Concern over archives closures... and what you can do about it

Australian newspaper historians are up in arms over plans to close National Archives of Australia offices in Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart. A petition has been launched which should be returned by January 22.

Director-General of the NAA Ross Gibbs announced on November 13 that state offices of South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory would be closed over the next two-and-a-half years. The reason given was the need to achieve budget savings of $3.5 million in that time (NAAís budget in 2008/2009 was $77,299,000).

Subsequent public consultation with senior staff revealed this decision was in line with a long held policy objective of NAA to establish a centralised storage and preservation facility in Canberra. Records are likely to be transferred to NAA repositories in Sydney and Brisbane, as they are the only ones which have space.

The NAA has barely ten months to relocate the records before leases expire in August and September 2010 in Darwin and Hobart.

The NAA is also discussing making storage 'arrangements' with State archives and libraries, museums and local cultural institutions. These have far smaller resources than the NAA and their own responsibilities.

Currently, all three offices have reading rooms where trained staff familiar with the records held locally help the public find what they need. If the records are relocated to the repositories in Sydney or Brisbane, people will have to travel there, and the same assistance cannot be guaranteed. Alternatively they can pay to get copies through internet access, if they can identify the records they need. A digital copy of one file less than 100 pages is $16.50. The NAA has signed Memoranda of Understanding with the representatives of the Stolen Generations in each state and territory setting out arrangements to assist indigenous people trying to trace their families.

The Darwin Office holds significant records relating to the period when the Commonwealth had administrative responsibility for the Northern Territory from 1911 until self-government in 1978 as well as records of Commonwealth offices that continue to be located in Darwin. The Darwin NAA office holds records about policy and governance, pastoral property, heath and education as well as documentation about the Indigenous experience of Commonwealth administration. Records dating from the 1920s onwards which relate to Aboriginal people (always a large percentage of the Territory's population) include population records, the Register of Wards and patrol officers' reports. The relocation of these records to Brisbane and the loss of assistance from NAA officers familiar with key records for tracing family and community links for the Indigenous people who are part of the Stolen Generations are significant blows.

The Adelaide Office holds records of Commonwealth administration from 1901 but also immigration records dating back to 1848, and other significant immigration records from the 1920s to the 1980s. These are frequently needed to provide evidence of entitlement to the Immigration Department (for passports or residency) and to Centrelink. The South Australian and Northern Territory pension index cards dating from 1948-1982 are used to help re-connect Indigenous family members who are part of the Stolen Generations. Other references to Indigenous people in Commonwealth records in Adelaide are more scattered (which makes the task of locating information more difficult) and are found in records of employment by government agencies, e.g. Commonwealth Railways. Other significant holdings include photographs, films drawings and glass negatives from the British Atomic bomb tests at Maralinga in the 1950s; Defence Department records about coastal fortifications in South Australia; interneesí records from WW1 and WW2; records including plans of SA National Estate buildings such as the GPO, post offices, customs houses, drill halls, other defence buildings; and records from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which it was promised would stay in Adelaide.

The Hobart Office holds records of the Australian Antarctic Division (headquarters in Hobart) including records from expeditions dating back to early last century; CSIRO Division of Marine Research including fisheries and oceanographic research; Bureau of Meteorologyís observations series dating back to the mid 1800s including handwritten reports from farmers and lighthouses (used for climate change data collection). Tasmania has half of the registered heritage buildings on the Register of the National Estate – e.g. Tasmaniaís early lighthouses and other Georgian structures, houses and public buildings, Post Offices, naval establishments, customs houses and railway workshops and stations – so the NAA office holds the plans, photographs and specifications for their management. Other records include passenger lists and immigration records including child migration schemes; large and unique railways holdings and Customs records.

Interested parties are invited to:

• Sign the petition (download the form) and circulate it widely;

• Write to Senator Joe Ludwig, the minister responsible, and send a copy of your letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who strongly opposed the closure of the Brisbane NAA repository in 2001), your local federal member, your Stateís senators and the media. To contact Senator Ludwig, go to his page on www.aph.gov.au and complete the email form or write directly to Senator Joe Ludwig, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600.

• Pass a resolution opposing the proposal at meetings of concerned groups e.g. Indigenous people, unions, professional colleagues, family history researchers, historians, teachers and immigration lawyers, and forward to Senator Ludwig.

• Contact the Australian Society of Archivists: http://www.archivists.org.au/contact

• Contact Anne Picot for further information - email apic0954@usyd.edu.au
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