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Despair and Delight: The Historian's Search for Evidence

Diane Sydenham
Australian archival responsibilities and achievements lag far behind those of comparable economies. In some institutions in the United States, for example, researchers may enjoy the luxury of the archives remaining open six days each week, with the added advantage of extended evening hours in the summer. While State and Commonwealth records management authorities here are professionally staffed and take their responsibilities seriously (and I believe the situation with respect to staffing has improved dramatically over the past 10 years) they are invariably undermined by too few resources and too few senior bureaucrats who understand or appreciate the role of archives and good records management techniques. Government archives have frequently been either ignored, deliberately starved of funds, used as a repository for unsackable staff, or seen merely as window-dressing for politicians or public servants who set out to circumvent, consciously or unconsciously, the records management process. As has been found elsewhere, Freedom of Information legislation has had the effect of encouraging public servants to put very little on paper, to treat everything as a working document, or to conduct daily search-and-shred missions. Sometimes these strategies are quite innocent in that they are designed not to hide information, but simply to avoid the problem of having to archive it.

Historians in this country simply cannot luxuriate in a plethora of records held in comfortable and appropriate surroundings, cared for by well-resourced institutions and expert staff. When the need for sources reaches beyond government records, the problem is even worse. All too frequently business historians must search out their sources in the basements of deserted buildings and boxes of retired staff members. My personal low was reached in these circumstances when during preliminary work for a recently completed book on the Australian wheat industry it emerged, quite by accident in casual conversation, that there were further sources available but they were kept off site in a building no longer used down by the Yarra River. The building had once housed research facilities, and grain samples have a particular attraction for the wildlife that frequents the banks of the Yarra. Hundreds of bundles of records were piled in the corners of rooms or arranged on rickety shelves, and the whole area was covered with dust and cobwebs, and littered with animal and bird droppings and the remnants of various vagrants who used the poorly secured building at numerous times, as well as the detritus of past office staff who had clearly played table tennis amongst the bundles of records, or laid their sandwiches on any clean piece of paper that came to hand. Even more disturbing was the revelation of the driver despatched to take us to the site, that several months previously he and others had been ordered to dump for destruction large quantities of records from the same site.

On the positive side, though too late to save those shredded records, the knowledge of our appointment as historians had preceded our arrival and a vigorous attempt was being made to manage these remaining records before removal to later storage. We hired an assistant to help us list the records, but then the precious list he created was ignored when temporarily underemployed staff were despatched to begin moving the material. We never did manage to match up the dozens of carefully prepared handwritten foolscap lists with the computer list subsequently generated by staff delegated to clean up the mess. I am sure our history is the poorer for it.

With a few quite wonderful exceptions, businesses in this country rarely consider the long-term need to document their activities. This paper will suggest some of the reasons why I believe this is so and make some practical suggestions as to how these problems may be addressed.

Why are we so poorly served by our archives?

Even though frequently quite proud of their contribution to Australia's history, business organisations are not interested in documenting their history in any substantial way. Records management systems, where they exist, do so not to make historians happy but to meet the particular needs of staff, the board, shareholders or legislation. Good archival practice is still only rarely followed when establishing a records management system, and once in place its prime use is often the maintenance of destruction schedules which enable staff to destroy records without guilt, according to a timetable drawn up by experts. Records management systems do not generate money and may in fact be quite expensive to set up and maintain; they do not clearly contribute to productivity, are tax-deductable only in certain circumstances, and do not obviously contribute to the corporate image. Consequently what does survive is serendipitous.

1. The 'Pretty is Pertinent' Syndrome

In my experience of working with a number of businesses, as well as Government organisations, those records most likely to survive are those which are suitable for display or which are attractive in some way. Too often attractiveness comes down to mean 'lots of pictures', leather bound, or colourful. Nevertheless even these simplistic criteria for collection have in the past enabled me to date precisely the taking out of a patent (because patent applications, particularly in the nineteenth century, can be quite attractive); changes to packaging or labelling, because some underemployed junior member of staff (or more recently work experience student) has been delegated to keep a scrapbook of such things. I have also found voluminous sample promotional material for new product launches. This can be useful in that it may facilitate an understanding of new marketing strategies. Unfortunately, the core details an economic historian would really like to know, such as how much did this promotion cost, what proportion of the budget was spent on marketing, whose idea was it to proceed with this product, which product or marketing strategy did not make it to this stage and why, all seem to disappear without trace. Board Minutes, which of course almost always survive, carry wonderfully uninformative statements such as: 'the Board expresses its appreciation to the whole staff on the professional launch of product B.'

2. The Costs of Professional Management

A key factor in ensuring that records management remains a low priority item for many businesses is the very high cost associated with establishing and maintaining a professional archives and records management system. Once such a system is in place, of course, the annual budget line is not so daunting, but to begin from scratch is a big commitment and in recessionary times such items quickly become seen as luxuries. Even the option of consigning the task to an external institution has resource costs and may add to concerns over security.

3. The Only Good Document is a Secret Document

The issue of privacy and security is a real one for many businesses, particularly when a company may be working on a new product or process and may be worried about competitors. It is also one area where the intersection of business interest and scientific and technical values may come together most clearly. Policy decisions, personnel practices and personal files, market survey data, internal review results, financial data, research reports on competitors' products may all be items which a company might not wish to retain, or might agree to retain only under the most stringent security arrangements. Yet this is the very data which an historian of business or science might wish most to consult.

Professional historians and archivists must work very hard, in conjunction with business, to develop strategies which can reassure business that secrets can be kept, or that they can be revealed only in a non-damaging or non-threatening manner. I have found very little difficulty in getting access to most data, but typically only after I have spent a considerable amount of time getting to know the organisation, the individuals, the concerns of the business. Frequently the historian has no intention of revealing secure data, but simply needs access to such detail in order to fully understand, for example, the process of decision making. Where an external archive is involved, it is almost always possible to put in place protective strategies to ensure that no sensitive material is inappropriately released. But we have not been very successful in conveying our working methods to the appropriate audiences.

4. Why keep records at all?

A final constraint for many organisations is a failure to comprehend or to accept the process of records management or the role of archives. My best illustration of this comes from work in a local government authority where, after some months of research, I discovered that in fact more than one section maintained a separate internal records system and only relinquished what they saw as unimportant material to what, on the face of it, looked like a relatively professionally managed records management system. When I queried this it emerged that many staff did not trust the system or, perhaps more accurately, the person managing the system, because they saw the whole task as 'make work' for a staff member who was difficult. Clearly the educative process necessary when an organisation moves to proper records management had either been non-existent or had failed miserably in this instance. While I would like to think this was an isolated instance, I know it is not.

In addition to the failure to understand the role of records management, businesspeople frequently interpret 'historical' to mean the past five years. Any understanding of what the company stands for, what its short and long term goals might be, who are or have been its customers, whether the company has ever made any original contributions to work practices and labour relations, or introduced any technical or industrial innovations, is rarely linked to any understanding of the historical process of change over many decades. The simple prescription that we should learn from past experience seems to apply in most companies only to last year's sales figures. This problem has intensified over the last decade as Australian businesses have indulged in a frenzy of takeovers, mergers and acquisitions so that any residual sense of historical continuity has often been lost. Yet such changes make it even more imperative that the details of company origins and activities are preserved.

Having said all this, it is my contention that the lack of understanding, the paucity of finance/resources and of security, as an explanation for the relative invisibility of the history of business in this country, are simply excuses for our professional failure to produce good archival-based histories. Too often we avoid the issue of archival research because of its perceived difficulties. Australian historians would like to be able to walk down the street and into a beautifully appointed archive, preferably with lunch facilities, and find opened for them on the desk the full and complete records of company B. Instead they have to trek out to Laverton, go cap in hand to various organisations, or brave the limited facilities of our two general business archives. Short of finding a pot of gold which will magically resolve our resource difficulties, or a commercially marketable argument which will ease the fears of our business leaders, business historians must stop excusing their invisibility, and begin working more innovatively with what they do have.

Turning despair into delight

One of the best ways to convince business of the value of historical research is to undertake such work and ensure that the results are widely disseminated. There are a number of strategies I wish to recommend here:

1. Making the most of record collections that do exist

While the particular business you are interested in may have apparently sunk without trace except for an incomplete record in the Public Record Office, it may be possible to build up a relatively complete analysis by thinking more broadly, and so create a detailed industry profile within which the features of a particular company may be usefully revealed. In devising such a profile a number of research strategies can be helpful. As an illustration of one such approach, the University of Melbourne Archives maintains quite extensive holdings on Victorian clay-based industries. As a group which operated very much in tandem, possibly even as a cartel, these various company records can tell us a great deal about the operations of the entire industry - fleshing out the voluminous data on production, number of plants, staff recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Thinking widely, what records exist for this general category of company, what unions were involved, what local government authorities, what other government bodies may have had contact with the industry through the monitoring of health and safety standards, for example. Such institutional data can then be further expanded by interviews, site visits, examination of artefacts, trade catalogues, local history collections, family memoirs and photograph albums, company pamphlets and newsletters.

2.The application of other research techniques

In certain circumstances research techniques adapted from other disciplines such as anthropology and sociology - the technique of participant observation - may prove instructive in a number of ways. Some of the best finds of caches of records, of subjects to interview, of work practices, and the most important breakthroughs in understanding a 'company culture' have come about when we have actually been working within the organisation, either sorting records, completing research on identified materials or, as we did with the wheat project, actually running the project from an office within the organisation.

Clearly there is nothing new in these approaches. Historians have always been innovative in developing research strategies to further their understanding of social history, but the imagination employed, for example, to recreate domestic and political life has only rarely been applied to economic questions in the Australian context. Consequently we know very little about whole sectors of Australian industry - the individuals involved, the experience of work, the technology employed, the comparative level of expertise, customer demands, the legislative and social and economic framework within which such businesses were forced to operate, the sources of capital and labour, international links and so on. We have as a group been daunted or dissuaded by our belief that the records do not exist for such studies. My point is that, at least for the foreseeable future, those records will not be found nestling in carefully labelled archive boxes, and until we demonstrate that there is some value in setting up such collections they never will find such a home.

3. Learning to Communicate

Just as Scienceworks, the Powerhouse Museum and the National Maritime Museum have discovered, communication at a number of different levels is the name of the game. In this case business historians have to demonstrate to the world of business that what we do has value, is interesting and has a commercial market. At the present time almost any business archive in this country would find it difficult to name a single major study which has resulted from research in their collections. Until we do what we are trained to do and do it well, business will not notice or value our work.

Academic historians have to become used to the idea of spreading their message beyond the half-dozen other historians working on similar or related problems. Ordinary people in this country do not read history. Every year I ask my students in the Commerce Faculty what was the last history book they read. If anyone can recall ever having read a history book it is almost invariably Manning Clarke's Short History of Australia. This past semester, I was even more alarmed to find an equally negative answer amongst my students in the Arts Faculty. Historians must learn to write history that people read and enjoy. In our role as teachers we must develop strategies that encourage students into archives, and which teach them how to write up the results of their research in an accessible manner. History needs to be read for pleasure again.

While academic advancement continues to rely upon publication in international scholarly journals there will be little encouragement for us to write for a wider audience. In terms of our ability to convince the business sector that our activities have value, then it has to be recognised that while business people do not want a heavy tome, neither do they necessarily want a lightweight coffee-table publication (although in some circumstances such a promotional item may be just the thing to convince them of the value of a more detailed study). When we were working on our history of Australian wheat, our target audience was the 40,000 wheat farmers who might reasonably be expected to be interested in such a study. Although I think we lost sight of that audience in a couple of chapters, it has been heartening to have responses from farmers and workers in the grains industry who recognised their experience in our history.

While I do not want us historians, archivists and curators to abandon our lobbying for more resources, better facilities, higher profiles and greater understanding of our role and achievements, my message is that as innovative and imaginative professionals we can do better yet with what we have.

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