Who Tells Our Stories?

Art by Bonnie Burns

Underground, over Parkes Way, lies one of the largest archives in Australia. Unknown to most students who walk over or drive under it, the Noel Butlin Archives houses an extensive collection of Australian archival material ranging back to the 1820s. Alongside the archive’s rich collection of Australian trade union records, Pacific Island materials, and National AIDs epidemic collection lies the official archives of the ANU. Yet, among these records of committee meetings and key ANU documents, one set of documents are missing from the ANU archives: proof of student life. 

Stephen Foster and Margaret Varghese’s The Making of the Australian National University: 1946-1996, details in-depth accounts of the development of the ANU. But they only dedicate two of its chapters to students, with one relying mostly on official ANU records and statistics. While such omission has its reasons, what is a University and its heritage without its students? With its (relatively) small numbers and tradition of residential halls, ANU has a rich student life on campus. Much, however, is ephemeral and undocumented, with many memories graduating away with each new cohort of students. If we are to remember our stories and our life on campus, where better to start than the archives? 

It is 1966 and Canberra needs more roads to accommodate its growing population. One plan was to expand Parkes Way west, through ANU, so to funnel traffic to Woden. Rather than cut ANU in half, Acton Tunnel was proposed to cover Parkes Way and house 300 underground parking spaces on top of the tunnel. Following the opening of the tunnel in 1979, ANU repurposed the proposed lots to house its archival collection (then based in Coombs). During the conversion of the new archives, known then as the ‘cataCoombs’, the ANU found that the weight of the archival materials exceeded the expected loads of parked cars, limiting the total space available. Despite the weight limit, the archives hold over twenty-two kilometres of archival material, with more held off-site. 

A search of the ANU Archives for student material reveals disappointing results. While not devoid of records, the archives primarily hold documents created by the ANU, either administrative or for marketing, as well as organisations like ANUSA, the ANU Union, and the ANU Labor Club. The only consistent ‘student’ engagement, bar some minor exceptions, has been various alumni depositing their personal papers, decades after their graduation. While existing archives materials, including Woroni newspaper copies, give us a glimpse of student life back then, it does not fully capture the beating heart of what it once was. 

Why does our history matter? Because it reminds us that we are not alone. Most of our university life and struggles have happened before, in one way or another. Reading Woroni articles written in the 60s, familiar dramas in student politics, student opinions about university administration, and stresses of study and life, all rhyme with our present dilemmas. Poring through documents on the establishment of various university organisations all reveal the hidden meanings and intentions behind many of the symbols and structures that surround us. Discovering stories behind decades of student activism all illuminate the progress and arena of which many of our existing fights with the university battle within. By remembering that we are not alone, we can learn from the past and situate ourselves among generations of students. 

We are not the first to think about archiving student life at the ANU. Various others have tried, whether through journals, alumni groups, or by depositing records at the archives, to honour student life. These efforts, despite their limited reach, allow us to understand a world that otherwise would be unknown to us. But for archiving to be truly effective it must be more than a one-time deposit – it should be systemic and renewing. Systemic meaning a constant and organised effort to ensure that groups and organisations archive what they believe is important. Renewing meaning that these groups and organisations then make archives part of their operation. Whether a resource consulted or a historical memory project conducted, the aim is to foster a relationship with the archives, remember the history and structures that surround us and to reassure ourselves for the path forward. 

While lofty in ambition, a student historical project is not unique. In the United States, various universities and student organisations have pushed for students to donate materials to university archives and to encourage them to use archival materials. These projects have also sought to recover lost or destroyed documents that record key moments of student life and activism. For us, it is important that such an effort centres student voices. Student organizations, whether residents’ committees, clubs, or informal groups, should all ensure someone takes on a responsibility of archiving what matters. Whether meeting minutes, flyers, photos, newsletters, Facebook group posts, or webpages, any record is worth preserving. Some organisations, like rescoms and ANUSA, even hold documents ranging back over the decades, in deep need of preservation.

By archiving our stories and retelling them, we take control of our history and place at the ANU. Already projects like the wall of student activism in Marie Reay and the history of ANUSA, available inside of its offices, allow us to truly understand our place and heritage. Even academic papers like Tim Breidis’ 2019 article in the Journal of Australian Studies provide a unique, detailed account of the 1994 Chancellery occupation and the power of student activism. But we must do more, throughout campus, outside of the strict realm of student activism, to tell our own stories.

 

The author thanks the Noel Butlin Archives for taking the time to give a presentation on archival work and a tour of the archives. Students and staff can arrange a lecture and tour by contacting the Noel Butlin Archives.