Guarding the treasure trove

Buses Commonwealth Games 1982 Photo by Bob Wilson

There’s an archive box in the downstairs cupboard full of black and white negatives. There’s also a proof sheet of 24 photos, presumably from one of the 36 negative folders in the box. I can tell by examining the proof with an eyeglass they date from my years as a rural reporter/photographer in the Lockyer Valley, circa 1980s. There are other random photos, some with information on the back, like the photo (left) of Brisbane council buses waiting on Kessells Road to take punters home from the Commonwealth Games in 1982. Others are a complete guessing game.

Why the hell do I keep these, I ask myself every time the subject comes up: one, I don’t know anyone who has a darkroom;  two, if I did, it would not be equipped to print black and white negatives; three, who really gives a fig?

We lapsed Methodists say ‘toss’ or ‘fig’ when we actually mean something more explicit, you know? But let’s look into this further, whether anyone gives a figgy toss.

The value of hoarding

The documentary Finding Vivian Maier is a stark reminder of the historic value of artistic expression and what could have been lost forever. Maier, an impoverished nanny with an obsessive passion for street photography, died in obscurity. But her legend lives on, thanks to the curiosity and hard work of US film-maker John Maloof.

Maloof pursued Maier’s work after buying a metal box full of negatives from a Chicago auction house in 2007. He set off on a quest to acquire Maier’s unpublished work; more than 100,000 negatives, 700 undeveloped rolls of colour film and many 8mm and 16mm movies. The entire collection has since been digitised so Maier’s work photographing people in the streets of New York and Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century has come to the attention of a wider audience.

Meanwhile in Australia…

If you listen to Radio National, which some FOMM readers do on a daily basis, you may have heard Phillip Adams, historian Tim Sherratt and Peter FitzSimons talking about Trove. Journalists, writers, academics, historians and incurably curious people will know about Trove, the National Library of Australia’s digital archive. You have to sign up to get the best of the database, but it is free and 70,000 people dig into it every day.

The database contains over 473 million books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more. But the ANL’s ability to keep up with the all-consuming job of digitising historic records is under threat. Budget cuts, or ‘efficiency dividends’ as PM Malcolm Turnbull is wont to call them, may stop Trove’s work in its tracks.

Adams pinpointed the key advantage of Trove is that historians spend less time searching for data and more time analysing.

“Trove has had a really profound impact on the nature of historical practice in Australia,” agreed Tim Sherratt, Associate Professor of Digital History at the University of Canberra

“All that stuff has always been there in dusty folders, but the revolution of Trove is to have it at your fingertips in two seconds flat. It’s a modern wonder”

Trove was launched in 2009 as a free archive resource and two years later won the Federal Government’s Excellence in eGovernment Award. The irony has apparently been lost on the Turnbull Government, which wants Australian cultural institutions to trim their budgets to save $20 million over four years. The NLA, the National Portrait Gallery, National Film and Sound Archive, and the National Gallery of Australia are among those which have to make some hard decisions.

Fairfax Media obtained a staff letter that said the NLA needed to find $4.4 million of savings by the end of 2017-2018. The Canberra Times said the letter warned that management would cease aggregating some Trove content unless fully funded to do so. Since we’re asking ‘who gives a toss,’ this story was picked up by a London newspaper.

If you’ve ever spent a day or two scanning old photos and documents to save as a permanent digital file, you will know what a labour-intensive job that is. But once it’s done, it’s done and so much easier for students and researchers.

For example, if you are a student or a writer on a mission to write about land rights in Australia, the NLA acquired the entire collection of Eddie Koiki Mabo’s personal papers in 1995.

There are many petitions, Facebook and Twitter campaigns circulating to convince the Minister for Communications and Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, to #savetrove.

But getting back to who gives a figgy toss.

For all of the 70,000 visitors a day accessing Trove, there are another 21.06 million people who clearly do not feel the need to do so. Yet they benefit in a myriad of ways – tens of thousands of books, magazine articles, movies and TV and radio programmes generated each year which use Trove and other research resources.

If you go digging into the history of Vivien Maier, you’ll find she was a bit of a hoarder. Still, there’s bad hoarding and good hoarding, for example saving the Daily Sun’s film negative library for posterity.

The now-defunct newspaper’s laboriously pasted up paper files went to the tip, but luckily the images from a rare era of media independence in Brisbane (1982-1991) live on. Then there’s my kind of scattergun hoarding which yields images like this one, of a Toowoomba hail storm in the 1980s.

Toowoomba hail storm 1980s Photo by Bob Wilson

This might be a good time to point out that old photographs are not much use to anyone without relevant information written on the back. Like the photo in another box of a WWI regiment in front of an ivy covered building. I can identify my Grandfather front and centre, but that’s all I know.

Years from now, we’ll be grateful to the librarians, archivists and yes, hoarders, who helped save around 200 million newspaper articles and images, especially given the large numbers of publications which have closed their doors. I recently stumbled upon the Australian Newspaper History Group, curated by one of my former journalism lecturers, Rod Kirkpatrick, who has written six books about rural newspaper publishing. What is needed to save our information treasure trove (apart from government funding) is people like Kirkpatrick who care about history.

As for my own ‘trove,’ it has been winnowed out over the years, but there are still boxes full of colour prints (and negatives) and colour slides which need to be saved from the ravages of years in damp cupboards. I have scanned the best of the newspaper writing I did, but having digitised, still cannot bring myself to do a Charles Dickens and build a bonfire.

But hang on a bit. Perhaps we ageing baby boomers ought not to second-guess our kids and peremptorily throw out anything we perceive they would not want. When it comes to family photos, postcards, letters, articles, sentimental documents, all can be scanned and curated into media files.

Audio files and home movies can be compiled into a “best of” collection (good luck with that). Store it all on a portable hard drive and keep it in a metal box labelled: “The Best of Mum and Dad’s Memorabilia” (PG).

Someday your sons and daughters may be glad you did.

 

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