Shelf esteem

A small attaché case is wedged vertically into a shelf, fitting perfectly between historic publications. What treasures does it hold?

Where lies your history, and how well do you know the stories behind the artefacts and memorabilia that are important to your family or to your workplace?

Preservation of historical archives is becoming a key feature of sustainable development. The world’s memory guardians – libraries, governments, museums and educational institutions among them – are a vital cog in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme. Mitigating the multitude of risks to historical documents has many global stakeholders, and the urgency is highlighted by UNESCO research showing that possibly up to 80 per cent of treasured collections are not adequately safeguarded.

The digitisation of our own archive at The Society of Jesus in Australia began long before I joined the organisation, and it was an honour to have been invited to join the process. During my recent induction, I was given a tour of a few of the many shelves that house artefacts, documents and images that catalogue our presence in Australia since 1848.

Liz Parker is the archivist’s assistant in our Province office, but her official title should probably be Boss Lady from The Archives Treasure Trove. One particularly memorable moment was when Liz showed me a mini attaché case that fitted perfectly onto a metal shelf. What was the story behind the attaché case? Perhaps it had once belonged to a Jesuit; perhaps it had been carried from country to country; perhaps it had been left behind, untraceable, in a church; perhaps it had been donated by a parishioner.

The small attaché case, wedged between historic publications on the shelf. Photo: David McMahon.

There were no external clues, apart from the engraved inscription “English make” above the metal lock, and a slightly indistinct serial number below the lock. Clearly, we needed an expert from the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ to rock up and explain that the leather was the most valuable clue as to the origins of the case, or that the spring-up lock suggested that it was made by pre-War craftsmen. A hinged lock, obviously, was the antidote to us becoming unhinged while trying to discern its history.

Was the attaché case locked? If so, where was the key? Turned out it wasn’t locked, and the flip-up metal hinge opened fairly smoothly to reveal not one but two treasures. One was an early issue of ‘Madonna’ magazine from 1900, a year before Federation, when Queen Victoria still had a year of her reign remaining. The other was a yellowing, much-thumbed and well-worn cover of the St Patrick’s College Gazette from 1879, the year in which Ned Kelly was responsible for the famous Jerilderie Letter.

The cover of the St Patrick’s College Gazette, 1879 (left) and an early edition of Madonna magazine, 1900 (right). Photo: David McMahon.

Sometimes, in perhaps a neatly counter-intuitive way, you need to go low-tech when you bring archives into the hi-tech space. Liz knows all about this. “I have kept my brother’s old tower PC which can read floppy discs,” she explains.  “We have quite a lot of old discs in the archives, and while I think that any material would have been printed off as well, it doesn’t hurt to have access to what is stored on these discs. I also have an early – relatively ancient in tech terms – Apple Mac that can read old Apple discs!

“Technological aspects such as photography and carbon dating among others, have in the past aided records and archiving. But the speed of modern technology can work against archiving. The huge acceleration by which we update our operating systems and our working programs means that documents stored electronically in one form can sometimes become inaccessible a few years down the track.

The Society of Jesus Catalogues, 1912-1913. Photo: David McMahon.

“Some printers and paper types do not produce documents that will survive for a long time. Thermal paper printouts from early faxes and electronic typewriters are a good example. Likewise, I have quite a few USB sticks that have come to me from different Jesuits. How long before these are superseded or when plugged into the appropriate port in a laptop or PC produce the dreaded “Contents unreadable” message?

“The French have stored the blueprints for their nuclear submarines on parchment written in ink, the way they wrote the manuscripts in the Middle Ages.  The manuscripts have survived pristine for 600 years, so it’s a proven storage method!”

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia