Opening of the National Archives of Australia National Office, Parkes ACT
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal People, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, emerging leaders and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gathered here today.
No coincidence, I'm sure, that today is International Day for Universal Access to Information. I commend UNESCO for highlighting the importance of information being publicly accessible in times of crisis, and I thank all who have organised the event today.
Linda and I are delighted to share this day with you. Thank you for the very kind invitation to attend and open the National Archives of Australia’s restored and renovated National Office and to launch the Archives’ Members Program.
It is a significant and historical occasion in the life of the National Archives and I trust, David [Fricker], that all the accompanying documentation has been properly preserved, stored and secured. I am also delighted with the choice of murrulangalang as the bi-lingual name to describe the purpose and work of the Archives here at National Office as the name points so strongly towards the reconciled nation that we are seeking.
My attendance and role today builds on the long and recently rejuvenated relationship between the Governor-General, the Office of my Official Secretary, and the National Archives.
I am reminded of the comment made by the Greek orator Aeschines in 336 BC in his oration entitled ‘Against Ctesiphon’ — Ctesiphon having impugned Aeschines’ character — when, after presumably drawing on the public archives of Athens, he stated: ‘Wonderful, you men of Athens, wonderful is the custody of public records, for unshakable is the record.’
Being asked to give a speech on such an occasion as this invites research. I, perhaps somewhat predictably, looked into the history of archives.
I was surprised to learn that, as a profession, archivists take time to investigate history. Furthermore, that you have a sense of humour about it.
Ernst Posner of the Society of American Archivists observed in the 1970s that archivists were practitioners of the world’s oldest learned profession, but few at this time had much understanding of the details of that ancient tradition.
To be serious, a good starting point was a collection of papers edited by the historian Maria Brosius in 2003 titled, ‘Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions: Concepts of Record-Keeping in the Ancient World’.
In an endeavour to answer the question, ‘What is an ancient archive?’ Brosius and her colleagues offered this definition: ‘To be considered an archive, the ruins must contain:
- An Edifice — “Archives are first a physical space (palace or temple complex, public archive) or within a private building or private complex of buildings."
- And Records — "A collection of stored documents… reflect(ing) a deliberate choice or selection. These documents cover a certain period of time, ranging from the number of reigning years of a king to several generations of a business family."'
How apt. Today we stand in the National Archives 'edifice’, the sign to all who enter this old yet modern building — now and into the future — that this building exists for a very special purpose.
But why keep records? We know that the National Archives of Australia holds about 40 million items in its collection, including records on the key events and decisions that have shaped Australia’s history — from Federation in 1901 to now. The International Council on Archives is quite clear on the purpose of archives:
- Archives are witnesses to the past. They provide evidence, explanation and justification both for past actions and current decisions.
- Good archives management is not just about storing records for history and research. Archives are central to good governance.
- Archives and records are the tools by which governments can make themselves accountable and demonstrate their democratic credentials. Well-managed archives and records are the means by which a country can understand the ‘who, when, where, how and why’ of government actions. They enable the delivery of human rights and the ability for a government to explain and defend its actions.
Kathleen Roe, a former President of the Society of American Archivists, in 2016 offered these reasons:
- Archives provide essential evidence.
- Archives support the creation of new knowledge.
- Archives provide a laboratory for students to understand the human experience.
- Archives are important to the cultural heritage of communities.
These are strong academic arguments for the need for and purpose of archives, but is there a human side to archives? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
I am informed that it is not uncommon for people to become emotional when they see the names of deceased relatives they never knew, handwritten in ink, on passenger lists of ships that embarked European ports bound for Australia after World War 2.
From Linda and my own experience during our first visit to the Archives when we were able to view a collection of family records, the Archives proved that they can enrich and inform at a very personal level — as experienced by the thousands of Australians who accessed the service records of family members during the Centenary of Anzac commemorative period.
This, I believe, is partly the reason behind the creation of the three information galleries to be found in this ‘edifice’. The galleries not only demonstrate the richness of the Archives’ holdings but help interpret those holdings in an exciting and informative manner. They bring the items in the Archives’ collection to life.
Importantly, the collection is accessible to all. That is its true value.
The new and innovative NAA Members Program that is being launched today will raise the profile of the Archives and build advocacy at a local, regional and national level.
The National Archives has a great story to tell.
I thank the Director-General and all the staff at the National Archives of Australia for their remarkable contribution to our country through the management of our national archives.
As we look to the future of the National Archives in this renewed building can I return to Kathleen Roe and offer you this important question: ‘When people are asked to comment on or describe archives, the answers often involve words like “fascinating,” “interesting,” “fun” and “treasures.” Compare that to Bishop Desmond Tutu’s observation that “Archives are the bulwark of a free society.” Which would you rather be: a fascinating treasure or a bulwark of freedom?’
With that question in mind, it is a great honour for me to declare the National Archives of Australia National Office open.