Conducting historical research through digital archives, courtesy of the ‘Scan & Send’ service

Noreen Minogue, early 1980s, Photographic series, (Control: AX36 PO4822), Australian Red Cross – National Office, University of Melbourne Archives

 

I recently completed my research thesis as part of the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree at the University of Melbourne. My thesis title, “The Inspiration Given To It By Women”: Noreen Minogue, Australian Red Cross, and the Development of International Humanitarian Law”, gives an indication of the nature of my historical inquiry. Considering the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the academic community, particularly for those whose research depends on physical access to archives and university spaces, I was fortunate to be able to complete my thesis at all. Countless students and researchers owe a great debt of gratitude to the Archives team and the ‘Scan & Send’ service at the University of Melbourne, who made our research and contributions to the academic literature possible.

The ‘Scan & Send’ service is a wonderful example of innovation in education and archive collection management. From 2020, a skilled and dedicated team of archivists and technical experts digitally scanned and sent materials to the University community. Though this process certainly posed different resourcing requirements and labour disciplines for the team, the service revolutionised access to historical materials for students at the University. In this blog post, I hope to share a few reflections on my experiences completing a research thesis relying entirely on digital records.

Adjusting to digital research and the importance of building strong relationships:

For those used to poring over papers, photographs, documents, and materials from physical record collections, the transition to working with digital archives via ‘Scan & Send’ poses a challenge. I certainly missed the sensory experiences of examining dusty parchments, the thrill of physically discovering and holding important documents which shed new light on the past, and the camaraderie of working within an academic community in person.  The Archival team were incredibly helpful (and patient) with me on my learning curve, as I wasn’t particularly adept at navigating archives in the first place. Email, phone calls, and infographic explainers were helpful to generate a deeper understanding about the system and processes to successfully conduct archival research through solely digital means.

Requesting materials:

Finding, requesting, and accessing digital records proved to be a more challenging process than when we were able to physically attend archives or reading rooms, where issues that arose could be trouble-shooted or worked through in person. Given the time-critical nature of the research and the significant workload on the Archives team, I found it particularly effective to triage materials by prioritising tranches of materials for the archivists, using the highlighter function on Excel. Having identified the priority boxes and materials, it was then a matter of requesting them via the request management system Aeon, where after the relevant records were scanned by the digital team and sent via CloudStor (a cloud-based file management system for researchers).

 

File Management:

The Archives team sent me large quantities of material. As such, it was crucially important to download and store these big and extensive files in an accessible and secure way. I used Google Drive to back up my files and sync them to my desktop, which allowed me to make digital notes, highlights, and comments on the archival materials as I progressed through them. File management is incredibly important. My advice: ensure you keep a master list of all documents you have on file, and correspondingly name the document files so that that they are easy to find and reference in future against the master list. I kept a ‘research log’ in Google Sheets, which included all critical information and high-level notes about the item numbers and materials I processed for easy reference.

Wellbeing, Reading and Writing:

Reading and taking notes on such large quantities of digitised archival records can be intimidating at first. It’s important to look after yourself while doing so, by ensuring as far as possible that you have access to an ergonomic chair, desktop monitors, and that you take regular breaks from the screen to preserve your eyesight and concentration. I found it helpful not to read the digital archival documents like a novel – i.e. end to end – unless I absolutely knew it was something that would be useful to my avenue of inquiry, which I discerned through headings and scanning paragraphs. Using the ‘control+f’ function to find key words worked on certain PDF formats, and saved a lot of reading time. Given the large quantities of digitised archival records, I found my research was ultimately a lot broader and deeper than it might have been from in-person research, and that I was able to process materials more quickly than usual. The most critical aspect of reading and research is taking well-referenced notes so that you can trace your materials back to the original source. Take down the file number, item title, and page number at a minimum to ensure you have everything to hand when it comes time to writing your thesis, referencing, and developing your bibliography.

Although moving to digital-first archival research is certainly a significant adjustment initially, I eventually came to enjoy the economy and flexibility of the process, which enabled me to tell a unique story using archival records that had not been previously utilised. There are certainly challenges to the digital-only approach, but these were outweighed by the goodwill and cooperation of the digitisation team, researchers, and supervisors.

Nick Fabbri

Nick Fabbri works and volunteers at Australian Red Cross in Emergency Services and is a part-time law student at the University of Sydney. He writes and podcasts at www.nickfabbri.com


A Public and Private Life: June Barnett

June Barnett and Betty Blunden (nee’ Barnett), c1950s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

June Barnett was the daughter of a Methodist social reformer who in the 1930s campaigned for improvements to Melbourne’s inner city slums. June joined the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Airforce in the late 1930s. During the war while still in the auxiliary she joined the Communist Party and was active in the Party branch at the University of Melbourne where she studied after the war. She resigned from the Party when she took up a post in the Australian Public Service in Canberra in 1948.

In 1953 she reported to ASIO that a Party functionary had approached her with a request to steal documents for Russia. She was then made a witness at the Petrov Royal Commission into Soviet spying, although she never disclosed the name of the person who approached her.

Reminiscences of travels to Spain, c1980s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

She stayed in the public service and became one of the first women to be posted overseas as an official member of the diplomatic corps, when she was appointed to the high commission in New Zealand. She was active in the campaign for equal pay for women public servants.

Her life is documented in a small collection of six boxes predominantly made up of the records of her decades-long relationship with her partner Kay Keightley – including hundreds of photographs, travel documents, correspondence and, finally, the cremation certificate for Kay. Alongside these are correspondence relating to the Royal Commission, documents from her public service career and a few marriage proposals from prospective male suitors.

It is somewhat rare to hold such a complete collection of a long-term lesbian relationship that dated from the period before homosexual sexual relations were even legalised, let alone accepted by broader society. The shape of the collection seems to suggest that even in such a public and eventful life, for June her relationship with Kay was a constant and central focus.

Telegram to June Barnett, c1950s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

Finally, back to records that tease the researcher with bygone meaning, is a photo album of June’s time in the WAAAF, that contains a photograph of a naked woman presumably about to go swimming, and what appears to be cross-dressing party costumes. A lot has now been written about queer sexuality and gender identity in the armed forces in World War 2 (see the references below), and much of it speaks to the need to interrogate sources. Evidence of queer sexuality was often suppressed because it was thought to cause embarrassment. What evidence remains tends to focus on male same-sex relations.

WAAAF album, c1940s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

WAAAF album, c1940s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

The WAAF photo album in June’s collection may be read bearing in mind her later relationship. Also the very act of inserting a photograph of nude women in an otherwise fairly predictable album speaks of an intentionality that should not be ignored. But what more might be said?

So, even a collection in which queer sexuality is quietly but confidently commemorated there are questions that endure, the answers to which might be said to remain private.

References

June Barnett collection

Graham Willett and Yorick Smaal, ‘‘A homosexual institution’: Same-sex desire in the army during World War II’Australian Army Journal, vol.10 i.3, 2013

Yorick Smaal, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939–45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Andrew Stephens, ‘A secret history of sexuality on the front’ Sydney Morning Herald, 21 DEcember 2012

Frank Bongiorno, The Sex Lives of Australians: A History, Black Ink Books, 2014


“There has been us”: John Foster and Juan Céspedes

From 1970 until 1993 John Foster was a lecturer in history at the University of Melbourne, specialising in German and Jewish history. He met Juan Céspedes, a dancer and refugee from Cuba, in New York in 1981 and the two began a relationship the same year that the first reports of young men contracting PCP and Kaposi’s Sarcoma in Los Angeles and New York foreshadowed the AIDS pandemic. The two men battled prejudice, immigration restrictions and differences in class, race, language and age to bring their lives together.

Ephemera from the John Foster collection, 1997.0085

Juan died of AIDS in Melbourne in 1987 in his early 30s. As Juan lay dying, he despaired at his life, telling John “I have accomplished nothing” to which John replied “There has been us”. In that spirit in the seven years he had left, John wrote and published a memoir of Juan called Take Me To Paris, Johnny.

The memoir won acclaim, with literary critic Peter Craven calling it a “literary masterpiece…Unparalleled in Australian letters…Makes most fiction, here or elsewhere, look paltry by comparison”.

The John Foster collection is another memoir to their relationship; intimate in its materiality. It includes two pairs of Juan’s ballet slippers, a recipe book written by both of them, and more. It is full of the ephemera of a relationship.

The collection, and of course the publication document a tragic time that shaped the gay community in Melbourne and across the world irrevocably, not least because they evidence the love and longing on which that awful disease fed and spread.

Feature image: Juan Cespedes ballet slippers, John Harvey Foster collection, photography by Peter Casamento, Casamento Photography

References

John Foster, Take Me to Paris, Johnny, (2nd edition) Text Publishing, 2016.

John Rickard, ‘On John Foster’, Australian Book Review, no.381 May 2016

Peter Craven, ‘Introduction to Take Me To Paris’, Text Publishing blog, 2016


With the eyes of a stranger: Alice Anderson

Alice Anderson and friend, c1920s. 1988.0061.01553
Alice Anderson and friend, c1920s. Frances Derham collection,1988.0061.01553

Alice was born in 1897. Her father was an engineer and academic. When he lost money in business the family moved to the country where Alice and her siblings learned to ride, hunt, fish and generally be self-reliant. Their lack of funds meant that she could not attend university, even though the family moved in university academic circles because of her father’s former position – her nephew became a long-standing Vice Chancellor of the University. Alice was friends with many women academics, and was a member of the Lyceum Club to which many of them belonged.

After she left school she started repairing motor cars, and by 1919 at the age of 22 she opened a motor garage in Kew – the first garage run by a woman in Australia. She employed only women, giving them a sort of apprenticeship in washing and repairing cars, selling petrol, giving driving lessons and making chauffeur trips because few people had cars at the time.

In 1926 she drove a Baby Austin to Alice Springs with the historian Jessie Webb, one of the first women senior lecturers at the university. Webb did not undertake the return journey. A few months after Alice returned, she died whilst apparently cleaning her gun. She was 29.

There is nothing in her papers to confirms her sexuality. She never married, once writing to her mother that she didn’t “have time to get a man”. According to her statement to police following Alice’s death, her sister had suggested that Alice get married for a rest and Alice had replied “a rest do you call it, I think it is only a change of work. Up in Oodnadatta I just felt that if any decent man up there asked me to bake his bread and darn his socks for him I would do it in spite of the dust, heat and flies…”

Alice Anderson and Jessie Webb in an Austin 7 departing for Alice Springs
Alice Anderson and Jessie Webb in an Austin 7 departing for Alice Springs, 1926. Frances Derham collection, 1988.0061.01552

Alice has been claimed by the History of LGBTIQ+ Victoria report, and historians seem to lean on the side of assuming she was a lesbian, although careful to note the lack of evidence. It also seems rumours of her lesbianism were possibly spread by rival male garage owners to undercut her business.

The historian Loretta Smith, who has written a biography of Alice, described her experience of searching for information and documents:

“The [UMA] repository is a bleak double story brick building in a semi-industrial area of Brunswick. Inside is a mishmash of 19th-century antiques and 1980s office furniture. I sat in a room too small for the ancient leather-inlaid boardroom table as men in industrial grey overcoats wheeled out box after box of material. Many researchers had gone before me, rustling up information… but I believe I was the first to dig around for material specifically connected to Alice. The treasure I discovered happened to be in a random bag of material containing mementoes of Alice’s brother, Stewart… It was in this bag that I discovered two tiny, carefully folded, pieces of paper wrapped around what turned out to be a miniature photograph of Alice in a car. I gently opened the layers, sensing that I was the first to do so and knowing I was not the intended recipient. The writing was Alice’s. Love poems.”

Alice Anderson

Poem, probably written by Alice Anderson, c1920s. Frances Derham collection, 1988.0061.00751 unit 39. Please God/ That I may never look on you with the eyes of a stranger/ That this communion be ever renewed in fresh ways/ That the flame of eternity that is ours be written in light

Alice Anderson

Poem from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, probably written by Alice Anderson, c1920s. Frances Derham collection, 1988.0061.00751 unit 39. If in this shadowland of life thou hast/ Found one true heart to love them, hold it fast/ Love it again, give all to keep it thine/ For love like nothing in the world can last.

Besides these cryptic poems (reproduced here), is a couple of photographs that could be interrogated by researchers for deeper meaning. The first is of Alice and an unknown friend on a trip. There is something in how Alice looks at her, how she holds her waist and the tenderness of the way they hold hands that seems to suggest something more amorous. But is it right to read into photographs something that we want or think should be? And if we don’t are we doing a disservice to history too – are we then not recognising how overwhelming homophobia prevented people from openly living the lives they would if they could?

The second is a photo of Alice and Webb about to leave for Alice Springs. Webb is covered in a shawl to protect her identity from press photographers – one would imagine that going on a weeks’ long isolated car trip with a famously-suspected lesbian may not have been received well by her employers or society at large. The second poem is an excerpt from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. One can only wonder at the possible connection with Webb, who taught ancient history.

That lack of evidence is frustrating and it means – much like her death – that there can only be speculation, we can only look on Alice with the eyes of a stranger despite our own desire to know her better.

References

Loretta Smith, A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia s first all-girl garage, Hatchette Press, 2019

Georgine Clarson, Alice Anderson, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2005

 


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