History is part of our brand

Demand for archivists is growing as many schools, even quite young ones, realise the benefits employing a person with this skill set brings, Journalist Sue Osborne writes.

Many people’s idea of an archivist is someone who spends all their time filing dusty old records. While there’s is an element of truth in that, the job is much more diverse and current.

In government schools there is a system in place for archiving materials, but independent schools must come up with their own plan for dealing with archiving.

Newington College archivist David Roberts (pictured above) loves that he deals with 19th century documents but also needs to be at the forefront of digital technology.

Roberts, who has worked at the college since 2009, was the first professional archivist employed there.

“Most school archivists are former teachers or librarians, but there’s a growing trend for schools to employ professional archivists,” Roberts said.

Roberts had a long career as a federal and state government archivist before joining the college.

“I became director of the State Records Authority of NSW at 42 and after 10 years I had had enough. I missed working with real records rather than supervising or dealing with bureaucracy.

“I wanted to roll my sleeves up again and that’s what attracted me to this position.”

Prior to his appointment, archiving at the college had been on an ad hoc basis. Rev Dr Peter Swain OAM RFD, college chaplain between 1970-1996 had done a great job saving the collection. Staff members and a band of volunteers had done their best in the interim.

It was the volunteers themselves, and headmaster, Dr David Mulford, who was keen on the school’s history and the impending school sesquicentenary in 2013 that inspired Roberts’ appointment.

Raw records

Roberts said the records (which date back to the school’s inception in 1863 in a colonial mansion which is now part of Silverwater Jail) were is a ‘raw’ state when he started working with them, which archivists love.

But Roberts’ role is not just about these historic archives, he plays a crucial role in making sure the college’s current records are preserved for decades to come.

Following the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, schools are obliged to make sure their records comply with legal, governance and compliance requirements.

“We need records that can be accessed and used as evidence for years to come. Records are now all created in a digital space, and technology is constantly changing, so they have to be managed effectively.”

Digitising school records has also provided a resource which is proving invaluable to the school’s alumni and fundraising team, and old boys’ families.

Using the skills of the volunteers, 125,000 pieces of information on old boys have been collecting onto a database, linking things like who was the captain of the first 15 rugby side in 1953, or who was prefect in 1961.

The families of old boys trying to piece together a family tree or write a eulogy find this information invaluable.

I wanted to roll my sleeves up again and that’s what attracted me to this position.

Continued value

Roberts said the college’s fundraising and alumni team draws heavily on the college’s history and uses its care for the archives to demonstrate how it continues to value its old boys.

Alumni events and reunions use the resources from the archives to provide slide shows and other publication material for these events.

Roberts also loves that he can become involved in the college’s teaching and learning. His first experience of this was through the visual arts department, who among other uses have used the archives to source photos of old boys which they then turned into portraits. Visiting artists have also accessed the archives for inspiration.

Although he is not a curator of objects, Roberts has set up a small museum on the college grounds which currently displays memorabilia from teachers and students that served in World War I. History classes come to see the caps and jackets worn by those who served in the war, bringing history to life.

Roberts’ favourite discovery since joining the school has been a set of 19th century lantern slides used to teach astronomy at Tupou College in Tonga. The slides were made in London for use in a Phantasmagoria Lantern, powered by paraffin (pictured p22).

Tupou College is Newington’s brother school, set up by Rev James Egan Moulton in 1866. Rev Moulton took the slides to Tonga and they were discovered in his belongings, as he became president of the college between 1893 and 1900.

The slides depict the sun, moon, planets and comets.

“They are gorgeous things and the colours are as bright and new now as they ever were.”

As most school archivists work individually, networking is important for their personal growth and development. The school archivists’ network (the School Archives Special Interest Group of the Australian Society of Archivists) meets three times a year and Roberts said it is a crucial part of his professional life.

He said the presence of an archivist enriches the lives of not only the school staff and students, but the past and present families associated with the school.

“History is part of our brand and we use it everywhere. A lot of our external communication emphasises the school’s history and it is highlighted to the boys as a part of their education.

“This was a decision made by the head. You can’t do any of that without good archives.”