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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 091
Division Number:
Professional Group: Genealogy and Local History Discussion Group
Joint Meeting with:
Meeting Number: 91
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Local (or community) history in Australia: supporting cultural heritage

Jan Partridge
National Local Studies Section
Australian Library and Information Association
Department of Information Studies,
Curtin University of Technology,
GPO Box U1987 Perth Western Australia 6845
Email: Jan@biblio.curtin.edu.au


Local (or community) history resources in Australia are developing slowly but surely as more and more people see value in viable and supportive local communities. As pressures of globalisation increase people are needing a local identity and one way to do this is to recreate the community spirit which has been eroded over the past decades by creating local history collections, important sources for historical, cultural, economic and community development.

Australia celebrates the centenary of the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia in 2001 and this has resulted in a heightened interest in local history. People are now preparing to commemorate this even and are reflecting on changes to the country over the past century. Cultural heritage, the public face of history, has become popular. This terms covers many areas; the natural and built environment, movable cultural heritage collections in local museums, local history collections and cultural tourism. In particular, the conservation and presentation of the country's heritage for tourism is seen as vital to the prosperity of Australia.

To support the preservation of our cultural heritage the Australian government has supported the collection, management and preservation of artworks, artefacts and documentary heritage through funding for national, state and regional galleries, museums, archives and libraries. Most of the emphasis over the past few decades, however, has been on the identification, listing, management and protection of the built and natural heritage. The federal Australian Heritage Commission Act of 1975, and subsequent state acts, which emphasised preservation and conservation of the built and natural environment, created an upsurge of interest in preserving the local environment.

As a result of this legislation Heritage Councils and National Trust offices were formed in all states of Australia, and Australians were encouraged to actively participate in collecting, preserving and managing their local historical resources. Each local authority was required to list all historical buildings and sites and in order to do this, research needed to be undertaken to identify them. This activity boosted interest in developing local history services, although many well-established collections had been founded decades before.

Despite this, in the cultural heritage scene, documentary heritage has been the most neglected. Grants exist for the preservation of buildings, sites, objects and visual media such as photographs but less money has been made available to support quality management of, and access to, collections of historical material. This may be attributed to the nature of documentary historical collections and the differences between the disciplines caring for these resources:

  • documentary resources are not as visually appealing as buildings, artworks and artefacts;
  • the scattered nature of Australia's documentary heritage which is dispersed throughout the country in national, state, regional and private libraries and archives, historical societies, church archives, private businesses, voluntary clubs and sporting organisations, schools, etc. has made it difficult to establish standards;
  • there has been an expectation that national and state libraries and archives would be responsible for ensuring the collection and preservation of all Australia's documentary heritage;
  • the different professional approaches and practices of archivists, librarians and records managers has resulted in a variety of systems and procedures;
  • the lack of cohesion and concerted pressure on governments and the Australian public to support their documentary heritage has resulted in limited financial support.

The library profession as a whole has not advanced its cause as publicly as museum curators, archivists, and art gallery experts. In some senses the library profession has stood outside the 'cultural heritage sphere' and not argued that historical collections held locally support the major libraries and archives and are of paramount importance for ensuring the accurate and timely research required by the heritage industry.

The situation is also difficult because, although the National and State Libraries have excellent collections of Australiana, they are finding in the current economic conditions difficulty in collecting all material relating to Australia. As a result, increased pressure is being placed on other libraries, particularly at a local and regional level. Local governments across Australia are to be commended for the support they are giving to the development and maintenance of local history collections in public libraries and there are some excellent collections across Australia. Unfortunately financial and moral support for local history services and the employment of professional local history librarians is not universal. Councils receive no incentive to develop these resources and therefore local history services must compete for funds with all other council activities.

While the signs are encouraging there is still a lot to be done, and a number of issues to be resolved. There is a need for;

  • standard terminology in the local history area,
  • a clear definition of what is meant by a 'local history collection',
  • a better understanding of users and prospective clients,
  • guidelines for collection management, staffing levels, use of volunteers, etc.,
  • standards for organising and accessing collections: classifications schemes, indexing, thesauri,
  • assistance with technological developments: digitisation, Internet access,
  • best practice models for the management of local history services,
  • identification of the role/s of local history librarians,
  • standard expectations for the education for local history library staff,
  • promotion of collections and services to the community,
  • closer networking in the local community,
  • Effective action to ensure local history services are recognised as essential support for the cultural heritage industry

Firstly, in Australia there is difficulty over terminology. The terms 'local studies', 'local history', and more recently 'community history' are used interchangeably. The term 'local studies' was adopted from Britain to describe historical collections and has had some benefits because historians jealously guarded the term 'local history'. On the whole 'local studies' has referred to the collection of historical materials and 'local history' to historical research, however many libraries do refer to their collections as local history services and the person in charge as the local history librarian. As interest in community identity gains popularity, the term 'community history' has been adopted by historians and perhaps this is more relevant. Perhaps more importantly, 'cultural heritage' is replacing the term 'history' in the broader community. Should local history collections now become known as 'community cultural heritage services' - clumsy but possibly more relevant? If local history services are to become visible in the cultural heritage industry, then a change of name seems inevitable.

Further, there needs to be a broader understanding of what a local history collection is. A number of trends are occurring.

Firstly, what constitutes local history has also been widened to encompass corporate and institutional history, histories of individuals, families, houses, built environment, streetscapes, ethnic and indigenous people in the community, and more recently all aspects of the natural environment. Collections now cover the full breadth of the culture, experience and background of all Australians irrespective of background. Today Aboriginal people and people from different ethnic backgrounds have claimed their place in local history, local museums and heritage organisations, and are actively engaged in presenting their stories to the community. These different perceptions on Australia's history and development has not necessarily meant an easy path for local history Some local history publications may well be contested histories which upset members of the community but which will ultimately bring a richness to the local heritage which would otherwise not be available.

Secondly, librarians accept that they will acquire material relating to the past, but increasingly they are gathering material concerning the present. Thirdly, materials collected now comprise any format from archival manuscripts to electronic records and this requires different expertise, technological support and greater financial assistance.

Little research has been conducted into who uses local history collections, and how they are used, and surveys are being undertaken in Australia to remedy this. What is known is that users come from industry, government, schools and universities, as well as the general public. Increasingly stress is being placed on local history collections by family historians and some services such as the Kew Public Library in Melbourne and the City of Playford in South Australia have accepted this and are committed to providing a wide range of family history resources for their community.

Collection management is another issue. Efforts are being made to establish guidelines for collection management but further work is needed to develop universal standards for the organisation and access of collections: classification schemes, indexing, thesauri, software, etc. Currently in Australia there is a proliferation of systems in place. Most local history collections are catalogued onto the main library catalogue and this has benefits of access but there needs to be more discussion on appropriate levels of indexing, the classification of primary material, etc.

Many local history services are promoting their services through the Internet. While a considerable number now have excellent websites with online catalogues and good photographic displays, there is still a need to design content-rich websites for researchers. Lack of finance is, of course a factor. Websites are brilliant for displaying the treasures of the collection but it would also be very useful if libraries placed copies of their policy documents, disaster plans, etc. on their websites to assist others. Future developments should include access to original materials through the web especially in Australia. Because of distance, access to information is often dependent on what is available electronically. Few libraries make their rare material available through inter-library loan or allow photocopying so digitisation will be the way of the future. Some very interesting projects are currently being undertaken at the national, state and local level. As researchers become more sophisticated in their searching, the demand for remote access to full-text material on the web will increase and the profession must be ready to assume these new responsibilities.

As these trends occur, there is some confusion about the role/s of local history librarians, the level of professionalism required for the position, and the status of the manager of the local history services. While the major role is the management of local history collections, a number of local history librarians are also engaged in managing the local history website, digitising collections, cooperating with the local historical societies on community projects, developing regional cooperative cataloguing schemes, interacting with the local heritage enterprises, and supporting cultural heritage tourism. As these roles becomes more complex, there is a need for established staffing guidelines. Currently the management of local history services varies from state to state. Some states in Australia have professional librarians managing these units, other have archivists, whilst others have library technicians. Some managers work in isolation in purpose-built heritage houses, others work in the regional library centres. Some have additional staff to assist with clerical work but most are dependent on community volunteers. Because of the proliferation of local history services it is imperative that guidelines on staffing levels and qualifications in relation to the size and breadth of collections be established.

Most local history library staff are qualified in librarianship but collections may require other expertise as well. Library classification principles do not suit all formats of material acquired but few local history librarians are qualified archivists or have specific knowledge of archives, as well as preservation and conservation practices. The level of commitment by staff is very encouraging as many have gained qualifications in local history to better serve their clientele. Unfortunately universities, in a period of stringent budget cuts, are concentrating on the broader history courses and reducing an emphasis on local history. To overcome this, several universities are rethinking the needs of local history library staff and family and community historians who are not interested in undertaking a more traditional form of study and devising special courses to suit. The Department of Information Studies at Curtin University of Technology has developed a fee-paying Graduate Certificate in Local Studies, which is available in distance education mode and in 2000 will be a web-based course available internationally. This certificate is taught jointly by the Department and the Research Institute of Cultural Heritage and tries to maintain a balance between the management of local history collections, archives, preservation and conservation, technology and practical history research. There is a need for more short courses to help local history librarians acquire additional skills, and it would be worthwhile if these were made available internationally through web-based delivery.

Local history services occupy a difficult position in the library and information profession in Australia and possibly elsewhere. Local history librarians often work in isolation, but to survive and develop a successful service a local history librarian must sell the service to the parent authority, interact with the local community, network with local, regional, and state cultural heritage organisation and with other local history librarians, and contribute to issues relevant to the wider library profession. The establishment of best practice models and standards should assist local history librarians manage and promote their collections. The Local Studies Section of ALIA sees that this is a role which it should play but at the moment does not have the resources to accomplish this.

Ideally, local history librarians need to actively promote their service to the stakeholders: the parent institution, the community, the users and the cultural heritage industry. Currently only the most developed local history services are also the archival depository for the local authority. Under legislation these resources are forwarded to the state Public Records Office, however, as the trickle-down effect continues, it is possible that the local history centre will also become the council archival resource. It is an area which is worth pursuing.

While most services are well promoted to the local community, local history librarians have been less involved with the cultural heritage industry. This industry comprises practitioners from a wide range of disciplines; anthropology, archaeology, museums, history, conservation, archives, tourism, local government, and interacting with them requires an understanding of the broader cultural heritage concepts. Cultural heritage tourism, in a period where communities are suffering from a downturn in local industry, is seen as economically important. To encourage visitors, councils are supporting a proliferation of pamphlets, booklets and exhibitions which are promoting heritage walks, heritage places, local events and people. These need research at a local level and this is an ideal opportunity for the local history librarian to promote the collection to the heritage community.

Part of the problem is that conceptually there has been confusion over the placement of local history in the broader cultural heritage scene. The heritage industry is a powerful one and the place of local history in cultural heritage tourism, and the relationship between all the disciplines involved in presenting and preserving the history of the local community requires further exploration. A gap exists between the enthusiastic local and the cultural heritage professionals. Local communities see cultural tourism as an economic gain without necessarily understanding the need for advice and assistance from the local history librarian and professional historians. Good promotion of the resources of the local history collection could overcome this gap.

While these demands increase the complexity of work for local history librarians they also offer opportunities for financial assistance. It may be that heritage tourism will be the catalyst which will increase the number of local history collections in public libraries in Australia. There is no doubt that local governments need to be convinced of the worth of local history collections. As financial pressures occur at a national and state level, the major collecting institutions in Australia are no longer able to collect material relating to local communities. Unless local libraries develop collections this material may well be lost.

An issue of the 1990s is the continued growth of electronic resources. As more and more government, commercial, private and academic information becomes available only in electronic format, this information is also in danger of being lost unless local history services convince governments that local history is not only about the past but also about the present, and the future local histories will not be able to be written if the resources are not available.

There is no doubt that local history is a growth area but how can local history librarians accomplish all that is required of them? They need support from the Local Studies Section of ALIA and more cooperative networks. The Local Studies Section publishes Local-Link, our newsletter and ALIAlocal, an internet discussion group. By organising conferences and workshops at a state and national level, and by attending cultural heritage meetings and conventions we contribute to discussions on cultural heritage issues, and highlight local history issues in that industry. Much more needs to be done in the area of policy, planning, standards, and guidelines. These will be future projects.

At an international level, it would be very useful to have discussions on all of these issues. I hope that we can get advice from other countries and look forward to more discussion and cooperation with local history librarians from within Australia and other parts of the world.


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