Uncommon Lives in the National Archives: Biography, history and the records of government
I presented this paper at the Australian Historical Association Conference at the Australian National University in July 2006 when I was working as Websites Content Developer at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra. It discusses a National Archives website called Uncommon Lives, a project I worked on as researcher, editor and project manager between 2003 and 2007. The latest iteration of the National Archives website, launched in October 2019, has seen the removal of Uncommon Lives from the web – and it probably goes without saying that I think this is a real loss. Uncommon Lives was one of a number of truly innovative web projects the then NAA Web Content Team created in the early 2000s and it is disappointing that the NAA no longer seems to understand the value of these websites as tools of both archival and historical understanding and exploration.
Note: Most of the web links below take you to archived versions of the webpage in the Internet Archive (except the link to The National Archives (UK) Moving Here website, which is archived by The National Archives itself!)
In 2003, the National Archives of Australia launched its Uncommon Lives website, a series of biographical and historical profiles of individual Australians. The first profile, on German inventor and World War II internee Wolf Klaphake, has since been joined by features on subjects including activist Jessie Street and Yolgnu elder Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda. Each profile is based on documents held by the National Archives—that is, records created by the Australian government—and online access to digital copies of these records is provided through the Archives’ RecordSearch database. This paper will discuss the development of Uncommon Lives and consider how the records of government can be used to tell the stories of famous and not so famous Australians. Uncommon Lives can be found at uncommonlives.naa.gov.au.
The National Archives of Australia’s Uncommon Lives website (uncommonlives.naa.gov.au) presents historical portraits of individuals whose lives have somehow intersected with the activities of the Commonwealth government of Australia—and therefore about whom the National Archives holds records. The website has grown gradually from an initial pilot in 2003 to three fully-developed and one preview feature about five subjects in 2006. Each of these lives has been researched and written by a different author, in conjunction with National Archives staff. The first feature, by Klaus Neumann, concerned interned German inventor, Wolf Klaphake; the second by Lenore Coltheart is about Jessie Street; the third by Peter Read tells the story of Yolgnu elder Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda; and the most recent feature, developed by John Dargavel, will look at the work of forester Charles Lane Poole and his designer wife Ruth.
Uncommon Lives aims to show how Commonwealth government records held in the National Archives collection can be used to tell stories of people’s lives. Family historians, who make up a significant percentage of the users of the National Archives, know that the Archives has records which relate to their ancestors—particularly those ancestors who served in the armed forces or were migrants. But biographers and local, community and professional historians seem less savvy to the fact that there may be records about their subjects in the Archives, usually preferring instead to head towards libraries with their familiar manuscript and newspaper collections. The Uncommon Lives features are designed, therefore, to highlight the ways in which Australians (and non-Australians) have interacted with the Australian government over the past hundred years and the ways that evidence of their lives remains in the records. The project suggests the diversity of people and the range of life stories that inhabit the records of government—from those whose interactions are well known, such as politicians and prominent public servants, to those ‘ordinary’ people who found themselves in particular circumstances which necessitated their dealing with government.
Life histories and the records of government
Documents about individuals and families are the most commonly sought records in the collection of the National Archives of Australia. The impetus behind this is, without a doubt, the current community interest in genealogy and family history—a 2002 study of Archives users found, for instance, that 88% of those making reference enquiries were doing so for the purpose of family history research.
To cater to these particular interests, the National Archives has two special reference services which provide copies of Australian war service dossiers and post-war migration records, and efforts are made by the Archives to make ‘family history’ records known and accessible. In the 2004-05 financial year, nearly 40,000 requests were made for copies of war service records and use of the newer Making Australia Home service, launched in February 2005, is also growing.
Migration and war service records can be so widely accessed because of the work the Archives has put in to making these nationally-significant collections open and accessible to anyone and everyone, many of whom know and care little about what the Archives does or how it works. For the majority of people who access archival records through the special reference services, it is their first and probably last interaction with the Archives and with the records in its vast collection.
Their interest in the records comes from the personal and very real human connection these records make between individuals today and those of the past, be they parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.
People enjoy finding links between their ancestors and themselves, between the past and present, and most are content once they have copies of a few precious folios and perhaps a photograph or two. But beyond these most obvious and widely-accessed sources, there are many, many more shelf kilometres of records which could be used by biographers and professional historians, as well as family historians, to tell of the lives of individuals in deeper and more nuanced ways.
More often than not, the archives of the Commonwealth government are imagined to be a dry and boring collection focussed on the policies and decision-making of stuffy bureaucrats and politicians tucked away in Canberra, separate from the ‘real’ life of the people of Australia. ‘The government’ who created and kept the records is thought to be a monolithic entity, and therefore the records are seen to present the voice of ‘the government’ only. But within the records there are myriad different voices and opinions—certainly there are those of prime ministers and prominent politicians, but there are also those of the many ‘everyday’ men and women who worked for the government, those who sought the government’s assistance, those who protested against it, and those whose lives were controlled and directed by its policies and actions.
Research undertaken by Alessandro Antonello, who this last summer completed an internship with the Archives, has shown how the presence of these individuals in the Archives’ collection can be overlooked by those who perhaps should know better. Alessandro did some digging into the Archives’ records on Sir Douglas Mawson and looked to see if these records had been used in Philip Ayres’ extensively researched biography of the great explorer, Mawson: A Life. Alessandro found that not only did Ayres not use the Archives wide-ranging collection of documents written both by and about Mawson during his dealings with the Commonwealth; he also revealed that a letter from Mawson to Prime Minister John Curtin which Ayres claimed had been destroyed was, in fact, safely held with its original envelope in a file in the Archives’ Canberra repository. I suspect that there are other similar examples out there, too—where personal papers held in manuscript collections, newspapers, interviews and published works have been used in biographical works, while the records of government have not.
With its focus on life stories and biography, the Uncommon Lives website aims to demonstrate some of the possibilities to be found within the records of government when it comes to researching and writing about people. The Archives’ records are evidence of the Australian government’s actions on behalf of its people and of its interactions with them, and they are kept by the Archives as a fundamental part of our democracy. One of the mandates of the National Archives is to ‘develop, manage and promote a visible, known and accessible national collection that engages and informs the community’. A challenge for those of us who work in Archives education and outreach is how to make connections between the people, the Australian community, and the records. Through Uncommon Lives we hope to bring to light the ways in which everyday Australians, both in the past and present, are connected to the actions of their government and the records which document them.
Uncommon Lives is part narrative, part exhibition and part finding aid, a combination that hopefully works in different ways for different people and allows the exploration of records in both their historical and archival contexts. What I would like to do for the rest of my time, is to go through some of the different aspects of the website, both relating to its content and its functionality. I will then finish with some of the challenges we’ve faced in developing the website and in giving it a future.
But first, a brief tour. The features are generally made up of five sections—an overview of the subject’s life, two sections on particular events or issues prominent in the Archives’ records, a timeline and a listing of records used. The format varies a little between each of the features, as we adapt the general format to fit with the stories revealed in the records. The website also includes a search facility, and other general ‘housekeeping’ pages about credits, copyright and technical information.
The subjects of the website to date are a varied bunch:
- Wolf Klaphake, a German inventor interned in Australia in World War II
- Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, a Yolgnu elder from east Arnhem Land accused of murdering a white policeman, sentenced to death, then released on appeal to the High Court in the early 1930s
- Jessie Street, an establishment rebel and social campaigner active throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, and
- a British-born forester, Charles Lane Poole and his artistic Irish wife, Ruth, who designed the interiors of important public buildings in Canberra in the late 1920s.
Features in the pipeline are about a similarly diverse group of Australians:
- Jiro Muramats, a naturalised Japanese businessman and pearling master who was denied the right to vote in federal elections and died in internment during World War II
- LF Giblin, an interwar economist with an adventurous streak, and
- an early Muslim community in Australia.
The connection between them, in all their diversity, is that they interacted with the Commonwealth government in such as way that there remains a significant body of records by or about them in the National Archives.
This is the first criteria we have used in assessing whose lives should be featured—are there enough records within our collection? As I’ve said, the collection is rich in stories about people, but obviously not everyone is included in the files. The people who feature most prominently are those employed by the government, those whose lives were directly impacted by its policies—in both positive and negative ways—and those viewed by the government as problematic.
The feature on interned German inventor Wolf Klaphake is based primarily on files related to his internment by the Commonwealth government during World War II.
The Jessie Street profile makes extensive use of the large ASIO files kept about her and other records of her dealings with the government as a lobbyist or member of official bodies.
The feature on Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda uses the substantial body of records, including many of newspaper clippings, kept by various government departments about his dramatic case, as well as files from the High Court (which are also held by the National Archives).
The life of Charles and Ruth Lane Poole is told through the many documents, letters and papers they wrote in their work for the government as Commonwealth forester and head of the Forestry School and interior designer of The Lodge and Yarralumla.
A second and very important consideration when choosing our subjects has been concerns over privacy and consent. Before the Archives uses records of a personal and individual nature in our publications and exhibitions, we aim to gain permission from the subject or if they are deceased, a family member.
We have been fortunate so far that family members have been involved in the development of each of the Uncommon Lives features. They have provided access to family documents and photographs and, in the case of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, we chose to take the profile further by including Dhakiyarr’s own story as told by his grandsons, based on what they had been told by their grandmother. Another success has been tracking down the family of Japanese businessman Jiro Muramats, subject of a forthcoming feature, whose only daughter married a Japanese diplomat and left Australia prior to World War II. Muramats’ descendants were pleased to hear about the work we are doing and interested to know more about the family’s now-distant connections to Australia.
Uncommon Lives reveals the presence of individual voices within the records of government, showing how people have interacted with the government in different ways. The website presents Wolf Klaphake’s numerous letters of protest against his internment during World War II in camps with Nazi sympathisers, particularly poignant as he and his wife had left Germany because of their dislike of the rising National Socialist movement, and it shows Jessie Street’s ongoing struggle for human rights with eight prime ministers and their governments, over more than three decades.
Uncommon Lives also suggests the role of the individual with government itself—how prime ministers and ministers, public servants and other government employees differed in their opinions and approaches to issues and situations. It demonstrates how ‘the government’ is not one great monolithic entity. The tensions between public servants in Canberra and Darwin, for instance, are brought to the fore in the story of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, and the way in which personality influences policy will be raised in the full feature on Charles Lane Poole.
The feature on Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda also shows how individuals have been the subject of great government interest and activity, without ever having a voice to articulate their own thoughts, interests and needs. The records held in the National Archives show Dhakiyarr as a part of a ‘problem’ to be dealt with by administrators, police and the courts, as they do with many other Aboriginal Australians. Dhakiyarr’s story is a particularly compelling one, however, in that in the hundreds and hundreds of pages about him and the events which led to his eventual disappearance, not one word is his. Not even in the various court hearings was Dhakiyarr able to speak—he did not understand English and no interpreter was provided to him who could speak his language. It was for this reason that we chose to include the direct voices of Dhakiyarr’s grandsons to tell his story on his behalf.
In the website, such absences and gaps in the archival record are not overlooked; rather they are brought to light and the reader is invited to question possible interpretations raised by the records themselves.
A primary aim of the Uncommon Lives website is to reveal the possibilities within the records, as well as their limitations. Each of the Uncommon Lives features reveals different types of records of government that can be used in writing about people, highlighting diverse parts of the National Archives collection and providing access to them. In doing so, we hope to raise questions about the records—both about what is in them and the way that they came into being.
The website aims to make readers more familiar with the types of records held in the National Archives collection, as well as providing insights into the way the government created and kept records, and the way that those recordkeeping systems are maintained and augmented by the National Archives. The Archives collection is a large and often unwieldy one, and it is arranged in a way that is unfamiliar to most researchers more familiar with topic or subject-based systems of arrangement as found in libraries. The disjuncture between the familiar idea of subjects and the unfamiliar idea of functions has been described as an ‘intractable problem’ for archives staff whose job it is to make the collection more accessible and to promote its use, even among tertiary students, academic and public historians. Archivists have solid and sound reasons for the way they arrange and manage the records in their care, adhering to the principles of provenance and original order—in the case of the National Archives through the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) system based on the relationship between agency, series and item—but the merits of their systems are not immediately evident to most researchers.
Links to digitised records
Archives face the continuing question of how to provide meaningful access to their collections and, as technology changes, the expectations of the public grows. Ten years ago the National Archives website was in its infancy, the organisation had limited public programs and exhibitions, and the main way into our collection was through accession lists, some basic research guides and the knowledge stored in reference officers’ heads. Archives reading rooms were for ‘serious’ researchers.
In 2006, the National Archives is a different place, with a prominent online presence of one general and four specialised collection-based websites and two online catalogues, RecordSearch and PhotoSearch. Uncommon Lives, and the National Archives’ other specialised websites Documenting a Democracy, Australia’s Prime Ministers and Vrroom, build on directions the Archives took in the late 1990s to make the collection more open and accessible through the web. In particular, by the digitisation initiatives which mean that an ever-growing number of records are available to read in full through the Archives online catalogue RecordSearch.
In Uncommon Lives, the text is broken up with numerous images. Most of these images are not merely illustrative however, they are documents that relate directly to the surrounding text. Sometimes they are referred to directly in the text, other times they are a source from which surrounding text has been based, sometimes they are a photograph of person referred to. By breaking up the text in this manner, we hope to encourage the reader to pause and possibly view the records. Or for those who are not determined enough to read all, they can gleefully click on the images and be taken to copies of the original documents.
The Archives’ digitisation program and, through it, the ability to access archival records in their entirety online makes the Uncommon Lives project (and other National Archives websites) different from many other digital history projects. Other websites provide online access to digitised documents, but these are generally removed from their original archival context. I mentioned earlier that the merits of archival arrangement was not immediately recognised by researchers, but for those well-versed and interested in archival practice, the value of the fact that these documents can be located in their original order in the file is clear.
A reader of Uncommon Lives can go from a document to the whole file, where they can see it located alongside those documents filed before and after it, and from there into the record series to other files created by the same department about different cases, and so on. In the Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda feature, a reader can click through to see how anthropologist Olive Pink’s September 1933 telegram protesting a government-led punitive expedition in Arnhem Land sits nestled in a large file of the Department of the Interior, alongside similar letters of protest from the Church Missionary Society, Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the Australian Society of Patriots and the Women’s Central Organising Committee of the Victorian Labor Party.
Uncommon Lives provides pathways to the huge number of records that are available to view online RecordSearch—there are now more than nine million pages accessible, an achievement that took around five years to reach—and it provides the potential to make any number of connections that those of us developing the site might never have imagined. No longer are footnotes something that only serious researchers or eager students will make the time to pursue. Each feature includes a full list of the records used and links to other organisations who hold records about the subject.
The development of Uncommon Lives has presented certain challenges, and I will finish by briefly mentioning a couple of these.
The first of these challenges comes from the delivery of the biographies as a website. The features are narrative-driven, but delivered in a medium noted for its non-linear nature. People generally read books from front to back, or at least they read each chapter from beginning to end. On the web, though, readers follow links here and there, go back and forwards as they please. They mostly don’t read online either, they scan. So with this in mind, the profiles are relatively short and the text is broken up with headings and illustrations. Within the narrative, we hope the website provides easy-to-follow paths, but also the ability to move around, browse or read in-depth as desires.
The Uncommon Lives features are probably too long to read in detail comfortably on screen, however, so we included a feature where you can also view all on one page, which allows the text to be printed conveniently in one go.
A further challenge—and this may sound a little contradictory considering what I’ve just been saying—has been the fact that we have limited the features primarily to records in the National Archives collection. In most cases, these records don’t cover every aspect of the subjects’ lives and our authors have struggled with wanting to include the fabulous things they have found in our sister institutions, such as the War Memorial, AIATSIS, the National Library and the ANU Archives, and elsewhere.
Where appropriate, we have included material from other collections as illustrations—for example, the Archives only has a couple of not-so-inspiring photos of Jessie Street, while the National Library has many good ones; and the only photographs in our collection of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda are from newspapers, while AIATSIS has the stunning originals taken by newspaper photographer Eric Wilson. We also refer to records in other collections as needed in ‘filling in the gaps’—the diary or journal of Jiro Muramats held in the Battye Library in Western Australia, for example, has provided clues to parts of his personal and business life left blank in government records, as have discussions with family members of other subjects.
It is primarily, though, records held in the National Archives which direct the way the Uncommon Lives are presented. Being based primarily on one set of records, these portraits seem to go against one of the primary rules of good biography and history—to make use of all available source material, and to evaluate and make judicious selections from those sources to support a particular argument or thesis. This imbalance is why we try to focus on the records as being part of what the website is about. As archivists and historians, we can’t retrospectively control the records that were created and kept, we have to work with what’s there, and many of you will probably have experienced the ways that official records kept by public servants can skew situations, give highly-biased versions of events and of people’s characters and actions. In using the records of government alone, the website cannot present full biographies of the subjects, but it opens up the possibilities of different stories that can be told by these records when used with more traditional biographical sources.
Conclusion—keeping it alive
With a small project team—that is, myself plus an occasional research assistant—to coordinate the research and writing by our authors and to oversee the production of the website in between work on the Archives’ other websites, Uncommon Lives has not grown as quickly as I might have wished. It has however, met with positive feedback, particularly regarding the Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda feature. Over the past year, Uncommon Lives has received between 6,500 and 9,500 unique visits per month and we hope that this will expand, as the website itself expands. As I mentioned, there are four more lives currently in development, as well as a folder full of suggestions for other suitable subjects. Some possibilities for its future development include a greater diversity in the format of the lives and of the subjects, to feature families or communities as well as individuals, or to have ‘mini-lives’ that were focused more at the family history genre which were based around more limited groups of records such as those typically held about post-war assisted migrants from Europe.
At the National Archives we often think of ourselves as holding the records of the nation and the memory of the nation, but as Dutch archivist Eric Ketelaar has suggested ‘the “national memory” is not located in the National Archives’, but rather is a tapestry woven from a host of different societal resources. People want to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of archivists, historians, biographers and curators to make sense of the past and records of the past—and Uncommon Lives hopefully fulfils that to some degree—but they also want to be able to participate in the creation of the national memory by telling their own stories and the histories of individuals and families that have particular meaning to them. One possibility is that Uncommon Lives could open up to enable the public to post their own historical or biographical profiles, complete with links to related records in the Archives, as other online history projects do. While this kind of interactive functionality is not planned for the immediate future, Uncommon Lives, together with other Archives initiatives, is hopefully already linking the national memory hidden in the records of government to the people and communities of today’s Australia.
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