Demise of the National Archives concerning for life writing
The demise of the National Archives is deeply concerning. As President of Life Stories Australia Association – dedicated to supporting the craft of life story writing and recording and supporting the professionals who do that – I was quoted in the AGE and SMH about the urgent need for our national treasures to be digitised.
Sydney Morning Herald article: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/military-history-disintegrates-in-archives-while-war-memorial-reaps-cash-20210506-p57pfj.html?fbclid=IwAR0GAJoYhpnhmRINeqPHAJQs1mvcM8juK3PIr-55OU7AzYsGXeiY254tEIE
Life Story Tellers alarm at National Archives risk
Families seeking their relatives’ wartime records, immigration stories and photos should be alarmed at the impending disintegration of National Archive of Australia records.
Life Stories Australia, the body representing professional life storytellers, is anxious at the news that some records could be ruined by age and storage conditions before they are digitised.
A backlog of unexamined and undigitised records was interfering with people seeking clues to their own oral histories, the organisation’s president Gabriella Kelly-Davies said.
Delays and sometimes poor online access were putting unnecessary hurdles in front of people who wanted to write their memoirs.
LSA called for an immediate and ongoing injection of Federal funding to remedy the situation.
Ms Kelly-Davies said LSA was particularly worried about the disintegration of post-1950s acetate photographs and World War II nitrate negatives of servicemen and women which could enrich a book or video of a life story.
“These may be the only photographic record of parent or grandparent in their youth and a picture is still worth 1000 words,” Ms Kelly-Davies said.
Archive documents regularly revealed clues to a person’s oral history and could provide clarity where memories were fading, she said.
Unless the archives’ uncaptioned nitrate negatives of Snowy Mountain Scheme workers were digitised, descendants of migrants and other workers may never know they exist, Ms Kelly-Davies said.
“Without captions how do you request – and pay for – a photo that may or may not have your relative in it? If they are digitised you can look at them at your leisure in the hope of striking a recognisable family member, but without that it is hopeless,” she said.
“It’s pretty horrifying to think the negatives may crumble before the funding is found to digitise them,” she said.
Universal and timely access to records were imperative, she said. Often families wanted books and videos to mark a milestone. Unless another person had already requested and paid for a record to be digitised, the chances were it would take 30 business days or longer for them to get access, plus the cost. In some cases, people conducting research were asked if they could wait two to three years, their access would be free and digitised.
Ms Kelly-Davies said often a person engaged a life story teller when they or their parent’s memory was beginning to fade and archive documents could fill in the gaps and jog memories and waiting for information was not an option.
“In a digital age, we expect open access to files about ourselves and our family’s story. Trove is a good example of what people expect – using a search engine they can scour articles and gazettes for information,” Ms Kelly-Davies said.
“The National Archive is the vault holding the memories of Australia but the Federal Government has the key to opening up – and digitising – that vault,” she said.
Ms Kelly-Davies said some people were only now learning their families were part of the Stolen Generation, yet they could not view the royal commission where relatives may have given testimony because it was currently on obsolete VHS technology.
“That testimony has an incredible power and if it is not digitised soon it is a lost chance for the nation to heal,” she said.
LSA member, Deborah Gough said she had used the soldier settlement records, war service records and, more recently, formerly secret wartime munitions’ correspondence to fill in the gaps left when those who had lived it had died.
“It is so satisfying to reveal to someone some detail from their parents’ lives that they always wanted to know through archive documents – it allows them to speak about a much-loved parent in a new way,” Ms Gough said.
“But it is pretty daunting to be faced with a screen that says a file is not yet examined, may be potentially withheld for secrecy reasons and that you need to wait 30 business days for a decision or access,” Ms Gough said.
“In some ways it is more daunting than being told you cannot have it in the first place say under an official secrets act,” she added.