The Guardian November 1, 2000


What price Australian history?
Commercialisation threatens historic collection

by Peter Mac

In the recent ABC series Shooting the Past a group of archivists 
attempts to save a huge historic photograph collection from being broken 
up, sold off or junked. The story's theme, of a collection with tremendous 
historic significance but relatively small commercial value, is strikingly 
similar to that of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre (NBAC), part of the 
Australian National University (ANU). The NBAC now faces closure and the 
possible breaking up and disbandment or disposal of its national 
archives.

The NBAC collection contains material from Australian companies and trade 
unions, and comprises a priceless record of Australia's industrial history.

And there's the rub. Although of undoubted historic significance, the costs 
of maintaining and providing access to the collection far outweigh the 
revenue provided by those using the NBAC material for research.

The ANU has been compelled to adopt commercial imperatives in all of its 
departments. If a university organisation doesn't make a buck, it doesn't 
get support from the authorities.

As a result of the application of this "bean-counter" policy, the NBAC 
collection faces being mothballed and possibly disbanded altogether.

The ANU had earlier made funding of the NBAC conditional on its raising 
funds of $1 million from private sources, a virtually impossible task for a 
cultural institution like the NBAC.

The required amount has not been reached. Despite having had an operating 
surplus of $80 million last year, the University now proposes to absorb the 
collection into the official library material, to cut funding for archives 
services, and to cease funding access to the material after the year 2002.

Historic collections throughout Australia face similar problems.

Under the yoke of commercialisation, the salaries of archives staff are 
being progressively squeezed, and services cut. The cost of research and 
reproducing services has in many cases risen dramatically.

The NBAC was established in the early 1950s. It initially focused on rural 
industries, but was soon broadened to include the history of secondary 
industry in Australia.

Historian Stuart MacIntyre described the NBAC collection, which extends 
well back into the nineteenth century, in the following terms:

"It is here that you can find the documentary records of the pastoral 
industry, mining, shipping, manufacturing and other enterprises around 
which the Australian economy grew.

"Here also you find the records of the shearers' union, the miners, the 
waterside workers and also of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, as 
well as those of the National Farmers' Federation.

"Together these records are our most important source for the history of 
enterprise and working life."

Because it contains material records of both unions and companies, it is of 
immeasurable importance to those carrying out research into labour history.

However, it is precisely this aspect of its significance which is least 
likely to endear it to those intent on commercialise the operation of the 
archives service.

The President of the Australian Historical Association (AHA), Jill Roe, 
stated that "the .. AHA views with deep alarm the proposal to close off the 
NBAC at the end of this year and to dispense with professional archival 
services on-site.

"The AHA wishes it to be understood that the plan to absorb the NBAC in the 
University Library at the end of this year is not a viable step from the 
point of view of academic and professional historians.

"The AHA calls on the ANU to (maintain) open access and professional 
services at the NBAC in 2002 AND BEYOND."

Stuart MacIntyre commented: "It is unthinkable that the Research School ... 
should throw off its obligations and endanger such a crucial national 
asset. Future generations will find it hard to comprehend that such a vital 
resource should be squandered."

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