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Conference dinner speech introducing the after-dinner speaker, Tim Sherratt

Dr Tom Griffiths

Australian National University

Ladies and gentlemen,

My name's Tom Griffiths. I'm on the National Advisory Board of the Australian Science Archives Project, and it is my pleasure to introduce our speaker tonight, Tim Sherratt.

I promise that he will make you think, but he may not make you comfortable.

Tim is a stirrer, in the best, most positive sense of the word. Talking to him is to lock into the pure, raw adrenaline of ideas. He is a real intellectual, and a sassy and streetwise one, too - one who values ideas not as playthings or as esoteric exotica, but as the proper engine of society, as the fundamental reason for being.

All you archivists and managers here, beware! In the prospectus for his new business, which he calls ‘discontents: purveyors of fine ideas’, Tim describes himself as "Working for the triumph of content over form, ideas over control, people over systems". So he is deliberately playing on a tension that percolates throughout this conference, in our debates about capturing context, in our anxiety to work with knowledge and not just information, in our search for an imagined ‘original order’ amidst actual original dynamism.

But his critique is a more fundamental one than that. In our quest for systems, he pleads, we must not forget the content; in our obsession with means, we must keep asking "what and where and how worthy are the ends ?" . . . and the beginnings ? And it's not just a matter of not forgetting them; it's a matter of making the ends and the beginnings, the content and the people and the ideas, making these things pre-eminent in our planning. In urging us to do that, Tim is doing no less than urging us to overthrow or undermine the content-free management paradigm that has impoverished our contemporary culture.

And Tim Sherratt is right. He is disturbingly right.

Tim's radicalism, like all good radicalism, draws on the future as well as the past. He is an historian and a prophet; he crosses borders like a spy and a diplomat. He speaks the language and talks the technology of those he seeks to convert. As a purveyor of fine ideas, Tim promises "Quality concepts tailored to fit". But he warns: "Don't expect double-breasted suits, smarmy jargon-speak, and mobile phones, just imagination and enthusiasm". He goes on to say that "Vision is not born in public relations departments, but in the minds of creative and committed people".

This, as Tim has often said himself, has been the secret of success for the Australian Science Archives Project. It has chosen its people extremely well, and the systems have blossomed from their chemistry; it has so far walked with distinction and considerable balance that fine line between ideas and control, content and form. Tim, like Gavan McCarthy, embodies ASAP's institutional memory; they are, in this sense, both rare corporate assets, to be treasured and invested in.

They were both there in the beginning. In the beginning was the word - and the files, and the electric typewriter. In 1985, when ASAP was born, they shared an office from the very first day, Gavan as ASAP itself, and Tim as a research assistant on another project. Tim watched with amusement and bemusement as Gavan, true to his archival calling, used the much-admired, state-of-the-art electric typewriter to type labels which he then put on mostly empty files. They made a rare and wonderful team, one which was formalised when Tim joined ASAP on a full-time basis in 1989, both of them growing as ASAP grew. ASAP gave Tim the room to follow his intuition, to create something extraordinary. Tim went from Assistant Archivist to Archivist to Senior Archivist to Deputy Director. The electric typewriter did well, too - going from ribbon to memory to word-processing to database to the World Wide Web. ASAP went from Melbourne to Canberra to the World. Tim led the team of technological and intellectual missionaries who brought the word and the systems and the ideas to the outpost of Canberra and, inspired by Tidbinbilla, then beamed them into space and around the globe.

Tim established ASAPWeb, he pioneered the remarkable Bright Sparcs, which you'll get an update on tomorrow, and he conceived the Cabinet of Curiosities, about which you'll hear more tonight. Tim led other Canberra institutions by the hand and introduced them to the Net. He maintains one of the main Internet sites in the world for information on the history of science, technology and medicine. And he has been assisted and encouraged here in Canberra by a very fine team of people: especially Elissa Tenkate and Rosanne Walker, Katrina Dean, Victoria Young, Guillaume Mallet, Denise Sutherland.

The Canberra office of ASAP has just closed; but its work must go on. It saw far ahead; it helped make ASAP national and - through the Internet - global. As Tim says, "A vision is an imagining of something beyond what is; it's a hope, a dream, an ambition". ASAP's history straddles the rapidly accelerating years of the information revolution, and no organisation has ridden the wave better or with more style. I think we will look back and see the Canberra Office as having been absolutely critical in that feat of literal surfing, perhaps more crucial than we now realise.

Finally, let me say that Tim, as well as being all that I have said, is a fine scholar and brilliant historian. He knows the history of Australian science intimately. He writes like a dream, can see what the rest of us miss, has an eye for the lateral or embedded. We should celebrate that he is both historian and archivist, both user and creator of archival systems; for there is the balance that we all strive for, there is both content and form. There is the Working with Knowledge.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Tim Sherratt.

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Published by: Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb
Comments or questions to: ASAPWeb (
Prepared by: Helen Morgan
Graphics by Lisa Cianci
Date modified: 7 October 1999