Joys and challenges for an archivist

Last year Archivist Evangeline Galettis was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for her service to her community, particularly educational institutions. Evangeline has worked at St Catherine’s School Waverley in New South Wales for 21 years where she is responsible for a museum with extensive archives documenting the school’s 160 years. She is also a St Catherine’s Old Girl and has worked tirelessly to establish a strong Old Girls network that now stretches across the world IE Journalist Bronwyn Ridgway writes.

Teacher, archivist, historian, author and community volunteer, Evangeline is passionate and focused and has been an IEU member since 1988. She has taught in many Sydney schools including Claremont College, The International Grammar School, The Scots College, Ascham, MLC Burwood and St Catherine’s, but has been doing archival work now for many years.

“Some of the joys of being an archivist are creating significant and celebrated places for collections, or simply sifting through stories and researching a particular person. Although that person may have been dead for 50 years, you can get to know him or her from a sociological perspective. It’s like working on a very big jigsaw puzzle. Information might come through a phone call or a letter, or discovery of an item that’s been tucked away for decades; they’re significant pieces of that wonderful puzzle.

“School archivists create a sense of community wherever they work and we have the opportunity of enhancing collections over time. We educate and publish and give value and place for what is the history of education here in Australia. I use all my experience and qualifications in the process but there are many courses we need to do to keep up with things and we help each other with our projects. I’ve met some extraordinary archivists in Catholic schools, independent schools, selective schools and of course colleges and universities.”

Evangeline has a Master of Education, a Bachelor of Education as well as a Diploma in Teaching and she firmly believes archivists need to be part of a strong and supportive network. In conjunction with her union membership she is a professional member of the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA), a member of Museums Australia and the History Council of Australia. Membership of all these groups is not inexpensive, but as Evangeline said, the information you can share with other colleagues is invaluable.

…not many employers or school staff know or understand what archivists do, nor do they appreciate that archived materials need to be preserved for decades to come.

Conferences of the ASA are always interesting, Evangeline said, with some 300 to 400 members gathering annually. While the ASA Schools Special Interest Group with its membership of over 135 archivists from schools throughout NSW and ACT, meets regularly throughout the year.

“Over time I’ve helped people in other schools who haven’t had specific training but have been asked to work on a project around a centenary or significant event. Some archivists have been teachers, teacher librarians or administrative staff.”

Professional development is key to keeping abreast of important issues and developments. They need to be knowledgeable about ICT programs, copyright law, oral history, preservation of textiles and documents, digital archiving, disaster archive management, administration and policy development, project management and sundry curatorial methods. Archivists need good communication skills to be able to advocate on behalf of their treasures, not just for the present but for the future as well.

“There are a number of challenges that face archivists in schools. Sadly, not many employers or school staff know or understand what archivists do, nor do they appreciate that archived materials need to be preserved for decades to come. By sharing a school’s history, archivists have the ability to help school leaders work and plan for the future. Our job is about advocacy and it would be advantageous if archivists could be part of leadership discussions, strategic planning and decision making. The material we produce for consideration and examination must be accurate and authentic; not many know that we all work to the Archivists Code of Ethics.

“In addition, archivists need space, resources and budgets. There needs to be careful consideration and planning for housing large quantities of historical goods. I’m very fortunate I have compactus units with vast storage capacity, as well as a museum that takes pride of place in the school grounds. Students and members of the community can drop in and view our collections, it helps them engage with the history and culture of the school.

“Often school executives have little idea of the volume of material archivists work with, nor are they aware of the issues of governance or the value of what is being held in storage or on display. We are entrusted to identify, preserve and conserve; many teach students about the history of their school and archival processes. We also write extensively for school and educational publications.

“It’s extraordinary that there is no agreed classification under which schools employ archivists and no salary scale. We can be paid at any level from teacher librarian to clerical assistant. This needs to change, our work is important and we should be paid at the appropriate level. It’s time the Association of Independent Schools and the IEU recognised our value so that wages and conditions change for the better. We’re concerned about the future and who will choose to work in this field if we’re forgotten in negotiations and omitted in MEAs. How will schools attract qualified and skilled young people to the position of school archivist in the future?”