National Library of Australia Staff Papers, 1995

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Acquiring the Mabo Papers:
Celebrating Edward Koiki Mabo

'A grand piece of collection building' is the way Warren Horton, Director-General of the National Library of Australia, describes his institution's land-mark acquisition of the personal papers of the human rights activist and land rights campaigner Edward Koiki Mabo (1936-1992) which were formally passed into the Library's custody at a special ceremony in Townsville on 6 August.

'A grand piece of collection building' is the way Warren Horton, Director-General of the National Library of Australia, describes his institution's land-mark acquisition of the personal papers of the human rights activist and land rights campaigner Edward Koiki Mabo (1936-1992) which were formally passed into the Library's custody at a special ceremony in Townsville on 6 August.


[Bonita Mabo]


The Townsville ceremony, attended by Eddie Mabo's widow Bonita and members of the Mabo family together with senior representatives of the National Library, was the formal outcome of a process of negotiation and acquisition which began in 1993 and which charted significant new ground for the Library in its continuing efforts to build a comprehensive collection of library materials relating to Australia and the Australian people. The story which lies behind the acquisition of what will now be identified in scholarly short-hand as the Mabo Papers is both exhilarating and inspiring, a tribute to the energy, commitment and vision of Glenn Schwinghamer, the manuscript librarian who steered this acquisition from first principles through to its successful conclusion. The acquisition also owes much to the willingness of the National Library's senior staff, particularly Jan Fullerton, Assistant Director-General (Collections and Reader Services) and Warren Horton as Director-General to allow Schwinghamer to 'fly a kite' and to pursue negotiations which were initially speculative and which eventually required a high degree of tolerance for a process which was culturally sensitive and at best uncertain in its outcome.

Glenn Schwinghamer explains that initially he did not set out with a clear objective to acquire the papers of Eddie Mabo. Rather, he puts this important acquisition into the context of a renewed drive which the Library was making in 1993 to bring into its collections the papers of men and women who had been nationally prominent in fields such as the environmental movement, politics, business and journalism. National endeavour of various kinds has always been the criterion by which the Library has shaped its manuscript collecting program but from time to time it has been found necessary for the National Library, operating at a remove from the key population centres, to give this program a kick-start to remind a new generation that it exists as a prime national repository for materials which will eventually contribute important insights to the writing and interpretation of the history of Australia.

In 1993, the Council of the National Library chaired then by Sir Ninian Stephen, a distinguished and widely admired Australian public figure, agreed to put its weight and influence behind a collecting drive intended to highlight the special importance which the Library attached to one of its central responsibilities, the building of a national collection of material in a range of formats concerned in various ways with Australia and the Australian people. The Library's Chief Manuscript Librarian, Graeme Powell, drove this process very strongly, preparing a series of letters of appeal for Sir Ninian's signature which were directed to outstanding individuals or their families who, it was thought, might have papers which should if at all possible pass into the national collection.

As Glenn Schwinghamer explains it, Mabo's name did not emerge initially for consideration in this campaign notwithstanding the fact that as a result of the High Court ruling on native land title (1992), the name of Mabo had achieved national prominence in recognition of Edward Koiki Mabo who had been the principal plaintiff in the case which swept aside the historic concept of Australia as 'terra nullius' which had persisted from the earliest years of European settlement.

During his years at the National Library, Schwinghamer has always taken a strong personal interest in acquiring materials concerned with the Australian conservation movement. With the investment of renewed energy into the Library's collecting program, it was natural that he should reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the holdings in an area which had become intensely political in recent years and which signalled a new level of commitment to the concern which Australians of many different backgrounds felt for the preservation and protection of the natural environment. An important source of advice for the Library was the historian Gregg Borschmann, previously an adviser to the former Senator Graham Richardson who had been a powerful and committed advocate for environmental issues during his term as Federal Minister for the Environment. Now deep into the research and writing of a book which will explore the historical, cultural and environmental significance of Australia's forests, Borschmann was taking a very wide look at the meaning of environmentalism as it had developed in the Australian context. He saw the Mabo case as a critical indicator of the distinctive but poorly understood relationship which Australia's indigenous peoples felt for the land and he suggested that Schwinghamer should take special account of the name Mabo in his efforts to extend the Library's environmental holdings.

But the difficulty here was to identify just what might exist and where it might be held. At this stage, the name Mabo represented not so much an individual person but a short-hand means of describing a legal decision as widely praised and celebrated as it was vilified, feared and misunderstood. There was a tendency to concentrate on the case itself and the legal process which led to its resolution rather than to consider the individual who had brought the action. If papers did exist, Schwinghamer admits frankly that initially he had no way of knowing and, in embarking on a search, no idea where the path would lead him. And this was not to contend with the protocols and possible sensitivities likely to be encountered along the way.

Such was the importance of the Mabo case however and the level of commitment to the cause for which the Mabo judgement has become an enduring symbol, that Schwinghamer fairly readily found himself in touch with a number of individuals who gave warm encouragement to his efforts. The first of these was a Canberra colleague, Dr Luke Taylor, Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia who had taken a special interest in the Mabo case and had presented a powerful examination of its significance in the National Museum's Landmarks exhibition at Old Parliament House in 1993. It was Taylor who first encouraged Schwinghamer to think that the Mabo family might hold a collection of documentary materials relating to the legal matter and to the efforts of Eddie Mabo in bringing the High Court challenge. Other contacts were also important, particularly Greg McIntyre who had been the instructing solicitor on behalf of the plaintiff in the prosecution of the case and Brian Keon-Cohen QC., the barrister who represented the plaintiffs in the land claim case first through the Queensland courts and subsequently in the High Court of Australia. Keon-Cohen has himself assembled an extraordinarily valuable record of the case and has committed himself to placing this material into the custody of the National Library. The promise of this acquisition is important in its own right but in the context of Glenn Schwinghamer's quest it represents at this stage only part of the story.

In May 1993 Schwinghamer visited Townsville to attend the annual conference of the Australian Society of Archivists. This visit was to bring him into personal contact with Mabo's widow Bonita, a meeting generously arranged by the historian Professor Noel Loos of the James Cook University and a friend of the Mabo family. This visit yielded two important discoveries. First it was revealed that Bonita Mabo held a collection of diaries written by her husband (since 1988 until his death in 1992) and a binder of papers relating to the land rights issue. Second, and more tantalising, was the news that a larger collection of personal papers was stored in a backyard shed. Schwinghamer was permitted to examine the diaries but on the instructions of Mabo's son, Eddie Mabo Jnr. no access was to be given, at ths time, to the contents of the shed. In his report of this visit prepared for colleagues at the National Library, Schwinghamer commented: 'These papers could be a significant acquisition for the Library. As you know, I have been making efforts to acquire material documenting aspects of the Mabo Case...Eddie Mabo's papers would add a more personal perspective and one from an islander standpoint.' Schwinghamer also commented on the wider significance of his discovery. Recognising the strength of the oral tradition of the Torres Strait islanders and what is thought to be a poor tradition of personal record keeping, Schwinghamer, noted that quite apart from their possible content such a collection was likely to be a highly unusual survival of records and therefore of a special and symbolic significance.

One of the special features of the process of negotiation which followed Glenn Schwinghamer's exploratory visit to Townsville is the care which was taken by the Library to recognise that this acquisition was fundamentally different from others and that cultural sensitivities required particular care if what promised to be an historically important collection was to pass into the Library's custody. After initial visits to view collections, the usual National Library practice is for the final details of an acquisition to be worked out through an exchange of correspondence or in a series of telephone calls. Schwinghamer appreciated from the outset that this case was would require special care and a high level of personal interaction with the Mabo family. It would not be enough for the Library to rely merely on an assertion of its national role and purpose as the basis for its claim to provide a permanent home for the Mabo Papers. He thought carefully about the steps he would take and acknowledges now enormous appreciation that the Library gave him a long leash giving him the resources necessary to visit Townsville on a number of occasions and to build up a relationship with the Mabo family based on a high level of personal trust and friendship. On a subsequent visit of three days spent with the family, Schwinghamer recalls what he describes as one of the most rewarding experiences of his life This was based on two things: the depth and warmth of the welcome given to him by the Mabo family and the excitement when he realised that the Mabo Papers were indeed of considerable historic and biographical importance - a window revealing the commitment and struggle by one man and many people to achieve justice and recognition in their own country.

An issue of central importance in defining the value of the Mabo Papers is the strong sense they give of the man himself. It is a paradox that as a result of the High Court judgement and the subsequent political debate to pass the Native Title legislation, the name Mabo achieved household recognition in Australia and yet very little was known of the man himself. Alec Bolton, who prepared the formal valuation of the Mabo Papers for the National Library, highlighted the extent to which the papers provide a picture of the man: an individual 'of depth and persistence: a lifelong passionate advocate of the rights of his Torres Strait people; a fountain of ideas and innumerable plans; a humble worker (trochus shell fisherman, railways labourer, gardener) and frequent dole recipient who in later days was on good terms with Federal ministers and sat on committees with people like H.C. Coombs and R.M. Berndt; a modestly educated man...who yet wrote a beautiful hand when he was trying, and who enrolled in Diploma of Teaching courses in his mid-forties; and above all a visionary who foresaw the implications for all Australians of a successful outcome in the case concerning his Melanesian homeland of Mer (Murray Island)... the collection shows that Mabo is not just a name thrown up by an accident of history. It seems likely that in years to come he will be recognised...as a national icon.'

The Mabo Papers in the National Library are held in 19 archival boxes and cover principally the last 30 years of Eddie Mabo's life. Although restricted at present, the papers have already been carefully arranged, catalogued and listed by archivist Adrian Cunningham who describes the collection as large by any standard of judgement and of an overall evenness of quality in terms of its content. Cunningham says that the collection gives the sense of a restless, perpetually energetic man who 'wanted to take the bull by the horns and influence things'. That influence was to be felt in many different areas of political activism before it found its most concentrated and focused expression in the 10 year battle in defence of what, in addition to his own family, Mabo held most dear, his sense of connection to an identifiable area of land on Mer. That particular sense of personal connection became the bargaining chip which overturned two centuries of denial of the concept of native title throughout Australia and in the Torres Strait islands.

The National Library's acquisition of the Mabo Papers is a powerful acknowledgment that the Library exists for all Australians as a 'keeping place' for those records which define our collective identity as Australians and which record the range and diversity of the national story. Just as the Mabo judgement laid the legal foundation for the difficult process of correcting a grave injustice and moving towards national reconciliation, the work of Glenn Schwinghamer and his creative and inspired collaboration with a whole team of people-colleagues, academics, Mabo family members and others,- is an affirmation that libraries as places of record are not merely about the past but are an active partner with their communities to reflect contemporary debate across the spectrum of politics, race and gender.