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About Me

Look here for an account of my chequered career.

Chris Hurley was a Research Associate in the Records Continuum Research Group, in the Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University. He has worked in the recordkeeping field for both government and the private sector. From 1981-1990, he was in charge of Victoria’s public records programme (as Keeper of Public Records). He occupied a senior position from 1996 to 2002 with the national archives of New Zealand (now Archives New Zealand), much of the time as the Acting Chief Archivist. From 2003-2010, he was Manager of the Documentation and Archives Centre with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Chris has specialised in the areas of archival description, archival legislation, and recordkeeping accountability. He was a member of the Advisory Board for the InterPARES 2 Project and an Affiliate with the Center for Information as Evidence in the Department of Information Studies at the University of Southern California.

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I am Born and then I am Educated (1946-1969)

I was born in Australia, in the beachside suburb of Coogee, on 13 August, 1946.  It was 5:00 am on a Tuesday and not a Friday, but all the same an evil fairy may have been standing by.  It would explain a lot.  When I was 5, we moved onto a soldier settlement sheep station north of Walgett (close to the Queensland border).  This scheme aimed to break up large economically viable land-holdings and parcel them out to returned soldiers in unsustainable lots.  While my parents were discovering that they couldn’t make a go of it, I spent formative years in complete solitude. 

This may have given me self-reliance and an indifference to the opinions of others.  I received my early schooling from my mum who worked from correspondence courses supplied to us by mail.  Eventually, I became too much for her and I was sent to a boarding school in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.  This became a recurring pattern.  I would become too much to handle and be sent away.  In 1959, we returned to Sydney where I received my secondary education at Marist Brothers High School, Darlinghurst, and my undistinguished honours degree in History at the University of Sydney.  I then completed postgraduate diplomas in Education (University of Sydney) and Librarianship (University of NSW).  Both my secondary schools are now defunct.  The two universities are still soldiering on; but who can say for how much longer in these strange and troubling times?

A Disgruntled Librarian Becomes an Accidental Archivist (1969-1974)

After gaining my librarianship qualification from UNSW as a Librarian-in-Training with the National Library of Australia, I began work there in 1970.  It was here I had my first ”blue” with authority1(“Blue” : an Australianism for quarrel, row, scrap, tiff, set-to, spat, wrangle, disagreement, conflict, barney, altercation, argy-bargy, brawl, contretemps, dispute, donnybrook, falling-out, hassle, imbroglio) .  I was serious about becoming a librarian and was looking forward to learning my trade over the next few years working at the NLA.  Almost immediately, however, I was seconded into administrative work with the secretariat of AACOBS (the national council of librarians at that time) which was staffed out of NLA.  I made my displeasure known, but to no avail.  I was brought in to assist AACOBS’ Secretary, Alan Walker, who had just returned from the plum job of NLA Liaison Officer in London.  He was unhappy about coming back after two years there to return to the job he had left in Canberra.  Alan was witty, subversive, and acerbic.  His dissatisfaction probably reverberated with mine.  When he departed shortly afterwards (going on to become one of Australia’s leading indexers) I had to take over and act as AACOBS’ Secretary for some months, organising the all-important annual meeting and bi-monthly meetings of the Standing Committee.  While I was doing this, the semi-legendary Harold White retired as National Librarian (replaced by Alan Fleming) and as Chair of AACOBS Standing Committee (replaced by the truly legendary Gordon Richardson).

The time I spent in AACOBS brought me into contact with some of the most eminent librarians of an older generation – including Gordon Richardson (State Librarian, NSW), Betty Doubleday (CSIRO), Harrison Bryan (University of Sydney and later National Librarian), and Dietrich Borchardt (university librarian and eminent bibliographer).  I was sufficiently impressed to want to continue in librarianship but not as an administrator until I had properly learned my trade.  But I was not allowed to move.  My only choice was to apply to one of the departmental libraries dotted around Canberra.  But I found my way blocked because, at each interview I was granted, someone from the National Library sat on the selection panel, and I was never offered a job outside NLA.  It became plain to me that I never would.  I applied to the National Archives (then known as the Commonwealth Archives Office).  The Library and the Archives hated each other, so I was immediately recruited as a renegade.  And that is how, in early 1971, I became an “accidental” archivist.

I entered this new career under the watchful eye of Peter J Scott who was in charge of Registration & Disposal.  My job was as (nominal) head of the newly formed Context Control Section within Peter’s small empire.  I had little understanding of what this entailed or what it meant to Peter.  For several years, he had been implementing the ideas set forth in his 1966 article in the American Archivist outlining what came to be called the Series System.  Supervising archival staff dealing with government agencies on transfer and disposal, he had been trying to ensure that details of each agency’s history and functions and of their recordkeeping systems were captured and written up in the Archives’ descriptive systems.  Aided by one or two clerical assistants, he personally oversaw the completion of this documentation and its copying and distribution to the numerous files and folders into which carbon and xerox copies had to go.

In this pre-computer era, the System anticipated the relational database by displaying alternate “views” of the information created by sorting component parts of the data held as registration sheets and as lists (inventories) compiled from them into various arrangements.  This involved making a couple of dozen copies of every single page and carrying bundles of them around for interfiling into various ring-binders and files.  This had to be done by hand and for every single update or revision as well as for new matter.  It was meticulous, never-ending, and exhausting work.  In addition to the constant worry that documentation would be misfiled by an inattentive assistant, Peter was constantly involved in editing the work of the Survey & Disposal archivists which seldom met his demanding quality standards.

The new section of Context Control, which I was recruited to head up, was intended to take over this work of supervision and commence a number of projects that Peter had in mind but had never had the time to undertake.  It never quite worked out that way and I was promoted two years later to take over the ACT Registration & Disposal role when Peter’s job was split into two : one local to Canberra (me) and the other for national co-ordination (Peter).  During these years, I had an intensive on-the-job apprenticeship from Peter in archival description. 

Coming in at a middle management position meant that I did not serve a long apprenticeship working on actual records.  My special efforts went into the surveyors' records for the layout of the national capital in the early years of the 20th century.  What made these fascinating for me was discovering how they blossomed into something never envisaged at the outset,.  After the territory that would serve as the nation’s capital was separated off from New South Wales, a group of surveyors was sent in to map out the land on which the future city would be built.  The area was good sheep grazing country and the former owners were permitted to lease back their sequestered properties from the Commonwealth Government until required for development.  The surveyors were the only representatives of the Federal Government in the area.  Their files start out by dealing with routine technical matters but suddenly blossom into hundreds of queries and dispute resolutions over things the new lessees needed to get resolved – agistments, boundaries, right of way, and so on.  I imagined the poor surveyors forever distracted from their work on this “other” set of tasks.  It is an example of how the most unexpected matters can be found in almost any series.  It’s a series of survey records but it contains a rich source of information about rural life in early twentieth century Australia.

One of my jobs at the Archives was looking after the personal papers program.  I was one of the very few people who had the combination to Vault No.1 in the huts by the Lake, where Archives was then located.  There was a brown paper parcel, sealed and labelled “Not to be Opened Except in the presence of Mr Bailey”.  Unfortunately, the Baileys, father and son, were by way of being a bureaucratic dynasty and no one knew which of them was referred to.  I was also custodian of the Bruce Papers, willed to the nation and wrested from the clutches of the National Library in a victory still being celebrated when I arrived.  This archive included a tea set and robes Bruce used as President (or some such position) in the Royal & Ancient (Golf Club) in Scotland.  Part of my job was trying to persuade out-going ministers to put their personal papers with Archives and not the Library.  Accompanied by Hilary Rowell, I had several close shaves - saving ministerial correspondence bundled into sacks from the jaws of the furnace to which our attention was directed after we tactfully said that the minister’s complete set of Hansard, while of course fascinating, wasn’t really what we were interested in.

In 1972, the doomed McMahon Government, desperate to get publicity of any kind, announced it would introduce a “30-year rule” to Australia.  Prior to this, Cabinet papers were a closely guarded secret.  They were literally in cages in a top secret room in West Block, one of two venerable administration blocks left over from the time when they were first turning Canberra from a successful sheep run into a political quagmire.  The other one, East Block, later became headquarters for the National Archives.  The mandarins who looked after Cabinet records acquired status by exercising the limited and privileged access they had to these cages and they weren’t about to let it go easily just because the Government said so.

The first obstacle they placed in our way was to refuse to transfer them at all.  Government said the public should have access through the Archives, so access they would have but not to the originals.  We were to get photocopies only with the bits blocked out that were not for release till later.  Peter Scott was up for this.  He insisted that nothing could come in until the records were registered in the CRS system based on an examination of the originals.  There was great resistance but Peter carried the day.  One day, he and I went to West Block to do our survey.  The little man took us inside a room and showed us the “cage” on the other side.  We tried to approach but we were physically prevented.  “You wanted to see them, well, there they are.”  We left and, after another round of negotiation, we got as far as the cage door.  We said we had to go in.  The little man considered his position.  Deciding that another stoush he was probably going to lose wouldn’t look good on his record, he admitted us with an ill-grace.  Once inside, he placed himself in front of the records so we couldn’t read what was written on the outside.  We planned our tactics for the next visit : Peter would distract him by engaging him in conversation while I jotted down as many details from the spines of the volumes as I could.  On that basis we registered the records into the CRS system!

The first transfer covered the years of World War II.  So we had to deal also with the Defence Department which controlled the War Cabinet archives.  The novelty of it all had the bureaucrats flummoxed and a lot of silliness resulted.  The original Cabinet records were not transferred.  Instead, we got bound volumes of photocopies which Peter insisted be treated as “masters”.  I was told off to mobilise nearly half the staff in frantically making more copies for distribution to all State and Territory branches implementing redactions decided upon and fed to us as we went by poor Max Franklin and Thea Exley.

At least that was better than the War Cabinet transfer when it eventually came some years later.  It came as originals but only after it had been “cleared” by Defence.  When we opened the boxes, a stream of paper fragments fell to the floor.  Defence had redacted the records to remove all references to chemical warfare by cutting out the words and phrases that referred to it from the originals with a razor blade.  But they had left the cut-outs in the boxes with the files.  Not only could we tell what they had done, we could read the words on the cut-outs and figure out why they had done it.  Our Director-General (Bob Neale) who had himself edited the Foreign Affairs documents for publication rushed over and pointed out to them that Australia’s chemical warfare activities had been chronicled long before in Paul Hasluck’s volumes in the official history of the Second World War.

I Am Sent Away to Learn How to Behave (1974)

In 1973, the newly elected Labor Government decided to “do something” for the Archives.  One thing done was to commission the recently retired Dominion Archivist of Canada, Dr W Kaye Lamb, to do a Review.  This was felt necessary to serve as the documentary basis for a Cabinet submission proposing revitalisation of the Archives and development of legislation.  I was seconded to the parent department to arrange the visit.  Dr Lamb and his wife duly arrived and I greeted them in Sydney and accompanied them to Canberra.

There was to be a Conference to which important people would come and share with Lamb their thoughts on a “national archives system”.  I never knew where this phrase came from and Lamb seemed equally nonplussed.  Women’s affairs were big news in the Whitlam Government and some bureaucrat told me I had to invite the Prime Minister’s newly appointed adviser on women’s affairs. Elizabeth Reid, to get the “woman’s view of archives”.  In great confusion, I ‘phoned her up with an invitation.  When I told her we wanted the woman’s view of archives, she very sensibly laughed and said there wasn’t one and we left it at that.  Shortly thereafter, I sprained my ankle rather badly while escorting the Lambs around the country and Lamb had to conclude his work without me - which he did without any apparent difficulty.  Mrs Lamb gave me a copy of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time (in which the protagonist, you may recall, is laid up in bed with a broken leg).

Then, the Head of our parent Department, Peter Lalor, decided some young archivist should get overseas training.  At that time there was no dedicated archival training available in Australia, so someone was put up to do the University of London postgraduate diploma.  That turned out to be me.  At the last moment, it was discovered that my journey hadn’t been properly approved.  By this stage all sorts of high-level arrangements had been made, including personal representations through the Head of the British Civil Service to get me technically seconded to the British Public Record Office (as it then was) for the duration of my visit.

Egg was definitely flying through the air and on its way towards important faces so a way through had to be found.  I was made a last-minute candidate for the Public Service Board Postgraduate Scholarships for 1974.  These were prestigious awards meant for high-flyers in the Australian Public Service, not for riff-raff like me from the Archives.  By hook or by crook I was awarded one and so my trip to the UK went ahead.  This Scheme was impressively generous.  I got to live in London while I did the course, on a full Australian salary (at what was then a very favourable rate of exchange), all my relocation expenses were paid both ways, and – on top of my full salary - I got my rent paid on a very nice flat in South Kensington for 14 months.  So far as I know, this scheme doesn’t exist any longer.  I can’t think why.

Just before leaving Australia, I was invited to what can only be described as a sherry party given to all that year’s scholars.  Our host was a silver-haired gentleman of the old colonial school for whom the word “avuncular” may have been specially coined.  After half-an-hour of chit chat, he got down to business.  We were to understand that successful completion of our studies was (of course) desirable but the real reason taxpayers were sending us overseas was for us to acquire the final polish that would complete our development as future leaders of the bureaucracy.  It was a kind of grand tour for antipodean mandarins.

Meanwhile, a move was afoot to create a new professional association for archivists.  At that time, most archivists had library qualifications and those working for State Governments were employed (or had until recently been employed) as staff of the State libraries.  Many belonged to the Archives Section of the Library Association of Australia which produced the journal (Archives & Manuscripts).  But the Commonwealth’s Archives, which had fought a fierce battle to escape the clutches of the National Library, was staffed by non-librarians and most of its employees did not belong to the Archives Section.  Peter Scott himself joined the Commonwealth’s Archives, he solemnly told me, because he did not have and did not intend to acquire library qualifications.  He remained a lifelong advocate (without success) for establishment of a professional stream of archivist within the Commonwealth Public Service.

It was to rectify this anomaly that several archivists (notably Michael Saclier from the ANU Archives of Business & Labour) set out to form a new professional association.  Since it was axiomatic that the Commonwealth archivists would never join in the Archives Section, it was obvious that the only solution was break away from the LAA.  The Mountain would have to come to Mahomet.  Michael spent countless hours convening and mentoring torrid discussions in Canberra and other capitals trying to reach agreement on the basics of separation and the model for a new association.  At last, it was agreed to set up a drafting committee to take the results of consultation ballots and work them up into a draft Constitution.  Michael was joined by NSW State Archivist (John Cross), Sydney University Archivist (Gerald Fischer), Bank of NSW Archivist (Pat Quinn), and by me as the semi-official representative of the Commonwealth Archives.  For much of 1974 I was involved in the drafting and when I left for London my place was taken by Max Franklin.  In 1975, while I was still in London, the Australian Society of Archivists was formed.

My Adventures Abroad (1974-1975)

I enjoyed living in London for the next 14 months.  My studies were diligent but not exhausting.  I decided to take the Australian taxpayer at his word and work public service hours on my studies.  That left my evenings and week-ends free to sample London’s theatres and concerts and to visit the cathedral towns at week-ends.  Owing to the favourable exchange rate, I was able to lead the lifestyle, if not of the rich-and-famous, at least of the reasonably well-off.  I learned to speak carefully with fellow students about the plays and concerts I was attending when I realised that I was describing a life-style that was simply out of the reach (and beyond the dreams) of most of them.  I still have ticket stubs for the best seats that cost me ₤3-45.  When I visit London now, I find it almost impossible to believe how lucky I was.

As part of the course work, we had to spend two secondments during vacations with working archives.  I worked at the East Sussex Records Office and the British Petroleum (BP) Archives.  I also arranged on my own account to visit records repositories around the UK and Eire.  My visit to the Bodleian at Oxford was memorable.  I was ushered into one of the cubicles along the main reading room in which the librarians worked (and had done, for all I knew, since Duke Humfry’s time).  He was very glad to see me.  Each librarian had an entertainment allowance but most visitors were librarians and he was in manuscripts – with few opportunities to use his allowance.  So my visit gave him a chance to do so and we dined well.  I was given a card entitling me to lifetime use of the Library.  I have it still.

I loved the State Paper Office in Dublin.  It was in Dublin Castle and the records were housed in the tower on shelves that ran up the circular walls in an ascending spiral.  I was told that this was the records room of the British Administration that had used the Castle as HQ until independence in 1922.  The records were therefore still housed in the very place in which they had been created,.  I thought this was marvellous and for years urged Australian archivists going overseas to see it.  Sadly, the SPO has now been amalgamated with the National Archives and the State Papers relocated.

Perhaps my most unusual visit was to the Guildhall Library and Records.  The Guildhall is the local government authority for the City of London.  They had immensely wealthy ratepayers and but few residents on whom to spend money.  In those pre-Thatcher days they were very wealthy.  It is the only archives I have encountered with too much money to spend.  On the day of my visit, the librarian was desperate to find something on which to use his unspent budget.  He had already purchased leather chairs for the reading room with gold embossed crests on them and he was now looking for the most expensive storage units he could find.  I don’t suppose it’s still like that because the records have now been separated (apparently) and lodged with the London Metropolitan Archives.

The Return of Ulysses and New Archives Legislation (1975-1978)

I got back to Australia in late 1975 in the midst of the political turmoil that led, on November 11, to the infamous dismissal of the Whitlam Government.  The Opposition was using its numbers in the Senate to block Supply and the Government was doing all it could to save money.  For a while it looked as if I might be stranded in London until the crisis was over (on the calculation that it would cost less to keep me there than fly me home).

Any expectation that my homecoming would be a triumph or that my newly acquired professional qualification would be put to immediate use was short-lived.  In an uncanny preview of what was to come fifteen years later, I was left in a kind of limbo with my colleague, Lindsay Cleland.  My nominal job as Senior Archivist ACT (Registration & Disposal) was being done by Marge Wheeler on an acting basis.  Lindsay’s corresponding job in Reference & Access was similarly being done by Lorraine McKnight.  Together we occupied, in perfect solitude, a ghostly outpost on Northbourne Avenue with virtually nothing to do.

Bob Neale arrived to be first Director-General of Archives and shortly thereafter I was made use of again.  I was asked to liaise with our parent department on a project (still-born, alas) to introduce computerisation to National Archives.  I also became “project officer” for impending archives legislation.  Little did we realise that it would be almost ten years before this project came to fruition by which time I would have moved on.  There was already a draft Bill when I became involved but it was far from ready to go forward.  My job was to accompany Keith Penny (the Director) on visits to the Parliamentary Counsel’s Office to discuss successive redrafts and to keep the files.

Then it was decided that the Archives Bill should become cognate with the proposed Freedom of Information Bill.  Our Bill was transferred to the office of the recently retired Chief Parliamentary Counsel, Charles Comans, who had returned as a Consultant and was now responsible for both Bills.  Comans was legendary.  Having worked in Canberra for decades, he could remember when mighty departments now employing ‘000s of staff first moved there and consisted of a dozen or so employees.  His friend and colleague in the Counsel’s Office, now his successor, was Bronte Clucas Quayle.  Charles had retired early as Chief Counsel to “give Bronte a go”.

For the next few years, we spent many hours (on and off) in Comans’ room painstakingly drafting and redrafting the Bill in the over-heated office during freezing Canberra winters and the stifling un-air-conditioned atmosphere of blazing Canberra summers.  For me this was an immensely happy time.  The detail was complex and arduous and Keith Penny gradually yielded to me because I had the time to concentrate and stay on top of it and could be relied on to uphold the Archives’ position.  The cut and thrust of the drafting process was a joy and I learned all about statutory interpretation from a master.  Whitlam complimented Comans by remarking that no legislation he drafted had ever been over-turned by the High Court.  Most lawyers get only a one semester option in statutory interpretation and I had years of practical instruction from one of the best.  I believe I came out of that experience as well trained in that aspect of the law as any newly graduated lawyer.

Progress on the legislation was tied to work on FOI.  When it was a priority, so were we and, when it languished, we languished with it.  Periods of intense activity alternated with long spells of inactivity.  The file grew to 20 or 30 parts.  In addition to drafting I was involved in Inter-Departmental committees and the preparation of Cabinet Submissions.  I was amazed by how calmly Comans responded to wildly inappropriate demands coming out of the Cabinet room.  Ministers’ “little frolics” he called them.  One day, as we worked through the provisions of the Bill dealing with regulation of departmental recordkeeping, he looked up at us and said “You know, this is going to be a pretty major piece of legislation.”  “Yes, Mr Comans,” we agreed.  He was drafting everything from scratch based on our instructions but on another lazy afternoon, he looked up at us and said, “I suppose the States must have archives legislation too, don’t they.”  “Yes, Mr Comans.”  There was pause, then he said “I don’t suppose they’re much good.”  We replied “No, Mr Comans.”  And then we got back to work.

The Bill became law in 1983 but by then I had left the Archives (in 1980).  I am pleased to say, however, that the 1983 Act (with some minor alterations and some subsequent amendments, not all of them happy) remains substantially the product of one of the most fruitful periods of my working life.  Later on, I used the experience to have significant input into the development of new legislation in Queensland  where I was consultant in the late 1980s and early 1990s to EARC (Electoral & Administrative Reform Commission) on archival legislation, in New South Wales where I was consultant in the late 1990s and early 2000s to the NSW Archives Authority on drafting new legislation there, and in New Zealand where, as Acting Chief Archivist and General Manager in the 2000s, I developed the policy papers upon which their new legislation was based.

Stuff Happens (1979-1980)

After four years of this, however, I was fed up. It was great during the periods of intense activity but mind-numbing during the periods of inactivity and these were becoming longer and more frequent. I wanted to get back to real work but this was being blocked. I had become increasingly disillusioned with the way Archives was being managed. I began to read up about it in management text books. Keith Penny regarded this as he might a tom-cat who kept bringing in smelly carcasses it had massacred the night before to lay at his feet. He did make use of it once, however. A review team had produced a report over-laden with jargon and he asked me to translate. I went away and looked up all the management-speak and brought back the results. There was one term, however, I simply couldn’t find anywhere. He was sufficiently emboldened by my work to ask them about it at the next meeting. “Oh, no,” they said, “you wouldn’t have found that; we made it up.”

By this time, I enjoyed the esteem of Bob Neale and I used this to regain my old position (and the real work that went with it) while remaining available to work on the legislation when needed. Eventually, a Bill reached Parliament. I drafted the Second Reading Speech and had the satisfaction (not) of sitting in the Chamber as it was read into the Parliamentary record. This means the speech was simply tabled and printed with not a single one of my words actually being spoken in the hallowed hall. Drat! Then the two bills (ours and FOI) were referred to Senate Committees. I gave lengthy evidence and had the satisfaction of rebutting the testimony of opponents who were trying to make out that our legislation would spell the end of Western Civilisation if not an actual collapse of the stratosphere. After that, I went on a tour of capital cities conducting public seminars on the draft Bill. Then - nothing. Our legislation remained tied to the politics of FOI. Meanwhile, I was having trouble back at the office. It all came to a head over a trivial matter and I decided to leave. I have no doubt that my departure was a relief to some.

I Have a Career Change and Go into the Welfare Business (1980-1981)

I got a job in the Legal Section of the Department of Social Security and I can say without hesitation that it was the happiest period of my working life, though one of the briefest.  I had always been told that archivists were not worthy to work in the big policy and operational departments of Canberra because we were not up to the responsibility.  I discovered that this was quite wrong.  In Archives we had to take responsibility for nearly everything we did because there were so few of us.  In DSS, and other big departments, every decision was checked and double-checked.  Even quite senior officials could be sure that any decisions they made would be reviewed by someone else.  Responsibility was spread very thin.

The reason I liked it was that, unlike in the archives, I didn’t care what happened.  It didn’t matter to me whether widows were housed or orphans fed, I just dealt with esoteric points of law and procedure.  I said this once to Nancy U’ren (who had a worthy and serious interest in welfare matters) and she was quite shocked.  It confirmed her worst fears, I guess, about faceless and unsympathetic bureaucracy.  The point is that by the time something reached my desk it was completely drained of human significance.  The last matter I dealt with is a case in point.  It was a prosecution in Hobart of a welfare cheat.  By the time it reached me, the issue was : should the magistrate hearing the case be bound by State or Federal laws of evidence?  How could you not derive pleasure from spending your days on something as inane as that?

Not only was I doing work of national insignificance, I had also begun a law degree at the Australian National University.

But Not for Long as I Take Charge of Victoria’s Public Records (1981-1990)

One day I was sitting at my desk in DSS looking at a newspaper advertisement for the position of Associate Keeper in the Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV) – a position established to recruit a successor to the First Keeper (Harry Nunn) who was about to retire.  I casually remarked that I could probably get that job if I applied and was urged to do so.  I am often urged to apply for other jobs but on this occasion I believe it was well-meaning and done out of a genuine regard for my welfare – misplaced as it turned out.

I got the job without, I think, fully realising the implications.  Harry Nunn had built PROV from virtually nothing within the State Library of Victoria.  He had achieved separation from the Library and got legislation passed which was quite good it its way.  He was a by-word for maintaining the importance of records management.  He was widely hated both within and without PROV and had been unable to organise the office into any sort of routine.  Everything was personalised and idiosyncratic.  On paper, I was responsible for a staff of about 60, but this was an organisation chart of positions whose duties were being carried out by less than 30 individuals.  The clue was that some names appeared up to four times in different positions.

In many ways, this was a metaphor for Harry’s regime.  Everything was bluster, over-statement and bluff.  What it was actually possible to do with the scant resources available was far less than Harry kept promising.  Moreover, the capacity to deliver was crippled by the absence of any routine procedures or infrastructure.  My arrival in Victoria was not universally welcomed and there were plenty of people waiting for me to fail – including Harry (who didn’t want to retire) and one or two unsuccessful applicants.  It gradually dawned on me that I would have to drastically diminish PROV’s aspirations, exposing myself to the charge that I had failed to live up to Harry’s (largely illusory) legacy, or go on faking it, earning the kind of contempt that he had endured.  Either way, I would be exposing myself to a lifetime of derision – sneered at for failing to achieve what had been promised because we simply didn’t have the resources to do anything like that.  I suppose I should have figured all this out before taking up the job, but I didn’t.  So, there it was.

I decided not to get myself into the same bind that Harry had been in and proclaimed the mismatch between our resources and the responsibilities we had under the legislation, the expectations raised by Harry over the years, and the clear need for better recordkeeping within the Victorian public sector.  I took the issue to the powers that be : if I didn’t feel I had any chance of fulfilling the statutory requirements I would have to say so when I reported to parliament and, if I didn’t say it in my first annual report, I never could again.  It would simply not be plausible to say it after a series of bland reports.  Unfortunately, this coincided with a change of government and the promises I had received to improve matters were not on the new regime’s agenda.  I had to go ahead or give up on that approach forever.

To cut a long story short, I submitted a damning report to parliament, didn’t get any help in resolving our dilemmas, and went on reporting.  What I got over the ensuing nine years (as I persisted in presenting reasoned analysis of the problems we were facing and proposed solutions) was bitter and quite vindictive persecution alternating with periods of indifference.  Just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean they weren’t out to get me.  They really were.  It all culminated in 1990 with my dismissal as Keeper arising out my insistence that a possible breach of the Act be properly dealt with.  In the end, I  was happy enough to go out on this issue rather than be ground down indefinitely.  I was transferred sideways into a specially created non-job of Chief Archivist.  I have told this story elsewhere.  The whole thing was dressed up as a revitalisation with additional resources (at last) being provided to establish a glossy envelope for PROV named the Archives Heritage Group.  My removal was justified on the grounds that the job now involved new duties and focus.  It was a sham.  There were media events, ephemeral publications and other smoke and mirrors, but the poor old PROV just went on as before within the glossy envelope.  When that circus moved on, PROV was joined to the Office of Library Services (OLS) and the Keeper’s position combined with that of Director OLS.

We did achieve some good things before my removal.  When I arrived, we had one electric typewriter.  When I left 17 years later, there was a PC on every desk.  We comprehensively developed the descriptive systems and in 1990 produced a Summary Guide (under the leadership of Sue McKemmish and Marg Burns).  This took the form of hundreds of pages on computer-output-microfiche (COM) accompanied by a Digest of the Public Records of Victoria in book form.  Apart from hundreds of hours of work by many hands, it was made possible by the development of ARCHIE, which was (I think) the first computerised application for controlling and describing the holdings of any government archives in Australia.

The legislation had provision for the Keeper to issue standards.  Harry had never done so.  We issued many standards over the years, using them to impose a quasi-legislative regime on the Victorian public sector and to regularise the framework for public recordkeeping.  We developed a framework for places of deposit allowing for use of private-sector commercial secondary storage and for local communities to retain permanent-value records in approved repositories instead of sending them to Melbourne.

More Stuff Happens (1990-1997)

The term “bastardisation” refers to work-place harassment designed to induce resignation.  From 1990 to 1997, I came to work every day, drew my salary, and was given virtually nothing to do.  I started to write – mostly articles for Archives & Manuscripts.  My good friend, John Cross, was kind enough to say that my enforced inactivity may not have done much good for Victoria, but it was of great value to the Australian archives profession.

This was the period when David Bearman started visiting Australia.  It was like an epiphany for some of us.  People react to David in various ways.  I am grateful to him above all for bringing into focus the distinction between method and purpose,  This is a commonplace idea in systems design but its significance for recordkeeping in the digital age was largely lost on me (and possibly others) because we had developed as tradesman.  Archives was a body of practice : skills which could be applied in endless variations but, despite claims in several text-books, without an underlying statement of purpose (or, rather, without the ability to disentangle purpose and method).  David’s exposition of the separation of recordkeeping requirements and recordkeeping methods gave us the framework that enabled us (me, at any rate) to start thinking about how to meet the challenges of computerisation.  There was simply no way of adapting archival skills to that challenge.  The old methods had to be thrown away, the requirements that those methods satisfied had to be distilled, and then new methods devised to satisfy those requirements in different ways.

This was also the time I was introduced to the Heiner Affair.  I won’t go into detail because much of my writing and speaking for the next 15 years spells it all out.  What made it a watershed for me of equal significance to the Bearman visits, was the wholly unexpected reaction of my profession.  I came upon it when Kevin Lindeberg ‘phoned me to ask my opinion on various technical issues.  This led me to read up on it and I was horrified.  How could this not have been at the forefront of professional activism?  I assumed that, because it was complicated, people just didn’t “get” its significance.  So I wrote an “Appreciation” for Council.  To cut a long story short, nothing was done and I eventually concluded that people didn’t want to know about it, probably because (unlike other lapses in recordkeeping accountability that we were quick to condemn) this involved one of our own.  It had never occurred to me that, knowing the facts, any archivist could fail to be outraged.  Instead, they equivocated, ducked for cover, and refused to act.  To say it was a revelation is an understatement.  Gradually I lost respect and regard for my chosen profession.  By the time it all played out, I had become terminally disillusioned.

John Cross was getting close to retirement and he wanted a new Archives Act for NSW before he left.  He commissioned me to be seconded from PROV as a consultant to help him get it through.  I have written this up elsewhere.  In my last six months at PROV, I was also seconded to Monash University to help develop distance education delivery for the Archives postgraduate courses there and to do some teaching work.

I Go to New Zealand Where Yet More Stuff Happens (1997-2003)

In 1997, I accepted a second invitation to join the National Archives of NZ (now Archives NZ) in the post of “General Manager”.  I should, by now, have learned to look a gift horse more closely in the mouth, but I was so fed up with Victorian spite and bile that I went without fully realising (again) what I was walking into.  They wanted to split the Archives into a purchaser and a provider.  The Chief Archivist (with all the statutory power) would be in one office with a few staff and the General Manager (with most of the staff, all of the infrastructure, and most of the budget) would deliver services to the Chief Archivist according to a purchase agreement between them.  This arrangement seemed bizarre to most people I spoke to about it, but it seemed to make sense to New Zealanders who were laying about them in a frenzy of their own peculiar brand of economic rationalism at that time.  The Chief Archivist, Kathryn Patterson, rightly saw this as a none-too-subtle attempt to undermine her statutory position.  She was determined to have an archivist as her GM and, after head-hunting, she got me.

I got off to a rocky start when I made every man, woman, and child several $NZD poorer.  Under New Zealand’s arcane method of national accounting, the “value” of the Archives’ holdings was entered as a dollar sum on the national accounts (along with the national library and museum collections, roads, bridges, and the nation’s forests).  When I suggested that it was flawed methodology to limit the valuation to archival records in custody and that it should be applied to all records throughout government (or at least the permanent-value ones) I got short shrift.  This was “collection” valuation only.  Soon after my arrival, I was told that I had inherited the duty of periodically estimating this value.  This was ridiculous so I employed a professional heritage valuer to do it - with the result that the former valuation went down by many $millions.  So large was the fall that it observably affected the national statement of accounts.  Kathryn and I were called before a parliamentary committee to explain.  I told them that if you multiply a fact (the quantity of holdings) by an opinion (the valuation) you had to expect fluctuations when the opinion changed.  They did not find this helpful.  We were asked for an assurance it wouldn’t happen again.  I said we couldn’t guarantee that a different valuer wouldn’t reach a different opinion but so long as we went on using the same chap there was unlikely to be a repetition of the downgrade.  Strangely, they seemed satisfied with that.

A group of stakeholders, including a very effective genealogical group, was mounting a legal challenge to the purchaser/provider split.  The stakes were raised when it was proposed to merge the Archives with other business units (including the national dictionary of biography) into a Cultural Heritage Group.  As my friend John Cross remarked at the time, referring to the brief submergence of PROV into an Archival Heritage Group in Victoria in 1990, “to lose one archives to heritage, Mr Hurley, may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two begins to look like carelessness.”  The stakeholders succeeded in getting a court judgement against the purchaser/provider split but when Kathryn’s contract expired it was not renewed and, pending completion of an appeal against the court judgement, I was made Acting Chief Archivist.  This lasted for some years until after a new election brought the Labour Party to power, pledged to reverse these policies and establish Archives as a department in its own right.  So, in the end, the NZ heritage group didn’t last much longer than the Victorian one but in each case, it had the result (if not the purpose) of unsettling my life.  In consequence, like the late unlamented Herman Goering, when someone says “heritage” now, I’m inclined to reach for my gun.

The stakeholders were immensely pleased by Archives’ elevation to departmental status.  They persisted in portraying this as “independence” for Archives – to the fury of the State Services Commissioner.  Although I loyally navigated this (as I believed, ill-advised) outcome, I told the stakeholders it was folly, that it was inherently unstable, and that sooner or later the decision would be reversed by some future, less friendly, government.  So it transpired within a decade.  Archives NZ has been merged, like so many other archives programmes, with the National Library.  I told them they should have tried to get something like QUANGO status.  This was difficult, however, because NZ had virtually done away with QUANGOs.  Whether the outcome would have been any different in the long run it is impossible to say.

None of this was pleasant, but I managed to pilot the institution through the process of separation from its parent department with more tact than many supposed me capable of.  It was messy and toes were trodden on, however.  An interim Chief Executive (Lynn Provost) was appointed.  When the job was eventually advertised, both Kathryn and I applied.  No one was appointed after the first round of interviews and I decided there was something fishy going on.  The head-hunting firm managing the process was in the dark but agreed with me that something was not right about it.  Kathryn, bless her optimistic woollen socks, re-applied for the second round but I dropped out.  A former Acting Chief Statistician was eventually appointed.

I managed to do some good things, however, during our brief time in the sunshine.  I wrote up the policy briefings for new legislation and got ministerial sign-off.  We embarked on a new computerisation project (GLADIS now ARCHWAY), and commenced work on a brief for the new Auckland building.  Once the new Chief Archivist got going, I was made redundant in 2002.

I Become a Banker (2003-2012)

Until recently I was Manager of the Commonwealth Bank’s Archives in Sydney.  I almost didn’t get the job.  They rang me up one evening in NZ as I was having a pre-dinner nap (there is a 2/3 hour time difference with Australia) and asked a number of HR questions to which I sleepily responded.  They asked me “why do you want to work for the Commonwealth Bank?”.  I said I didn’t especially, I just wanted to work as an archivist somewhere.  They appointed me anyway.  In 2011, I moved to part-time employment with the Bank in the position of “Specialist” while Vivienne Larking succeeded me as Manager.

I’m Out of Here (2013-2019)

In June, 2010, I moved from Sydney to Gosford 76km north of Sydney and 10m above sea level – into the house I purchased some years ago as my retirement home.  I asked about the sea level when I bought the house and the real estate agent thought I was crazy.  A few years later I was looking to buy another investment property and by then the question was routine and the agents all had the answer.  Times change.  I left the Bank in September, 2019.