Australian Science Archives Project: power, drugs and glamour in the nineties
For a meeting of the International Council of Archives Science
Archives Group at the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, College Park, Marylands, USA, 29 August 1995.
The Australian Science Archives Project
I would like to thank Joan Warnow-Blewett and Marjorie Barret
for inviting me to speak at this meeting. It is a great thrill
and a privilege to be here in Washington - a city for archivists:
a city with so much for archivists interested in science, technology
and medicine. As I hope you all know, Australia is some fair
distance from here, and consequently it was not an insignificant
financial decision to make the trek to deliver this paper and
participate in the business of the section. Fortunately, financial
support from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science
at the University of Melbourne, the Australian Society of Archivists,
and most importantly the Australian Science Archives Project, has
enabled me to attend.
When I was asked to come, the plan was that the archivist at the
end of the session (isn't that always our place) would examine
the issues presented by the two external speakers from an archival
perspective. However, when I said I would be able to come my brief
was changed to (and I quote) 'Tell us about what you have been
doing down there!'. It so happens that although much of what ASAP
has been doing in recent years concerns Power, Drugs and Glamour,
this work also covers issues raised by the earlier speakers. Therefore,
I will attempt to draw out these issues during the course of the
talk. But before I get into the real content, I have to deal with some context.
The Australian Science Archives Project
A brief history of contact with the USA
The Australian Science Archives Project (ASAP) was started by Professor
Rod Home of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science
at the University of Melbourne in 1985. He had raised enough money,
mostly from philanthropic trusts, to employ one person for one
year - that person was me. I started work in March and by September
I had met my first American science archivist - Helen Samuels.
She was visiting Australia to talk about her work on the archives
of science and technology, and while visiting ASAP in Melbourne
she gave us the following advice (and I quote): 'Don't do things
that other folks are already doing!'. In other words, fill the
gaps left by the other, more conventional archivists, do the things
they cannot do because of the nature of their jobs, try and do
the things that need to be done to help Australia preserve its
Noble thoughts - visionary words - a drug to the young
archivist, but where was the power to see them through? The funds to support the Project?
It became clear very early that ASAP would have to become entirely self-funded if it was going to survive in the long-term. It would have add more glamour to its work to make it attractive to the pockets with thick wallets
and it would have to do it quickly.
In the early days we worked on the records of notable Australian
scientists, ensuring that their records were preserved and accessible
in appropriate established archival repositories around the country.
In other words, we did not have a collecting mandate - we were
and still are non-custodial. (Aside: ASAP was modelled in the
first instance on the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre,
now the NCUACS headed up by Peter Harper. I attempted to visit
Peter in 1986 but our paths did not cross and it took until yesterday
for us to meet in real space.)
Fortunately, in the glamour stakes, we had a Nobel Prize
winning scientist living in Melbourne at the time. We had three
alive at the time, but Macfarlane Burnet was the only one living
in Australia. Although he died in August 1985, we did manage to
contact him before that event and ensure that his records (held
in his hall closet and garage) were saved. Unfortunately, after
he died we ran out of local Nobel Prize winners - and that still
remains the case today. Our chance to move in those glamourous
circles was limited, we had to expand our horizons.
In 1986, I toured the world, missed Peter Harper, found Helen
Samuels again and also met Joan Warnow-Blewett in New York. What
I learned from this visit was an American philosophy that was
not common in Australia: 'If you don't do it nobody else will'. With this came with the confidence to tackle big issues and to lead. This was certainly our position in Australia - if we did not take the lead in preserving scientific heritage nobody else was going to do it. It was why ASAP was created. We had to be courageous, creative, cunning, consultative, commensurate, convivial, captivating ... and whole heap of other C words.
Years passed, funding and projects came and went - it was a hair-brained
existence but we managed to become involved in some national projects
that brought us some glamour, a little funding, but even
less real power. ASAP was still small, living out of one
office with one full-time staff member and a handful of students
processing collections on a casual basis.
In 1991 we managed to talk our way into some Federal government
funding to support infrastructure for research. With some of these
funds we organised our 1992 'Recovering Science' conference and invited Joan to be our keynote speaker. (I have a copy of the proceedings with me today and order forms for anyone interested.)
This became a turning point in our development, as the glamour,
success and inspiration that came from the conference led to the Federal
funding lasting for a further two years.
ASAP had drawn up a business plan, a strategy for reaching the threshold
of self-sustainability. It involved establishing an office at
the seat of power, in our national capital, Canberra. (Australia's national capital was designed by an American but Washington, I
believe, was designed by a Frenchman. Canberra, as I hope you all
realise, is an aboriginal term meaning women's breasts.)
Tim Sherratt, an historian of science who started as an ASAP casual, volunteered for the post (in fact it was his idea) and the Australian Academy
of Science agreed to provide space. This was indeed a move towards
Meanwhile, in Melbourne we had the opportunity to experiment with
the use of databases in processing archival collections. We were
looking for cheaper, faster and better ways of doing things, and it
was here that we discovered a source of real power.
In 1993 ASAP was asked to tender for the task of establishing an
in-house archive for the Hazelwood Power Station in the LaTrobe
Valley in Victoria. I visited the site and was shown over the
oldest functioning brown coal power station in our state. The
original brown coal station at Yallourn, built in the 1920s, was
closed in 1989. Hazelwood was big, dirty, Dickensian and complicated.
I could not begin to imagine how they managed such an operation. There were so many bits that could go wrong.
However, they led me to several large rooms full of records - and
toilet paper and hand towels and cleaning fluid and boxes of unmentionable
stuff ... people had been known to disappear for days in that paper
swamp hunting for important records! To them it was an impossible
task, they had no notion of how they should go about dealing with
such a problem, let alone any concept of where they would end up
if they started. To me it was just a bigger version of what we
had been doing since 1985.
The Hazelwood Power Station was part of a much bigger organisation
known as the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV). In fact, the SECV was the largest single organisation in the state and was owned by the state. Victoria's electricity supply industry became a state enterprise in the 1920s when the need to quickly and systematically develop the infrastructure of the industry won out against notions of private ownership and open markets.
Unknown to ASAP, at the time we started work on the Hazelwood records the Victorian Government was planning to dissagregate the SECV, return parts of it to private ownership, and create a competitive wholesale and retail electricity market. Hazelwood realised that in this new world it would have to be self-sufficient; it would have to be accountable for all its records,
many of which were critical to the on-going operation of the plant
and equipment. In fact, the whole business was record-dependent.
These records were worth real money, they represented real power
and ASAP had a glamour database product that would enable
the management of them. More to the point, ASAP had an archival
process that involved the use of databases. For us, it was state-of-the-art.
We were developing our computer tools to be used across all our
work, whether for records of individuals or power stations. We
sensed the power in these tools and were now finding the
projects that would be the testbed of development and implementation.
We were brash, confident and courageous but we did not promise
more than we new we could achieve.
An important event took place in the tender process: engineers always look to standards and best practice when assessing contracts and tenders. ASAP was the only tenderer for the archival task that said that they worked to a standard, albeit our own internal standard which applied across all our projects. The data we gathered was held in fields that could be manipulated to match those key fields used by the Public Record Office of Victoria and Australian Archives.
The budget for the project was the single biggest figure I had ever mentioned in one breath for a one-off project - but it was an order of magnitude less than what was to follow only 18 months later! However, when I started the project at Hazelwood I was taken around and introduced to the key engineers on the site. My host could not bring himself to introduce me as an archivist,
it was not nearly glamorous enough so I was introduced as a fellow professional - an archival engineer.
ASAP is presently engaged in managing archival and records management
projects for three functioning power stations, one dead power station, and two open-cut coal mines, as well as the technical support and corporate
records for the parent body. This is a million dollar business!
- electronic records;
- drawings - shared assets;
- finding aids;
- managing large distributed archival projects;
- records management; and
- data profiling.
The other business area that ASAP has moved into is pharmaceuticals.
Again, this is a business field that is record-dependent for its in-going commercial viability and has a need to demonstrate compliance with government regulations.
In 1993, ASAP was asked to tender for a project to
tackle the record swamp created by the design, commissioning and
construction of the most advance blood processing plant in the
world. Blood-born diseases like HIV had led the Government to
create a highly-regulated environment for the industry and demanded
a high level demonstrable accountability. The records became critical,
but it was not until the eleventh hour that attempts were made to institute
systematic controls. The Therapeutic Goods Administration were
breathing down their neck and they needed their records sorted
out fast. The cost was not insignificant.
Again, once the engineer-in-charge was aware of what ASAP was actually
doing, our professional credibility was raised to a high level, but he was led to observe: 'You must have a terrible time at parties ... I mean 'Hi, I'm an archivist' must be about the least sexy line in the books.'
- Large quantities of half-well managed records;
- need to process quickly but where there was an intermittent
supply of records;
- functional product but with little glamour at the time of
- electronic records; and
- exit procedures for departing staff.
Our real excursion into glamour has not come from our work
for industry but from the work of the ASAP Canberra Office. It had always been a fundamental aspect of ASAP's work that we communicated
what we did to the researchers and other members of the history
and archives of science world. Originally, this was achieved through the traditional means of paper, including our annual reports and the History
of Australian Science Newsletter. For Tim Sherratt this was his major interest and as an historian and a beautiful writer of the English language - a natural tendency.
Shortly after his move to Canberra in 1993, Tim became aware of the potential of the Internet as a means of communication and publishing. He got
access to a server at the Australian National University and started
developing ASAPWeb. Much of the information we had in guides and
databases, especially our Register of the Archives of Science
in Australia, was placed on the World Wide Web. Tim quickly became
a leader and an innovator and was granted the Virtual Library
site for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. His
site has become a benchmark.
With the success of our other enterprises ASAP invested this year
in a server of our own. Sun Microsystems gave us a SunNetra at
half-price and within a few months Tim had the system up and running.
The technical details of the system are impressive and it can
support a large data flow. But it was the glamour of having
ASAP as a server on the Internet that gave us that warm inner
glow - at last we had a real home even if it was in a virtual
The potential ASAP now has for developing the site is limited almost
only by our imagination. It is already a powerful tool for the maintenance of ASAP as a multi-campus organisation: we have network and modem access to email and other Web tools in a closed section just for ASAP staff as well as general access to the Internet.
- New products, new possibilities;
- imaging and multimedia;
- new sources of funding;
- new status in many official places - recognition;
- international communications and collaboration; and
- new services for history and archives of science.
Power is a drug.
Glamour is power.
Drugs give the power to find more glamour.
Power, Drugs and Glamour are better than Sex, Lies and Video Tape.
And speaking of electronic records ... that's something to look forward