This year we have the distinct pleasure of hosting updates from Dr. Matt Finch, with whom we’ve worked on a number of LAIP features, as he serves as Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland, Australia. This feature digs into history, memory, and what it means to explore the past in a library.

by Matt Finch

My previous Incubator columns have looked at programming and regional outreach at the State Library of Queensland (SLQ), an Australian institution serving a territory three times the size of France.

I currently serve as Creative in Residence with this library. A lot of my work involves creating play-based events, but libraries are also still defined by their collections and the mission of preserving heritage. So this time round, I wanted to explore what it means to have a creative relationship with the past in a 21st-century library.

We’re joined today by three library professionals from SLQ, explaining how investigation, conservation, and storytelling all play a part in making sure Queensland’s past is kept safe and relevant.

Meet Jacinta, Laura, and Gavin: the Memory Squad.

The Mysterious Mountaineer

It came down to old-school Photoshop and a serious case of FOMO: the historical record tweaked to indulge an enthusiastic mountaineer.

The truth of the case never would have emerged but for Jacinta Sutton and her love of the Glass House Mountains.

“Sometimes people think history is unimportant, or boring because it’s old-fashioned; the future can seem so much more appealing. But just by getting up in the morning, you’re creating history.”

Jacinta is a project officer in the State Library’s Discovery team, which facilitates access to library holdings online.

“We try to put the library’s digital collections in spaces where people already are,” she says with a wry smile when we meet over coffee one weekday morning.

Not a Queenslander by birth, Jacinta discovered the Glass House mountains when she and her partner moved to the state.

“We used to go to the mountains every weekend and they became our friends,” she explains.

The mountains lie some forty miles north of the State Library of Queensland’s headquarters in central Brisbane. Created by volcanic activity twenty-seven million years ago, they perch high above Australia’s Sunshine Coast, incorporated within a national park spanning almost two thousand acres.

At the State Library, Jacinta discovered many items which refer to this group of mountains, reflecting their enormous importance to Queensland’s heritage. The local Indigenous name for the group of  mountains is disputed, but according to one of the sources Jacinta consulted, in the Gubbi Gubbi language they are known as “daki comon” meaning “stones standing up”. In May 1770, the mountains were seen for the first time by European eyes, when Captain James Cook spotted them from Australia’s eastern coast, and wrote:

These hills lie but a little way inland, and not far from each other: they are very remarkable on account of their singular form of elevation, which very much resemble glass houses, which occasioned my giving them that name.

“In Australia,” Jacinta says, “it’s particularly important to empower Indigenous communities and give them control of cultural heritage – not just interpret their culture and history.”

“Ignorance causes prejudice to fester and allows false stories to perpetuate. If we know what has happened in the past, we can see why things are as they currently are, and figure out how to change that. I’m not sure we’ll get as far as I would like in my life time, but what we’re doing now will be instrumental in letting future generations make that change.”

Fighting ignorance and uncovering the truth of the past takes many forms. At times, Jacinta finds herself playing detective, as when she unearthed a photograph from 1912 recording the first successful ascent of Mount Coonowrin by women.

Three sisters, Jenny, Sara, and Etty Clark, made the ascent accompanied by Jack Sairs, Willie Fraser, and photographer George Rowley.

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Something about the photo struck the sharp-eyed library worker as wrong. “I thought they must have used a really modern camera with a timer to take that picture, because all six of them are in it. And the man on the far right isn’t facing the same way as the others, the grass around him is a different colour…”

Jacinta unearthed the original image in the Bankfoot House Collection held by Sunshine Coast Library.

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In this version, only five people appear in the photograph. The missing figure is George Rowley, the photographer himself.

“It’s an early example of Photoshop,” jokes Jacinta. “I think he added himself when printing the photo for inclusion in The Queenslander. Who could blame him for not wanting to miss out?”

The case of the mysterious mountaineer reminds us that heritage is an ongoing conversation; that the truth of the past can never be taken for granted; and even in the world of “sepia and beards”, we find intriguing stories which aren’t so far from today’s world of Photoshop and social media.

Reversible Repairs

Conservation at the State Library is a practical affair, with a big demand for hands-on skills. Staff might be expected to repair books, prepare materials for scanning, create displays using textiles, and even install exhibitions.

Still, it surprised Laura Daenke in her job interview when they asked her, hypothetically, how she’d prepare a cornet for display.

“I was applying for a role as Assistant Paper Conservator,” Laura explains. “The interview was very practical: they gave scenarios and asked what you would do, what materials you would use, what concerns you might have.”

The musical instrument presented an unusual challenge, but Laura passed with flying colours and soon found herself joining SLQ’s conservation team.

Then she found out the cornet was real.

 

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“We had to buy a trumpet stand from a music store; at least it was purpose built. We covered it with parsilk, which dressmakers use to mock up clothes. It was difficult to cover the stand, so I made it look fluid, ruffling the material so it was pretty!”

The instrument dated back to 1919, a gift to the bandmaster of the 9th Battalion Band on his return from Gallipolli and the Western Front. But Laura’s team rarely have time to investigate objects’ provenance.

“Conservation blends science and creativity, history and geography, plus patience and dexterity,” she tells me. “We’d love to spend more time learning the stories behind the objects – but we’re swiftly on to fixing the next thing.”

“Fixing” objects has changed a lot too. These days conservators like Laura find ways to make objects stable and useful, but they also try to ensure that future conservators can undo their repairs if need be.

“In the past, people have used substances like PVA-type glues, which can be hard to reverse. We’re stuck with the consequences of their choices now, and we know that future generations may have better technology than us, so we try to make everything reversible if possible.”

The main goal of a conservator at the library is not to restore the object to its original condition, but to make sure that deterioration stops and the object is stable.

“We fix a tear in a page so that people can read the book, not to restore it to its condition on the day of publication; we repair crinkled, stained, or ripped objects so that they can be scanned and digitised. Libraries are about information, and our job is to preserve the information in the object. ”

The Memory Surgeon

“How we record our stories matters,” says Gavin Bannerman, Executive Director at Queensland Memory. “We’re trying to keep them alive to create new knowledge.”

Gavin sees his role as being akin to that of a surgeon, “transplanting” memories so that they are not lost but endure within the living framework of the library.

“We make a place for a story to live, so a broader community can not only experience the past, but make new things from it.”

Gavin and I have worked on a couple of projects during my year with the State Library, both about rescuing or uncovering neglected aspects of Queensland’s past.

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The television chef Bernard King came to our attention by chance early in 2016. One of Australia’s first gay television stars, King was a flamboyant and acerbic talent judge and chef, notorious for his barbed humour and all-but-inedible recipes.

Rejected by the industry that he’d served for most of his life, he died in poverty and was swiftly forgotten – but his story, as a Queenslander and a pioneer of the Australian media, remains of vital interest.

Gavin and I discovered that King’s biographer had recorded three days of interviews shortly before his death in 2002. The State Library entered into negotiations and acquired these tapes for their digital archive, so that generations to come will still be able to hear King’s story in his own words.

“It might sound dramatic, comparing this to life-saving surgery, but it’s just as high stakes,” says Gavin. “If you make a slip when trying to save a memory, there’s no way of recovering it. The past, by definition, is never coming back – and if we miss our chance to save and share it, we don’t get another. The apparently mundane business of archives is actually the highest stakes, most dramatic thing any library does.”

Coda

As Jacinta Sutton puts it; “When you know the history of the place you live, you feel more connected to that place. The more layers of history we discover, the more we understand our investment in that connection, and the more we strive to make our own layer of history count. Libraries have the power and position to invigorate the history our society can otherwise take for granted.”

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Enjoyed your visit with the Memory Squad? Upcoming projects from the State Library of Queensland’s Memory and Discovery teams include celebrations of the Bee Gees’ links to Queensland and the Australian contribution to Doctor Who, plus a digital collaboration with the British Library. Find out more at the State Library website.

 

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