Publication Details

This review was originally published as Organ, MK, Light from the tunnel: collecting the archives of business and labour at the Australian National University, 1953-2003, Labour History, 92, May 2007, 183-185.


In May 1986 I was one of a group of 20 University of New South Wales archive diploma students who travelled from Sydney to Canberra for a three day tour of facilities in the nation’s capital. Memorably, the bus pulled up outside the National Film and Sound Archive, an art deco building formerly housing the Institute of Anatomy, but now with yellowing posters of Chips Rafferty, Peter Finch and Dad n’ Dave lining its walls. Next stop was the suitably imposing Australian War Memorial, where we enjoyed an encounter with original war-related maps, diaries, photographs and memorabilia. The National Library of Australia left the impression of a magnificent new Greek temple, whilst the Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies was a collection of weatherboard buildings, though both facilities contained a wonderful collection of manuscripts and assorted archival material. Our visit to the nation’s premier archives of business and labour at the Australian National University brought us to a cavernous and dimly lit space built as an underground car park but never used as such and containing what seemed like hundreds of rows of shelves straining under the weight of pale brown and cream archive boxes. We were enthralled. Twenty years on, a reading of the Barry Howarth and Ewan Maidment edited Light from the Tunnel brings forth from the many personal reminiscences contained therein, fond memories of warming to archives as a profession, and of listening intently under that low concrete ceiling in 1986 to a doyen of Australian archives, the white-haired Michael Saclier. Beyond that, Light from the Tunnel reveals the often extraordinary effort required in preserving the archives of a nation.