Our opening hours will be changing between Tuesday 24 December 2019 and Wednesday 1 January 2020. All reading rooms will be closed from Christmas Day, reopening on 2 January. But you’ll still be able to visit our Exhibition Galleries, our children’s holiday space, WordPlay, and Bookshop from 9am-5pm (except on Christmas Day). Bookplate café will also be open during this period, but with varied hours. Be sure to check our Summer Opening Hours before you visit.

Winter Tales with Margy Burn

Winter Tales with Margy Burn
Talks / Lecture

Recording date: 
18 August 2019

Librarian Margy Burn shares experiences acquiring rare and unique collections during her career at the National Library and other great Australian research collections.

Margy Burn recently retired as the National Library’s Assistant Director-General, Australian Collections & Reader Services. Before joining the National Library, she held senior positions working with Australiana collections at the State Libraries of New South Wales and South Australia.

Margy began working with archives and special collections at the University of Adelaide Library. Her first ‘field work’ was a series of visits to Mary Clark, the daughter of Federation advocate Sir Josiah Symon, to sort Mary’s large collection of papers documenting work in England and Australia with touring ballet and theatre companies. The octogenarian Mary told stories of nursery life in an Adelaide hills mansion; served a homemade lunch she had cooked on a wood stove, presented on ceramics made by her friend, the influential British potter Bernard Leach, while her cat Fleance prowled hopefully under the table. Margy was hooked.

Since those early days, Margy is proud to have played some role in the acquisition of papers of women including P.L Travers, Eva Cox, Dale Spender, Helen Caldicott, Kay Cottee, Meryl Tankard, Dymphna Clark, Drusilla Modjeska and Anne Summers, to name a few.

Margy has been involved with the Australian Women’s Archives Project since its inception nearly 20 years ago. In retirement she is enjoying having time to read many more books.

In association with the Australian Women's Archives Project.

Transcript

AWAP Winter Tales with Margy Burn

*Speaker: Margy Burn

*Location: National Library of Australia

*Date: 18 August 2019 

M:          I can truly say I’ve been privileged to enjoy a long career working with archives and manuscripts. But my work has involved more than working with archives and manuscripts. I’ve also been responsible for pictures, Oral History and maps, all manner of published Australiana from rare books to ephemera and everything in between. I’ve always had responsibility for reader services; and at the State Library of NSW, I oversighted two small businesses providing preservation and consultancy services.

But as I’m speaking for the Women’s Archives Project, it’s archives I will focus on today.

I should explain that when I refer to archives, I’ll be referring to the personal records that are typically collected by institutions such as libraries. I’ve never worked with government or corporate archives.

My first exposure to collecting personal papers was in 1980, shortly after being assigned to the Special Collections at the Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide, when I worked with two colleagues to collect the personal papers of Mary Clark.

Mary was the youngest of ten children of Sir Josiah Symon, a prominent Adelaide lawyer who, as Attorney General, was a great Federation advocate. 

Mary loved the performing arts, and spent some time working for a touring British theatre company, founded by Allan Wilkie and Frediswyde Hunter Watts. Although now largely forgotten, the company gave an astonishing 14,000 performances across Australia from 1916 until the Depression years.

The three of us would meet at Mary’s property in the Adelaide Hills one day a week over the summer. We would start by feeding carrots to the horses – Mary was horse mad; before we got to work sorting her papers, for transfer to the University Library. That’s Mary as a child, seated on her pony, with her top-hatted father, and older sister Angel

After nearly 40 years, I don’t remember much about Mary’s papers, but I remember much else about those visits. We would stop for lunch, cooked on Mary’s wood stove; her cat Fleance, showing interest in whether any titbits would fall from the table.

Mary’s house was filled with art and antiquities. Mary kept ephemera and newspaper cuttings in an Elizabethan wooden chest; Minoan stone lions guarded her front door. There was a ceramic Tang statuette of a war horse; a large Renoir chalk drawing of horses; when Mary wasn’t watching TV, she covered the screen with a colourful tea-towel featuring a horse. 

Mary talked about her life over lunch. I remember hearing of her childhood in the nursery at the family mansion, Manoah, in the Adelaide Hills; going downstairs to say goodnight to her parents, who wore evening clothes at dinner, before she was put to bed.

Mary confessed to a fondness for champagne, and on the last day we went to work on her papers we took a bottle for lunch – the first time I had drunk French wine. 

While at the Barr Smith, I also worked to better organise and describe the voluminous papers of Daisy Bates. Daisy’s champion in the University was the Professor of Classics and Comparative Philology, Professor John Fitzherbert. She valued this recognition of her work which was not much valued by the men of science of the time, or really since, and in gratitude she bequeathed her copyright as well as her papers to the University.

There is a wordlist from NLA’s collection of Daisy’s papers it’s quite legible but most of Daisy’s handwriting is awful  – not helped by the conditions in which she wrote, from a camp at Ooldea Soak, near the transcontinental railway line, 1100 km from Adelaide on the eastern edge of the Nullabor Plain.

Having spent so much time working on Daisy’s papers early in my career, I will forever recognise her handwriting.

Since I started in Special Collections, my work has always involved reader services and collecting and making collections more accessible to researchers through improved cataloguing and description.

I loved this combination, especially assisting readers to find information they need that can be somewhat hidden in archives; and daunting for time-pressed researchers.

Once, during the 1980 Festival of Arts, a woman came into the Reading Room; explained she was visiting from Sydney; and asked if we held any papers relating to her late husband, the writer Max Afford. I was delighted to find a photo in the National Library collection, taken just one year later when Thelma was interviewed for the Oral History program.

I’d never heard of Max, who died before I was born.

He was a playwright, but perhaps even more important as a pioneering producer of radio drama for the ABC, responsible for making the works of many other Australian playwrights accessible to a wide audience.

Six years later, by which time I was heading the South Australiana collections at the State Library, there was a grand opening of the newly renovated Mortlock wing, first opened in 1884 - the most beautiful library in Australia.

A friend who attended the event, told me she’d found herself standing next to a most interesting woman; who wanted to meet me, as she had something she wished to donate. It was Thelma Afford.

I subsequently learned Thelma had been a theatre designer, who costumed two of the productions for the state Centenary in 1936 – Max’s prizewinning historical play, Colonel Light the Founder, and an ambitious event, the Pageant of Progress. A very large sketchbook of Thelma’s costume designs for the Pageant had turned up after being missing for decades, and it was this she wanted to donate.

I was pleased to have remembered Thelma from our earlier encounter, possibly memorable because I had failed to find anything about Max. I’ve never liked sending readers away disappointed.

It’s wonderful that the State Library has digitised the album. There are some striking designs from Thelma’s album, including the costume for Mrs Hindmarsh, wife of the first Governor;  a suffragette – South Australia being the first colony to enfranchise Australian women: the state’s floral emblem, the Sturt desert pea; costumes signifying wheat, coal, Industry, electricity and a particularly memorable costume depicting the Overland Telegraph. Not only are they striking costume designs, but Thelma used some interesting fabrics and materials to make the costumes.

The State Library later formally thanked Thelma with an afternoon tea party, with her small family in Adelaide and I remember we had some very elegant petits fours.

And there is a photograph of the Pageant of Progress, the float representing world-wide communications and Electricity.

Thelma’s costuming was on a large scale and her designs so striking and innovative, that she was engaged to costume sesquicentenary productions in Sydney in 1938

Thelma was a generous, lovely person, and when I moved to Sydney in 1988 to take up the position of Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of NSW, I accepted her longstanding invitation to lunch at the Balmoral Beach Club, near her home.

One of my colleagues at the Library, Alan Davies, Curator of Photographs, was working on a major exhibition from the vast collection of the Sydney photo journalist Sam Hood. One day as I passed Alan’s desk, he showed me a striking photo he wanted to include, but he couldn’t identify the subject matter.

I took one look at it and said I knew exactly what it was; it was a photo of one of Thelma’s distinctive unusual costumes from the 1938 sesquicentenary – there was no mistaking them.

Unfortunately the State Library hasn’t digitised that photograph – the Hood collection is enormous, something like 30,000 photos, but there is one of Sam’s photos of Thelma and the model, who would wear the pearl fishing costume on a float in the Sydney parade.

Thus began the process of persuading Thelma that she was as important as her adored husband.  

Thelma’s centenary album was acquired because she wanted to give a beautiful object of some importance to South Australia to the newly created Mortlock library. She didn’t particularly value her own personal archive, later acquired by the State Library of NSW.

The five boxes included scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings, theatre programs, photographs and other illustrations of Thelma’s work during a long career designing for theatres in Sydney; also research files for the book she published in 2004 on the history of Adelaide’s little theatres from the 1930s.

The Library later mounted a display about Thelma based on her archive.

I hope these anecdotes give you some insight into the extraordinary people we are fortunate to meet through special collections work - and perhaps as an aside - the importance of eating for the Library – many a wonderful collection has been acquired after a meal with a potential donor.

But above all, the work that is put into making connections and forging the relationships that lead to important collections being placed in libraries.

Many archive collections are offered to libraries – at the National Library more than could possibly be taken in.

A little material is offered for sale through antiquarian dealers. The papers of Pamela Lyndon Travers, famous as the author of Mary Poppins, are one such example.

They were sold to the State Library in my time as Mitchell Librarian by the British antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch. This collection is 28 boxes, containing correspondence - including some lovely letters written during Travers’ Queensland childhood - her literary papers, notes for talks and lectures, film scripts, drawings and photographs.

It’s worth noting that good collections lead to research that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. In libraries, there is truth to the maxim – if you build it, they will come.

I’m willing to bet the Australian journalist Valerie Lawson would not have written her 1999 biography, Out of the sky she came if the Travers papers had not ended up in Sydney. Valerie’s book was also published in the USA and the UK and inspired a 2003 Australian documentary The shadow of Mary Poppins, which screened on ABC TV. So now many more people know about Travers’ Australian origins.

The flip side of build it and they will come, is that librarians and archivists also shape what gets collected and preserved and we need to ask ourselves who is not in the archive and what can be done about it. 

To actively seek out the unrepresented can be easier said than done in an environment of diminishing budgets - the infamous Efficiency Dividend stretching back more than three decades, in NLA’s case.

And another comment: we can never be certain how an archive will be used. A biography is an obvious outcome from a rich collection of personal papers. I can’t think of an example of unusual research arising from the collections I am mentioning today, but I can quote the example of the papers of an Australian diplomat who had served in Russia. The first use of his papers was not to write a political or diplomatic history, but for research on food in the USSR – he had kept every menu from the meals he had eaten out during his posting.

It won’t surprise this audience to learn that women are less likely to offer collections than men.

Tipped off by Anne Buttsworth, who has also been involved in the Women’s Archives project since the outset, and went to school with Katerina, the Clarks’ only daughter, Dymphna Clark’s papers were acquired by the NLA in 2003.

Manning had begun transferring papers in 1988, with the last instalment transferred in 1991, shortly before his death. Dymphna must have been involved in these transfers, but never offered her own papers. And perhaps she was never asked about them by Library staff?  

To show what little store she put on her own papers, there is a photo I commissioned to be taken by an NLA photographer of some of Dymphna’s papers stored in a cupboard in the laundry of her home.

Dymphna’s papers run to 44 boxes – quite a large personal collection (although dwarfed by Manning’s 199 boxes) and rich with correspondence, her own linguistic research and translating, her work for the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, as well as much about her relationship with Manning.

Over the years I’ve approached many women to ask if they have retained personal archives. As well as being curious and bold, it helps to be strong.

I approached Dr Helen Caldicott at a Sydney event at which she was the speaker – she is the Australian paediatrican who became famous for her work in the USA as a leading campaigner for nuclear disarmament.

Later, I flew to Byron Bay and drove a hirecar to her home outside Bangalow to see the papers, which were stored in a garden pavilion. In the humidity of northern NSW, the large cartons had started to deteriorate. I had expected we would finish my visit by talking next steps, but before I had finished appraising the papers, Helen surprised me by briskly farewelling me, indicating she had an appointment to attend.

The surprise became even bigger when Helen made it clear she expected me to take away the papers that very day. Helen is a woman of strong convictions and there was no saying no. What was I to do, in the days before mobile phones? I lugged the collapsing boxes to the car and drove back to Byron. To my great relief, before I found a payphone, I found the public library. I threw myself upon the librarian in charge and begged her to store the boxes, until they could be couriered back to Sydney.

Sometimes acquisition discussions come to naught. In 1997 the State Library received a letter from Gillon Aitken, a London literary agent, one of whose clients was Germaine Greer. The Australian academic Professor Ian Donaldson had passed on to him the name of my colleague who headed the Manuscripts collection at the Mitchell Library – academic researchers can play a key role on locating archives - and Aitken was enquiring about our interest in purchasing her papers.

We were greatly interested.

We sent a British dealer who specialised in modern literary manuscripts with a freelancer who worked for the Library in the UK to Greer’s home, outside Cambridge, to appraise and value the papers.

Sometime afterwards Greer seemed to change her mind – the valuer who had visited for the State Library wrote that Greer had commented - and I quote: “that the current PM was running on a racist ticket and she didn’t want her stuff in a country which treated their aboriginal inhabitants so badly.”

At about the same time, Christine Wallace published her landmark biography of Greer: Untamed Shrew. It’s a terrific book, and when I read it, it was apparent that Chris had undertaken a great many interviews with people who had known Greer; including her mother Peggy.

Greer attempted to knobble the book, writing in her regular column in the Guardian that Chris was a ‘parasite’ ‘dung-beetle’ and ‘flesh-eater’ and stating that any of her friends who talked to Chris would no longer be her friends. Happily, at least outside the UK, many did talk to Chris.

I contacted Chris to ask about her research papers for the book, and they are now in the Mitchell collection – four boxes of her research files, including correspondence, her notebooks and even some audio of interviews she recorded.

Before writing the Greer book, Chris had written a biography of opposition leader John Hewson, when not much was known about him.  The Hewson book was published in 1993, but when Mitchell approached Chris for her Greer papers in 1998, she had already destroyed the Hewson research. So it’s sometimes important to be quick about making an approach for papers.

It's also important to keep in touch with donors and depositors after the first transfer.

I approached the restaurateur Gay Bilson about her papers – in part because I knew that in an earlier career she had worked in a library. As had Stephanie Alexander, incidentally, whose papers are in the State Library of Victoria.

To highlight just a little held in the 11 boxes of Bilson papers in NLA, there are handwritten menus and wine lists for every meal ever served at Berowra Waters Inn; and in the last week before the restaurant closed, all the kitchen dockets for what was ordered.

There is also material relating to Gay’s first restaurant experience working with her then husband in Tony’s Bon Gout, and later in Bennelong at the Sydney Opera House.

There are menus Gay collected from meals she’d eaten elsewhere in Australia and overseas; information about special feasts, such as the famous gala dinner for the Seventh Symposium of Australian Gastronomy held at NGA.

Gay also retained correspondence from diners, and her acid replies to those she felt unfairly complained are a treat to read.

I saw Gay’s recipe cards, filed in shoeboxes, when I visited her home at McLaren Vale - and I will digress and say she served me Amish biscuits called “nothings’ - thin wafers of dough which are deep-fried and dusted with icing sugar.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gay wasn’t ready to hand over her recipes, for nothings, or anything else!

Gay made two transfers of papers to NLA and later, when I heard she had moved to northern NSW, I emailed again, expressing interest in further papers and specifically asking about the menus.

Alas, she said she had destroyed everything, and she seemed more interested in finding a home for her large collection of birds’ nests!

(I made some nothings yesterday, so you can try them when we adjourn for afternoon tea – although mine are not nearly as delicious as Gay’s. I sourced the recipe via Google; perhaps they are best cooked just before eating!)

…..

One of the collections it gave me a thrill to acquire was the archive of Belinda Mackay, the daughter of feminist activist and campaigner for peace and human rights, Jessie Street.

Jessie is a ‘heroine of mine’ to quote Judy Small’s song – and I am a Trustee of a small charity which honours Jessie.

The NLA holds Jessie’s papers and after Belinda’s death I was invited to visit her Braidwood home to go through her papers.

There is a photo of Belinda wearing a striking cameo, a family heirloom given to her great grandmother Theodosia Ogilvie on her honeymoon in Venice in 1858.

The Street family are keepers, and Belinda’s archive contains two decades of letters from Belinda to her mother and from Jessie to Belinda while Jessie was travelling the world from the mid-1940s to the mid-60s.

There are also some lovely letters from Belinda’s children Andrew and Margot – children’s letters are rare survivors in archives.

Whenever Jessie was photographed working, she seemed to be wearing the cameo. Jessie was the only female member of the Australian delegation to the 1945 San Francisco conference which founded the UN and she continued to play a big role in its early years, including ensuring the Declaration of Human Rights made specific reference to the rights of women.

And there is a photo of the brooch, now part of NLA’s collection, a very generous gift from Jessie’s eldest granddaughter Margot Gatenby, who might well have enjoyed wearing the cameo herself, or passing on the heirloom to her daughter. When Margot gave the brooch to me, I can honestly say it brought a tear to my eyes.

True ‘keepers’ go to great effort and sometimes expense to maintain their archive over many years. Jessie Street brought her papers back to Australia from long residences in the UK and the US.

Germaine Greer also travelled widely, and her archive includes inventories from London storage companies including references to the many filing cabinets stored while she worked in the US and lived as a tax exile in Italy.

Anthropologist Professor Diane Bell (whose papers came to NLA via a tip from Marie Coleman, one of the founders of the Australian Women’s Archives Project) lugged her papers from Victoria to Sydney and Canberra; to central Australia through periods of fieldwork; to academic positions in two states of the USA, to South Australia,  and finally to Canberra, where she now lives.

Diane’s papers are extensive, the first transfer some 70 boxes, and they go back at least to her early teacher training in Victoria.

Back to Jessie and Belinda: Library staff often say that manuscript collections talk to each other. I like to think of Jessie talking to her daughter, although they are well separated on the shelves with Jessie’s papers at MS 2683 and Belinda’s at MS 10365.

By talking, what we really mean is that a researcher can examine papers from different people, who’ve had some shared involvements, or whose paths have crossed - cross sometimes being the operative word! – to gain different perspectives on a moment or a place in history.

To give some examples from women whose papers I’ve played some role in acquiring – the extensive journals of Helen Garner and her friend and fellow writer Drusilla Modjeska will definitely ‘talk’ to each other – and perhaps regret it can no longer be over a cup of tea.

As will those of Anne Summers and Suzanne Bellamy – both active in the founding of Sydney Women’s Liberation. Anne became a journalist, publisher and femocrat after gaining her PhD in history at Sydney University as a young student; Suzanne also has a PhD from Sydney University, hers awarded earlier this year; and is known as an artist and activist.

As well as depositing her papers – another acquisition arising from AWAP connections - Suzanne ‘safeguarded' the papers of Bessie Guthrie, now also in NLA.

Bessie had lived in Glebe all her life and, amongst many other things, was an activist for girls who had experienced neglect, domestic violence and imprisonment, many for being said to be “in moral danger”. Bessie provided runaways with a safe house in her home. In her mid-60s, when she walked into the newly opened Women’s Liberation House in Glebe, located in Derwent Street, the street Bessie lived in, Bessie exclaimed “I’ve been waiting for you women to get here all my life!”

…….

Now I want to turn to the issue of managing collections and providing access.

Most collections of personal papers are at least six boxes; many are very much larger [show and tell - archives box] Each box contains a lot of paper!

Greer’s archive, purchased for the University of Melbourne Archives in 2013, runs to 487 boxes and occupies 82 metres of shelving. In NLA, only the papers of Robert Menzies are more extensive, at 639 boxes.

For me, Greer is ‘the one that got away’. Aside from my earlier involvement at the State Library, I also tried to acquire her archive for the NLA. She twice visited us to discuss its acquisition and I also met with her agent in London and visited her Essex home to see the archive. The National Library made an offer for the purchase of the archive in April 2013, a few months before the acquisition was announced by Melbourne University. But I can truly say I’m glad the archive ended up in another important Australian archive. The University has devoted unprecedented resources to work on the archive – it is perhaps the most important archive it holds – which NLA could not have done. Including individual cataloguing of many items in the archive. Quite different from the usual archival approach to collection description.

To make the contents of many boxes of archives useful and accessible to researchers, archivists provide descriptive lists of their major contents, called Finding Aids. They outline the major series, things like correspondence, diaries, photographs, research notes and in the case of correspondence, for example, they outline the principal correspondents and subjects covered.

Even at this high level of description it’s time consuming work and nowadays libraries ask donors and depositors to undertake this listing as it is simply beyond their diminishing staff resources.

The NLA is far from the nation’s more populous capital cities. But it has always been national in its aspiration and has always put priority to making its collection records accessible as widely as possible, so researchers can easily discover what they need. In the olden days it was via roneoed and microcopied catalogue cards, now it’s though online records.

There is an online catalogue record for every single manuscript collection in the NLA and all the finding aids for the Library’s larger manuscript collections are published online. This is a heroic achievement – I’m not sure that any other large research library in the world has achieved this - and it was the vision of Marie-Louise, when she headed Manuscripts.

It’s not a perfectly crafted guide to a Manuscripts collection, such as an archivist might have produced in the past after much concentrated work of analysis, sorting, arrangement and description.

 It comes from a box list compiled by a volunteer – in this case me - and then magicked into an online Finding Aid by team members working in Manuscripts at the NLA, using some of the wonderful tools developed in collaboration with IT colleagues.

There are a lot of ‘I’ and ‘Me’ words in this talk, but the work of building, maintaining and providing access to archives is a huge collaborative effort, never the work of any single person. 

A busy archivist could not devote the time I did to making this listing of Belinda Mackay’s papers; for me it was a labour of love. A busy archivist might just have noted a series of photos, perhaps with a date range and some broad subject terms.

I could take the time to note that the photos of Jessie Lillingston’s family home, Yugilbar on the Clarence River near Grafton, include Aboriginal workers, hay raking, children with a governess; that there are photographs of the interior and the garden of the Street family home Liverynga, in Elizabeth Bay – the property was subdivided after Jessie’s father-in-law, Sir Philip Street’s death in 1940 –  and there is nothing left of Liverynga: 4 Onslow Avenue is completely occupied by blocks of flats.

Every word in NLA’s finding aids is exposed via Trove and Google, meaning someone wanting to find photographs of Liverynga and its garden, to see how the elite of Sydney society once lived; or of a governess or Aboriginal people at work, would not have to think: I wonder if there might be anything in the papers of the Street family?

A Trove search on their topic would enable them to go straight to that particular file in Belinda’s papers, or order a copy of the photographs from wherever they lived through the Copies Direct service.

Today, I’ve talked about papers, because they are characteristic of my period of working in archives and the medium I’m personally most comfortable with. But in the last few years NLA has developed the capacity to collect, manage, preserve and make accessible digital archives – this is not software that can be bought off the shelf; it’s another example of the really significant and innovative, world leading work NLA does.

Anne Summers began depositing her papers in 1985 and, at 105 boxes it’s another large collection. But her last transfer, in 2017, is of her digital records, and was the first large digital archive to be taken in using the new digital collection management system.

And when I say large – Anne’s digital archive comprised some 12,000 files and was nearly 39 gigabytes in size. The File types included: Word documents, JPEG, TIFF, and other image files, PDFs, text, web pages, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, sound and movie files in various formats. There are 28,363 emails with 11,160 attachments. It is a really significant research archive,.

FINALLY:  I’m going to pre-empt a question as to what might be my favorite thing, among the archives I’ve worked with. I’ll end by showing you two of my favorite things, neither of them from a ‘true’ archive

 First something created by Elizabeth Cook, the wife of Captain Cook. I always said this was my favorite item in the collection of the State Library of NSW. It’s a rare and poignant historic document from a woman connected to Australia in the eighteenth century.

Elizabeth lived to the astonishing age of 93, outliving not only her husband but all 6 of their children. During Cook’s third voyage, she was embroidering this waistcoat for his presentation at court on return. The waistcoat was made from tapa cloth collected in Tahiti during Cook’s second Pacific voyage . The project was abandoned after news of his death in Hawaii, the embroidered panels never made up.

Alongside is a photograph of a completed dress waistcoat belonging to Cook with similar delicate silk floral embroidery and small sequins. It gave me a real thrill when I came across this waistcoat exhibited at Te Papa the national museum in Wellington, NZ.

And from the NLA, I’ll end with the artist Nora Heysen, who is represented in the Manuscripts, pictures and Oral History collections and also made a generous bequest to NLA. I feel fortunate to have met Nora before she died in 2003.  Here she is, photographed with her dog Bosie, in the garden of her Hunter’s Hill home in 1999.

I love Nora’s Oral History interview, recorded by Heather Rusden in 1994; it is a rich audio document. Heather is a wonderful interviewer; informed, sensitive and perceptive. I love the ambient noise – a ticking antique clock which chimes at intervals; Bosie snuffling; planes flying overhead – Nora lived under a flight path. She was a heavy smoker and Nora can be heard striking matches, sometimes repeatedly, followed by a deep drawback as she inhales. There are many meaningful pauses before Nora speaks.

There are three interviews with Nora in NLA’s collection: the first recorded by the pioneering Oral Historian Hazel De Berg in 1965, and the second by art educator Dr Denise Hickey in 1971.  All are online – so you can listen to them at home!

In Heather’s interview, recorded when Nora was 83, despite being deeply private, Nora reveals a great deal, including some painful memories. It shows the value of oral history, I believe and it’s lovely that Nora’s voice will live on forever thanks to the work of the NLA.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the women whose papers I’ve referred to today are also represented in  the NLA’s Oral History collection – the largest in the country - Dymphna Clark, Jessie Street, Suzanne Bellamy, Anne Summers,  Gay Bilson,  Helen Caldicott and Chris Wallace have all been interviewed, as well as Thelma Afford whose interview I mentioned earlier.

Some of the interviews are not yet open to access, and not all are available online as yet, but Oral History is another aspect of the NLA’s unique and rich collections that I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of creating.

I hope my remarks today have given you a sense of what a wonderful time I have had working in library special collections, and perhaps also some insights into aspects of the work done by archivists and librarians.

Thank you.

Download transcript 189.64 KB

Recent audio All recent audio