The responsibility of the gatekeeper

Mrs Jenny Davis, Librarian – Special Collections

An archivist holds a potent position in any institution but what do old, dusty archives, stored away in secure vaults and locked rooms, have to do with power? Just suppose an archivist, gate-keeper to one of thousands of collections worldwide, took exception to an account of events, or a disparaging piece of correspondence, or an offensive or biased report? Would they not be tempted to destroy the damning item? Would anybody be the wiser? Perhaps not — the writer of the letter or author of the report might well have passed away or have long forgotten its existence.

Archives — as records — wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship and collective memory, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies, and in the pursuit of their professional responsibilities, archivists do wield enormous power over those very records; they have the ability to change historical accounts through their control of the very resources in their care.

Girls Grammar is proud of its tradition and reputation of being a leader in the world of education and at the forefront of pedagogical research. The collection of historical documents stored in the Mothers Group Archives Centre reflects this and acts as a source of inspiration for the School community. Memories fade and recollections of places and events change over time. In the Archive we are fortunate to have a wealth of recollections, reports and correspondence collected over the past 140 years recounting the history of the School through the participation of the 101 Board Members, sixteen Principals, many hundreds of teachers and staff, and the 21  874 students who have passed through its doors.

Stored on a deep shelf in the repository of the Archive is a leather-covered ledger, the School Inspectors’ Report Book for the years 1910 to 1912. It has a beautiful brass clasp, and lock and key. On the cover is written ‘The Property of the Trustees’ and inside is a list of the staff at that time, accompanied by remarks about teachers — an early version of modern staff performance reviews. Despite the fact that it was kept secure, the first couple of pages of remarks have been defaced. This act of vandalism had been done some time ago, the ink rubbed off making holes in the pages, and again raises so many questions: why had these tantalising entries been removed; were they deemed too critical, too harsh? Questions about which we can speculate today but to which we will never know the answers.

Although we cannot read the contents of this old ledger there are so many other treasures to enjoy, often only revealing their true value over time. One of these only recently came to light, and is particularly important in 2015 — the year of the Centenary of Gallipoli — when Australians are reminded of the many men and women who served in the Great War. Some time ago I came across a charming, unframed watercolour tucked away in a drawer. The painting was of an elderly woman standing in a garden in front of a small cottage. Written at the bottom was ‘Aunty Grace’s house’, and underneath, in pencil, ‘Mooroolbark’. There was no name or date and the painting appeared to be an example of a piece of student art. Recently, while carrying out some research on a past student, the name ‘Mooroolbark’ surfaced again, and the painting’s subject and its importance finally came to light.

In 1897, Grace Wilson spent a year at Girls Grammar in the Remove Class[1]. Grace went on to train as a nurse and, by the time World War I broke out, she was matron of the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Grace was one of the first nurses to sign up with the Australian Imperial Force, and in 1915 was sent to the island of Lemnos as matron in charge of the hospital which would care for the wounded Australian soldiers from Gallipoli. Grace had an extraordinary nursing career, was decorated for her service in both World Wars, and eventually retired to Mooroolbark, Victoria. So this was the ‘Aunty Grace’ so lovingly painted in the small watercolour! At last a 70-year-old treasure could finally be identified and find its proper place in the collection.

The First World War had a significant impact on the School; in response to its declaration, the Old Girls formed the Grammar School War Memorial Fund, and staff and students rallied to support the men who had signed up. They raised funds to support the Red Cross, the Returned Soldiers’ Residential Club and the Australian Comforts Funds. They put parcels together to send overseas, knitted socks and blankets, as well as signing up themselves to join the Australian Imperial Force, the Red Cross, the Voluntary Aid Detachment working as nursing orderlies, and other service organisations. Some stayed on the home front to work for the war effort, while others went overseas to places as far afield as Lemnos, Abbassia, Salonica, London, Abbeville, Suez — even to Bangalore, India.

Erected in 1948 in the old Assembly Hall — now the Annie Mackay Room — is the Old Girls’ War Memorial Honour Board 1914–18, with its list of thirteen names. These are our own ANZAC girls, young women who, like Grace Wilson, left Australia and went to care for the wounded soldiers abroad. The list has grown over the years as more names have been found — recently one was discovered on the Royal Brisbane Hospital’s Memorial Board, while another was identified in the 1918 School magazine.

It is through the work of the archivist that these links connecting the contributions of students to the world are revealed and that their characters, nurtured by the Girls Grammar tradition are acknowledged and recognised. Tradition is very important in keeping a community together but, sadly, some traditions at Girls Grammar have been lost over time, and only the memory is kept safely in the Archive. One such example was the annual planting of trees in the ANZAC Grove. ‘On ANZAC Day we planted trees in our ANZAC Grove, in honour of the soldiers who fought and died for us in the Great War. The task of keeping up this custom and carrying on the old school traditions in future years rests with those girls who are now in the lower school and with the new girls’. (BGGS Magazine, June 1921, p. 4)

It is not enough that the repository shelves are full; the archivist’s job is to make sense of this array of disparate formats — from rare books to photographs, from letters, reports and manuscripts to born-digital archival records — and to reflect the historical and educational foundation of a school proud of its place as a leader of exceptional scholarship.


Kaplan, E. (2000). We are what we collect, we collect what we are: archives and the construction of identity. American Archivist, 63, 126–151.

Schwartz, J.M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory, Archival Science, 2, 1–19.

Jimerson, R.C. (2005). Embracing the power of archives. American Archivist, 69, 19–32.

[1] The Remove Class ‘was formed to meet the needs of girls who entered the School at a late age’ (Head Mistress’s Report for 1897)