Wendy Gallagher – archivist
“The collection is completely beguiling,” says Wendy Gallagher of the NSW State Archives, which have been her passion and place of employment since leaving university more than three decades ago.
Just one week after commencing work at the State Archive, Wendy was offered her dream job with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, but found herself turning it down.
“I chose the Archives — after a week,” said Wendy. “It is just amazing; the records that have been made and kept and how they are used … I've never regretted it. It's given me great experiences.”
The State Archives is a collection of documents, maps, photographs are other records created by the NSW public sector dating back to beginnings of European settlement in Australia. In fact, the oldest item in the Archive predates the arrival of Arthur Phillip’s convict fleet — a small handbook of legal precedents brought over by ship from England.
“It is classic public servant,” said Wendy. “‘I’m going across the seas to create a new colony, I'm going to take my book in which I've written down precedents of law!’ It is not exciting to look at, but it is a symbol of the way people thought, for better or for worse, they didn’t just say we'll figure it out when we get there, the British are not like that…they probably didn't have any understanding of how different it was going to be, but they were still thinking they were bringing the ‘English Rule of Law'.”
The amount of material contained in the Archives, located in Western Sydney, is hard to get your head around. If you stacked the boxes of stored material end to end, they would stretch over 84 kilometres! There are two centuries of court documents, government papers and correspondence — all that information that still to this day gets quietly stored, indexed and maintained by the staff of the State Archive.
“There's close to 2 million maps and plans, which go back to a fabulous map we call the Phillip Map — it is from 1792 and has a note in Arthur Phillip's handwriting,” said Wendy.
“Then there are maps and plans of quite modern buildings, we have plans of prisons which have lived in the secure zone for all the time they have been with us… there is image material, pictures of fabulous street scenes of Sydney and regional NSW and others that are really boring, because they are these four nuts and bolts and a bit of girder.
“There are gaps, but I think of it as an amazing complete record of how the governments of the time, since 1788, have managed the resources, the people and the land of the State. And that's one of the things I love about it, it has this whole, single purpose.”
While access to some of the material in the archives is restricted, there are vast amounts of information that can be accessed by anyone, which is where archivists like Wendy come in.
“I’m involved in providing access to the public and also designing engagement activities to try and get beyond just people who want to see archives, but to try and connect them to the world,” she said.
“So, an archivist in access services day will include answering the phone, helping members of the public working in the reading room, answering email inquiries and also doing research for things like exhibitions, newsletters, and increasingly stories on social media channels.”
People accessing the archives come from all walks of life, said Wendy, who is constantly surprised by just how the information is put to use.
“Just ordinary people using them in a myriad of ways: everything from straight forward family history and local history, to a whole range of other history specialists — railway enthusiasts use the archives a huge amount — but to people researching nursing, people researching how people have been dealt with in public hospitals, is just endless!” she said.
“PHD students and uni students are far outweighed by ordinary people, who often in cases do extraordinary research. I think research is a bug and history research is a particularly strong bug; if you get it, you’ve probably got it for life.”
Orange City Life got the opportunity to speak with Wendy while she was in town for the opening of the travelling exhibition Captured: Portraits of Crime 1870 - 1930. Captured features amazingly well-preserved photographic portraits along descriptions of prisoners sourced from Gaol Photographic Description Books stored in the State Archives.
The exhibit is a unique window into the past and a small taste of what treasures lie hidden in the vast State Archives.
“It has literally been over 30 years since we started to index them,” said Wendy. “One of the members of staff at the time was a family historian and she said everyone is going to love these, they will love having access to them and she is right. To have people's faces is just appealing on so many fronts, and I personally find fascinating the written description of the scars and the marks on people's bodies.”
Although some people may be uncomfortable with the idea of finding out their ancestor’s criminal past it is a unique resource for historians and those looking at their family history.
“For some people it may be the only photo they are going to get of someone from their family,” said Wendy. “I've known people to just take the photo and ignore the rest, they don’t want to think about the criminal history.”
In an unbelievable coincidence, a viewer of the exhibition actually recognised the face of one of the old prisoner photos on display as they knew their grandson!
“It was just amazing! The exhibition was being put up in our foyer and one of our regulars was coming into the reading room. They walked past and thought he looks really familiar, looked at the name and it matched!” Wendy said.
Captured will be on display at the Orange City Library until July 28, but the Gaol Photographic Description Books have been digitised and can be found on the State Archives website, along with countless other records.
Digitising and indexing the archived material is an ongoing and seemingly endless task for the state archivists. Wendy said she would be surprised if even two per cent of what they have has been indexed.
“We have a band of volunteers who are just fantastic, who do both indexing and detailed listing and they've boosted our numbers amazingly,” said Wendy. “They've index listed all of the early probate packets, they've now listed their way through all of the divorce files from 1873 to 1930… Without them we'd have half the number of things indexed that we do.”
The State Archive Reading Room in Kingswood is open to the public five days a week, Tuesday to Saturday.