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2003-12, 340, Frank Carleton, Recollections

Confessions of an Archival Guerilla: Meeting Malice in Compactusland

At the end of my short reminiscences of the unrelieved tedium of “training” in archives administration as I experienced it, which was published in Biblionews in 1995, I threatened the possibility of more such archival adventures. Beginning once again ab origine, I recall my personal title for a year of excruciating aimlessness, the “let’s have fun with archives” course. That epitomises its random, peripatetic and juvenile character.

In the succeeding twenty-five years I’ve often found myself engaged in the care and use of historical and literary manuscripts. No specific training in the care or use of either was provided. Government records, notably twentieth century files, were obviously an irresistible source of enduring cultural fascination enhanced by quirky records numbering systems that had been devised for their own delectation by public servants of prior decades. Coping with them usually proved as cerebrally challenging as playing Ludo or Snakes and Ladders.

The conservation strand of the course confined itself to banal simplicities one afternoon per week. During an early session an eighteenth century book was zealously dismembered to provide each course participant with a single leaf specimen of laid paper for insertion in the buckram covered folder that each of us was manufacturing. Destruction as conservation and all very evocative of a primary school craft lesson.

One of the many interminable visits to government archives, which made up a large portion of the “course”, included a conservation laboratory. It featured sundry pieces of expensive equipment arranged for maximum visual effect on visitors, most memorably a huge nineteenth century German book press. The conservator was present in his absence in several sequences of strategically arranged colour photographs of disaster situations holding conservation “artifacts”, like a fire-mutilated telephone, with nubile assistants from the lower public service grades all carefully posed in roles subordinate to the conservator Maestro. The photoopportunism recalled Sir Les Patterson with research assistants.

Last year I encountered an enthusiastic sufferer of the intellectual rigours of archival training. As she was a perfectly literate and long–experienced librarian (in several types of librarianship) I recommended that she eschew the heady delights of itinerant and random activities in favour of reading a few standard British and American textbooks on the subject. But she gamely persisted to the point of being certified or certificated (probably both). I could only suggest suitable academic dress for the occasion: brown mortarboard and dustcoat surmounted by dun coloured academic hood displaying crossed Stanley knives as an heraldic device above the dog Latin motto, “Nil carborundum illegitimis”.

In 1978 I inferred, rather than learned, that the archivist is not an historian. Oft times I have found that for some local practitioners this can be an excuse for profound ignorance of all aspects of the history of any country or period, even though most of my contemporaries were history graduates. History is for ivory tower intellectuals lurking balefully in the universities and remote and immune from the hardnosed realities of the Public Service scholar archivist learned in the mysterious behaviour of stationery.

Some history graduates evidently underwent a process of unlearning in the interests of archival professionalism.

I can never forget the deathless utterance of one such in early 1987 at a luncheon for publicly salaried practitioners: “The problem with history is that the interpretation keeps changing.” Lord Acton could hardly have put it more succinctly. The same Delphic authority later commented tersely on an historian’s letter which detailed, from the writer’s experience, conservation procedures for manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: “Just another bloody stupid letter from an academic historian.” Thus the speaker articulated his massive intellectual inferiority complex.

In more recent years another such scholar archivist, enriched by archival consultancies, attained the acme of such knowledge by admitting to me that she had never heard of the late Charles Hope Manning Clark much less read any of his works nor any of the acrid criticism they engendered. Sic transit gloria mundi.

For some three months in 2003 I was engaged as an archivist for a local council in one of the seedier parts of Sydney. The major thrust of my responsibility was to clear a subterranean strong room of obsolete rates, payroll and other irrelevant old financial records dating back to 1949 (employer’s copies of group certificates). Many were in the form of gargantuan plastic-covered computer printouts. These I carried up from the basement in multiples, listed in accordance with the appropriate categories in a records disposal schedule and then took apart for placement in my weekly allocation of 8 locked security disposal bins, each the size of an ordinary council recycling bin.

In the course of the work some actual archives came to light in the basement and elsewhere. These included incomplete series of volumes of minutes of sundry council meetings dating back to the 1920s and 1930s dealing with such matters as electricity and lighting, building and health inspections. Like over 200 council files on administrative and local cultural affairs from the 1930s onwards, which emerged from the local studies collection in the municipal library, these induced a level of current municipal interest just short of yawning indifference.

In the basement room I also discovered a pile of the crudest pornographic cartoons mixed with racist caricatures directed at Aborigines and Asians, a kind of updated version of the 1890s xenophobia of The Bulletin. These had been generated by computer graphics in the 1980s and, judging by their high survival rate, had once enjoyed considerable local popularity. The first were promptly binned and the second soon followed when they began attracting approving comments. They may have provided light relief from perennial pre- and post-good-weekend projections and retrospects and unflagging commentaries on the pursuit of an inflated bladder about a field as the sum and acme of human existence which daily enlivened conversation. Ripping away above the security disposal bins I could only reflect: “What the ratepayers don’t know…”.

In another council basement that year I failed to find documentation of an industrial award amidst the dusty chaos of randomly located boxes of files there consigned from above for some three decades. The council administration, who had commissioned the search, was originally a librarian recently translated to impotent power broking and people management. She commented without irony on “you intellectual types” in archives. Making a mental note to obtain a well greased famous university college tie for neck (or waist) height basement wear, I momentarily wondered if I should gesture self-deprecatingly with the panache of an archival Admirable Crichton. Although originally schooled in the doctrine that librarians are the hereditary enemies and intellectual inferiors of archivists, I did not think “Archivists one, Librarians nil”. I hadn’t, after all, found the documentation.

Virtually everywhere I’ve been archiving since 2003 almost no one I’ve encountered can pronounce the word archivist. The vocal variants have proven so beguiling that I’ve settled upon one of my own: archeyevist, with of course a Johnsonian definition: “a folder of boxes, a harmless drudge”.

Lest it be thought I dislike archives and manuscripts, I should assert that I like them very well. What I intensely dislike is the context of cultural illiteracy and pipsqueak office politics in which I so often find them. Their proper arrangement, description and physical preservation not only facilitate the writing of history but also serve the ends of efficient current administration with a consciousness of past precedents.

Not without interest and utility can be the sealed diaries of His Worship, Sir Bruce Nicebloke, Mayor of the suburban “City” of Mugwamp circa 1976, for the writer’s unrealised civic fanatsies, obsessive party political hatreds (“Alderman Fred Slurge is a dope.”), his starring role at the openings of bridges and pre-schools and his musings upon his next beer hall putsch (or paunch) for the next Monday night’s rowdyism and ribaldry known as a local council meeting. Even if emblazoned in textacolour “not to be opened until 2037”, once his mayoralty is beyond living memory future generations could be encouraged by his diaries not to replicate his tawdry public career as a figment of his own imagination.

For my next sub-Muggridgean archival chronicle of wasted time I shall turn to church archives. At present I am torn between the outwitting of a feral nun who sought to keep the original constitutions and rule of a decaying religious order from a priest who hoped to refound it in the spirit of its founder and my long mentally composed seminal memoir “Haunting the crypt, or the twilight of the Goths and the Vandals”. The latter refers to a six month sentence in the Sydney Archdiocesan Archives at St Mary’s Cathedral.

Frank Carleton



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