Author: Charlie Farrugia
Senior Collections Advisor, Public Record Office Victoria
Sometimes the most obvious ideas for postings appear right before your eyes, or in this case, literally sit two stories above your brain. The conception of a posting to mark 2012 as the National Year of Reading initially appeared daunting because the act of reading is central to using just about any record in our Collection. But then it occurred to me that for PROV’s near 39 year history, our researchers have undertaken their research in PROV Reading Rooms (known as Search Rooms until 2002). As I’ve worked in every Reading/Search Room bar one in PROV’s history, I thought a brief appreciation of their evolution would be appropriate.
To me, each of the Reading Rooms had its own character and characters. All are linked to major developments in PROV’s history as well as the steady shift in the way our Collection is made available and used.
PROV came into existence on 17 April 1973. Our first room was the one originally established by our predecessor, the Archives Division of the State Library. It was situated in the East and West Basements of the LaTrobe Library in the State Library building near the Verdon Basements where the collection was stored. As photo 1 shows, facilities were fairly basic. Metal cabinets holding the volunteer created card indexes to some series are clearly visible. I believe that records were made available through a hole in the wall as demonstrated in photograph 2.
This room was closed on 23 November 1977, following the relocation of the Collection to the Laverton Base Repository in Cherry Lane, Laverton North. This was our main room for consulting hard copy records until its closure on 31 March 2000. For most of its life, researchers there were beguiled by legendary attendant Chris Diver, the room’s sole fixed staff member. Despite Chris’ wit, charm and knowledge, the Laverton room was difficult to get to by people without private transport and so, earlier that year, the first of a series of rooms in the Melbourne CBD was opened. This was on the second floor, 1A Little Collins Street and by the time I joined PROV was managed by Ivor Bishop.
The split in rooms necessitated some compromises. The index cards could only be placed in the one location and so, the City room held the expanding inward shipping index cards and the Laverton Room the remainder. Frequently used indexes in the Collection were also microfilmed for consultation in the City. Non-file or boxed records could not be ordered for viewing in the City as a conservation measure and the rostered reference archivist position was located at Laverton. Probably as a result of these compromises, the City room appeared to be viewed by the public more as a genealogical research centre with the Laverton room the location for more “serious” research.
The City room was to move on three further occasions. In September 1986, it was relocated to the 4th floor in the initial version of Information Victoria (IV) at 318 Little Bourke Street. By this stage, this room was managed by the doyen of Victoria’s genealogists, the late and greatly missed Don Grant. A number of factors including the relocation of IV, led to the historic February 1997 relocation of the room with the National Archives Australia Victoria Branch premises at Casselden Place, 2 Lonsdale Street. This development marked the start of the only State/Commonwealth archival reading room in the country, a relationship which happily continues today at the Victorian Archives Centre (VAC).
The Cassleden Place room became known as the Melbourne Archives Centre and functioned as the main PROV room in the period after the closure of Laverton and until the opening of the Harry Nunn Reading Room at VAC during 2004.
As a variety of original records were not sent to Casselden Place, again as a conservation measure, an appointment only temporary reading room operated on the level 1 of the VAC from October 2000.
Despite these developments one Reading Room has remained in its original location. This is the room at the Ballarat Archives Centre, opened in February 1982 and initially staffed by Greg Coleman (later the head of the NT Archives) and Terry Wong. It has been extensively remodelled in recent years and now occupies at least double the space of its original incarnation.
Apart from being named after the first Keeper of Public Records, the opening of the Harry Nunn Room marked a return to 1973 in terms of having a sole Melbourne Reading Room located in the same building as the Collection. But as time moves on, that will increasingly become the only remnant of that era. For starters, the room is in our own building and regularly opens on Saturdays, a major improvement for those veteran researchers who remember having to ring the City reference desk in the Little Collins and Bourke Street eras when building management forgot our limited weeknight openings and locked the building entry!
More importantly, today there are no index cards, silent acknowledgement that researchers don’t need to even visit the Room to view the shipping indexes and other previously paper based finding aids or to order records. The increasing use and reliance on our online catalogue, the PROVwiki, digital cameras, USB sticks and laptops is beginning to foreshadow the eventual demise of microform (and microform readers), pencils, photocopiers and paper as the means for viewing records or making notes or copies. And there is always the notion that one day far into the future, our Digital Archives might completely eliminate the need for a Reading room altogether. However or wherever you use our Collection, the one thing that will never change is the need to read.
Do you have any memories of your times in our Reading Rooms? If so, please add your reminisces.
Material in the Public Record Office Victoria archival collection contains words and descriptions that reflect attitudes and government policies at different times which may be insensitive and upsetting
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples should be aware the collection and website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.
PROV provides advice to researchers wishing to access, publish or re-use records about Aboriginal Peoples