NSW Premiers History Awards - Long message

Fiona Burn fionab at naa.gov.au
Tue Sep 14 12:32:17 EST 1999


Last night  The New South Wales Premier's History Awards 1999 were
presented at Government House, Sydney. The winner of The Premier's
Community and Regional History Prize, was Dr Janet McCalman, for her
book Sex and Suffering. Women's Health & a Women's Hospital: the Royal
Women's Hospital, Melbourne, 1856-1996. Melbourne University Press. Dr
McCalman made some interesting points about research, privacy and the
importance of recordkeeping in her acceptance speech, which is
reproduced below with kind permission. I have also sent a copy of the
speech for inclusion in the ASA Bulletin.


Mr Premier and distinguished guests, I am honoured indeed for my book to
be so recognised. I would also like to take this opportunity to express
my admiration for all you have done to promote the study and writing of
history in schools and in the community. In this, NSW really is the
Premier State. This is a project very close to my heart. Victoria has
finally followed your lead in restoring History and Geography as
discrete subjects to the compulsory years of schooling, and the
government has also instituted History awards, although with smaller
prizes and less publicity. 

If Sex and Suffering is an effective book, it is not really because of
my skill, but because somehow over the past 140 years, no one got round
to throwing out all those dirty patient records; and no one became so
paranoid about the privacy of the patients that they had to be burnt or
shredded. Of course the modern records are being destroyed, once they
are deemed unnecessary for medical reference or potential litigation.
But in the past, the birth records were kept because they were
historical and someone, somewhere along the line realised that the
unique archive of 14,000 gynaecology records from 1883 to 1936 were
important beyond the claims of the immediate present.

The most important responsibility that government bears for history is
in the making, preserving and public management of records: records of
its activities for the future scrutiny of an open society, and records
for the stories of the human lives its agencies touched whether as its
employees, its clients, its prisoners, patients, students, or voters.
These latter records of the interactions between individuals and the
state and its agencies are often the only historical records we have of
ordinary people. Government archives are essential to the writing of
history from below.

Six years ago, my colleague Mark Peel made inquiries on our behalf of
the NSW Department of Education as to whether we could obtain access to
student records so that we could write a comparative history of
secondary education in NSW,  South Australia and Victoria from the
1920's to the 1970's. We wished to find out what actually happened to
the students: their social class, their gender, their scholastic
attainment over time and through quite different state systems. We were
assured that we could have access - the work in Victoria had already
largely been done by me for my book on the Melbourne middle-class,
Journeyings. Confident of access, we applied to the Australian Research
Council and were awarded one of the scarce large grants.

By the time we had our grant, everything changed. The department had
suddenly become worried about privacy. No assurances of ours that we
would extract only statistical information and would submit our work
pre-publication for examination for any breach of privacy, were
sufficient. Moreover the department claimed ownership of any work we
did, and reserved the right to use it for its own purposes - at the
time, the defence of selective schooling which was making its return to
NSW - irrespective of whether we approved of that deduction or not.
After a wasteful delay, the ruling eventually was made that we could not
see anything that contained a student's name.

South Australia played even more games; referred us to a Privacy
Committee which had been disbanded and finally said no. We now know that
they are destroying all their student records: the single most important
archive of teaching, learning and human development that the state
possessed. These are records that tell of the history of childhood, of
health and sickness, of schools and schooling, of immigration and the
processes of adjustment, of gender, ethnicity, and social class in the
training of Australian Citizens.

Paranoia and secrecy are the greatest enemies of history. In Victoria,
the full history of the Kennett years may never be written because most
of the truly important documents are deemed 'commercial in confidence'
and will never come under the Public Record Act. The fact that one party
to those confidential agreements are the people of Victoria, apparently
doe not entitle them to scrutinise those transactions made with their
own taxes. This is taxation without representation. We may have a
Freedom of Information Act, but most documents arrive with all their
substantive contents blacked out because of 'confidentiality'. If
Victoria is less paranoid about its school records than NSW or South
Australia, it may be because IQ testing was not practiced systematically
in Victorian schools. (It was assumed from the 1920s to the 1950s that
only 5 per cent of state school students has the capacity for
professional and semi-professional training and everyone else
automatically went to technical school to learn how to stay working
class. The middle class, of course, had its own system of schooling in
the private sector.)

We must not be afraid of the past and what it can teach us: with strong
Public Record Acts, well-managed archives and professional care, we can
protect the privacy of the living while preserving their stories for all
time. But we must be aware also that with electronic records, most of
the archive from now on will be unretrievable. When Victoria's State
Electricity Commission was broken up and privatised, its precious
scientific and engineering archives went to the University of Melbourne
where it was found that already over 350 different electronic systems
had been used to collect records and that only 15 per cent were readable
by existing technology.

History cannot exist without historical records. We cannot simply make
it up. Oral History has its time-limits. Preserving historical buildings
and streetscapes is heritage, but heritage is only a small part of
history.

History is not about witch hunts, but it is about asking the hard
questions, about the search for the truth of matters, about the
discovery of how the world became what it did, and life and its meaning.
History has blossomed since the first of the great French social
historians dug into the archives of the Ancien Regime's and First
Republic's tireless bureaucrats to rewrite the history of the French
Revolution from below. The English Home Office records of political
subversives, criminals, pornographers and poachers have rewritten the
history of the English common people. We can thank also the bureaucratic
mind for the records of our convict ancestors with which we can recreate
the history of Australia; and from the measuring their heights, even
estimate the level of nutrition and well-being in the British industrial
revolution. We are now measuring the crimes of the Soviet Union in the
1930s because of the records created by obsessive bureaucrats who logged
every famine death and political execution. We will not, however, one
day be able to assess the impact of the current revolution in medical
practice on patient experiences including readmissions, lingering
morbidity and rehabilitation, because the records are not kept. 

Great, untouched archives enable us to people our histories with the
real men, women and children of the past. Yes, we have infringed their
privacy; but we have also restored them to posterity so that we can
share their lives and learn their lessons. We have made their lives
count for the future, not be lost and forever forgotten. They become in
imagination part of us, and in doing that we extend our humanity, not
diminish it; as the freedom of historical inquiry defends our right to
liberty and free speech.

Dr Janet McCalman FAHA
Senior, Lecturer, 
Centre for the Study of Health and Society.
University of Melbourne


Fiona Burn
Promotions and Information
ASA Council
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