until after a year or two of intermittent visits to the Mitchell, that Peter Sheldon casually referred to his Italian heritage, which I'd not known about and, hence, provided us with another common link. This was emblematic of the diverse baggage and multiple identities we all carry around through life. Perhaps just as surprising, and more incredible to me, was Andrew Moore and John Low's passionate barracking for the Bears, a team immutably fixed in my mind as the perennial cellar dwellers of rugby league.
I fondly recall all of these 'colleagues' generously lending their expertise to enlighten me during my curatorship of the Mitchell Library's first major labour history exhibition, All in a Day's Work, which opened in November 1983. I had also received enthusiastic advice from Peter Love in Melbourne in a missive brimful of ideas. Owing to it having been despatched in haste, he apologised for his handwriting and suggested that I should get Andrew to translate it should I encounter difficulty with it. At that time, one of the Mitchell's diligent habitues was the avuncular Cecil Hadgraft, a distinguished scholar of Australian literature from the University of Queensland. Between bites of his Toblerone bars on the Library's front steps, he'd recite snippets from Henry Lawson and refer me to examples of the Australian working-class literary tradition.
The exhibition had been scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Karl Marx's death. It provided a marvellous opportunity for the Mitchell and Dixson Libraries to showcase examples of the rich documentary and material heritage of the labour movement held in their respective collections. Featured among the exhibits were colonial broadsheets, minute books of 19th century craft unions, trade union membership badges, banners of the Boilermakers & Iron Ship Builders, the Blacksmiths' Society of Australasia and the IWW, and illuminated addresses. A section on the opening of Radio 2KY in 1925, drew favourable comments from Barrie Unsworth, then Secretary of the NSW Labor Council, who officially opened the exhibition.
While I'm handing out bouquets, perhaps the largest garland of laurels should go to the late Professor Henry Mayer, mentor extraordinaire to the discipline of political science in Australia and media studies guru of Sydney University's Government Department, who died in 1991. An awesome academic and bibliographer in the social sciences, he was also a palpable influence in my becoming a librarian. I'd undertaken a one semester media course under Henry in the late '70s. The Mayer lecturing experience was unforgettable, theatrical, inspiring and scornful of intellectual complacency. However, it was his indefatigable ability to digest prodigious quantities of information from a broad spectrum of literature and disseminate his findings in short, crisp reviews that released the bibliographical hormone within me. In a tribute to Mayer published four months after his death, a former colleague of his, Gil Appleton, wrote 'Donald Horne once said that he was certain that in Henry's basement there was a stone slab upon which he lay every day while every article, paper, monograph, and book of interest to him that had been published in the preceding 24 hours was beamed into his capacious brain'. (Media Information Australia, no. 61, August 1991, p. 18).
Mayer's bibliographical brain transposed to print can be seen in his idiosyncratic monograph, ARGAP: A Research Guide to Australian Politics and Cognate Subjects (1976), compiled with the research assistance of Margaret Bettison, a librarian, and Judy Keene. As Henry touted in the Introduction: 'It is full of mazes, by-ways and cross-charts leading in many directions'. Thanks to Mayer, I'd been bibliographically primed to sources in the Australian humanities and social sciences when I began in Mitchell. No less than 95% of the entries in ARGAP were already in the Mitchell, including such fugitive sources as typed, mimeographed or printed bibliographies and checklists, many of which had been generously donated by Henry. ARGAP reflected the interface of his interdisciplinary and pluralistic approaches with a library-type classification of the contents. The book had also alerted me in my undergraduate days to a work by Henry's colleagues, Peter Loveday and Helen G. Nelson's Bibliography of Selected Manuscripts relating to Australian Politics since 1890, held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney (1964), with its characteristic inventories of collections. Henry's regular features of serendipitous reviews, 'Australiana' in Politics: the Journal of the Australasian Political Studies Association, 1966- , and 'Media briefs' in Media Information Australia, the journal he founded in 1976, were the supplementary current awareness sources to ARGAP which I continued to scan up to the publication of its sequel, ARGAP 2, in 1984.
Henry Mayer was the best friend a library could have. Courtesy of his beneficence, the gaps, and in some cases gaping holes, in the printed holdings of many libraries were plugged over four decades from the time of his arrival at Sydney University in the early 1950s. He donated thousands of publications alone to the Mitchell, the majority forming part of his first consignment of personal papers which he presented in 1984. As well as research files relating to Australian and international politics, the printed material reflects his eclectic acquisitiveness along the left-right political spectrum. He assembled a plenitude of ephemeral and periodical literature from or relating to, among others, the Communist Party of Australia, Extreme-Right Wing groups, the Australian Catholic Truth Society and the New States Movement. Some periodical runs that duplicated the State Library's holdings were offered to other libararies. I well recall a dog-eared set of Recorder of the ASSLH's Melbourne Branch, with Henry's inimitable scribblings on the front page. The contiguous relationship between Mayer and the Mitchell is evidenced in the research papers for his book Marx and Engels in Australia (1964). He had made use of the Mitchell's newspaper sources, reciprocating in turn by lodging materials garnered from his research that would augment the Mitchell collections, and had considered seeking the secondment of a library staff member to act as his research assistant on another project.
The Mitchell Library has been fortunate to have had since its establishment in 1910 the active support of key stakeholders such as Professor Henry Mayer. Similarly, your own society has displayed its commitment to the preservation of the documentary heritage of the labour movement reposited in the Library. In the mid-80s the society expressly solicited an article on the Library's labour records in order to raise a greater awareness of the scope and strengths of those holdings. The resulting article, which I wrote, appeared in Labour History, No. 56, May 1989. While I'll be referring briefly to some notable collections mentioned therein, I'll be focusing on collections acquired since that article was written.
The Mitchell Library is not a specialist labour labour archive like the Noel Butlin Centre in Canberra. In relation to trade union records, those of NSW unions and of NSW branches of Federal unions are appropriate for deposit in the Library. It is not appropriate to split collections between institutions, and over the last decade there has been greater application of this cardinal rule of archival practice. The Library holds the distinction of documenting all aspects of life relating to NSW. The breadth of the Mitchell's collections supports research in areas of traditional as well as 'new' labour historiography. The latter's broader scope, as you are aware, encompasses the social processes and social relations around work, including issues of community, ethnicity and gender.
The Mitchell manuscripts collection documents the the historical and the contemporary, from convict labour in the early colony to the working-class agitation for political representation in the late 19th century, through to the post-war migrant influx and the impact of the fall of Communism in Europe on Australian labour historiography. The collection comprises 9.6 kilometres of records located on-site and off-site at the Government Records Repository, Kingswood. Collections from Kingswood can usually be retrieved within 24 hours.
The Library's largest holdings of labour records are of those of institutional Labor. The records of the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party constitute the largest organisational and private archives in the Library. The total NSW Branch archives in the Mitchell exceed 450 linear shelf metres. The first major consignment comprising 538 cartons, the equivalent of 135 metres was deposited in the early 1970s, the finding aid to which was chiefly compiled by Ken Turner, another colleague of Henry Mayer. In 1989, the second and Bicentennial consignment arrived, measuring 180 metres. It was arranged and described in exemplary fashion by staff of the Archives Authority of NSW under a specially funded project. In over a decade since then, multiple smaller consignments have been received aggregating over 600 archives boxes, translating to over 100 metres. These more recent accessions represent around 25% of the Library's total NSW Branch holdings. Intellectual control over these burgeoning records exists by way of either box labelling and/or listings done by Head Office and the Library.
I must here acknowledge the voluntary work undertaken by one of the Party's officers, Sue Tracey, who over the past year has done considerable work in further sorting and amplifying the descriptions of the records of local branches, State and Federal Electorate Councils (SECs and FECs) and Local Government Committees among these consignments. Her work has assisted my service delivery to researchers by facilitating better access to these series of records. A major influencing factor in my suggesting to Sue the need to work on such a discrete group of records was a paper presented by Rod Cavalier at the 1991 Whitlam Labor Historians Conference. The richness of local branch records was illustrated in his fine exposition of the use made of branch minute books of the 1950s. He created an exacting profile of three branches, Guildford, Hunters Hill and Panania, while also providing 'a living portrait of a segment of community life' set against the convulsive Labor Split.
These recent consignments have yielded a small number of historical records either not located or listed at the time of gathering the Turner and Bicentennial consignments for transfer to the Library. So where were they ? A long held view of mine had been that even the most well-intentioned cupidity of long-time or retired branch officials who retained such records in their personal keeping would have constituted an aberration from Party Rules in this area. I think Sue re-educated me on this line of thought a while back. Nonetheless, my concern is that the longer such historical records remain in private hands and not in the public domain, the greater the likelihood of their loss or destruction. Also, their inaccessibility contributes to the absence of unique primary sources for community histories. The June 1992 consignment revealed inter-war records of the Concord Branch, being chiefly membership and minute books, yet as one example of a local history, Sheena Coupe's book Concord (1983) hardly mentions the ALP in the industrial history of that area, nor any reference to the existence of such records. The vigilant return of 'orphan' branch records to Head Office for swift transfer to the Library is imperative if the Party's commitment to preserving its documentary heritage is to be a faithful one.
It is interesting to note that the records of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party in Australia are minimal in quantity compared to the ALP deposits. Over the past decade the number of Liberal Party consignments has been negligible in relation to the accretion of paper records at Sussex Street. I have no knowledge of the records management adopted by the Liberal Party to explain its streamlined deposits. The ALP consignments, however, do show evidence of having been 'bulked up' by duplicate materials and other records of non-permanent value. Sue Tracey's working knowledge of the Party's administrative structure has proven invaluable to the cataloguing in progress at the Library. On top of my archival wish list is that she will continue to assist in the rationalisation of further consignments.
Another sizeable and important collection is the records of the peak union body in this state, the Labor Council of NSW, including a continuous run of records from its founding body, the Trades and Labour Council, established in 1871, to the present. The records of the Melbourne Trades Hall Committee, 1848-1915, including rough minute books, rule books of Victorian trade unions and records of the Eight Hours Movement, accompanied the papers of a former Trades Hall Secretary, W. E. Murphy, when they were acquired by the Library in 1922.
Jim Andrighetti is a manuscripts librarian in the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. His professional interests include labour history and the documentary heritage of Italian Australians of NSW. He is a Parramatta Eels supporter nostalgic for the halcyon days of 'The Crow' and 'The Guru'.
The second part of this speech will appear next week.
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