It’s their story

Mrs Kristine Cooke, Director of Information Services and Mrs Jenny Davis, Special Collections Librarian

Imagine a brand new Year 7 student opening, like an historian or an archaeologist, the school ‘port’ of a Grammar girl from the 1930s or the 1960s. Inside are artefacts that provide clues and insights into that girl’s life — a life so far removed from 2016. It is like stepping into a time warp that allows genuine understanding of the significance of the items and what they can tell a modern student about how that earlier girl lived, what her school and schooling were like, even what she wore.

How much better this experience is if the items are real. How delightful for the girl to handle the actual items and how exciting for the archivist who assembled them to see the wonder and curiosity on the young students’ faces. This is partly the reason working in an academic archive is rewarding because sharing the history of an institution has such immediate rewards.

The guidelines of the Society of American Archivists advise that the special role of academic archives should evolve from the aspiration of the institution to which they are attached and have a particular role in ‘supporting teaching and enhancing the curriculum’. The aim is not to lock away the history but use it to inform the scholars of today.

The whole publicised intent of Brisbane Girls Grammar School is to be a ‘leader in exceptional scholarship’, aiming to accomplish this through the provision of an ‘exemplary broad liberal education for girls’. The Beanland Memorial Library, under whose umbrella the archive sits, works to stimulate and enhance this learning ethos. Its professional staff members provide customised services, specifically designed to link the student with relevant and stimulating resources and experiences.

In addition, the Australian Curriculum requires an increased integration of relevant and appropriate primary resource material into the classroom. Of particular importance are primary source materials which have a strong local interest. When introducing students to such primary sources, it is apparent that a relationship to the source makes it easier for students to identify with the material and enables them to relate it directly to their own coursework and their own lives. This is why Girls Grammar Humanities staff decided to introduce Year 7 students, new to the School, to its own particular history by way of their first unit: Investigating the Past.

Students are introduced to the study of history and the Australian History Curriculum’s key concepts: evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, perspectives, empathy, significance and contestability. And they experience these concepts by investigating their own school environment. They are taken outside the classroom, away from the idea that history is about old or boring people and irrelevant dates through an introduction to Girls Grammar’s archival and material culture.

During the students’ ‘“hands-on’ archive session, they are given an overview of the collection and its purpose and are presented with materials pre-selected from The Mothers Group Archive Centre. Students are told what an archive is, the types of items it holds, and what it does, as well as archival etiquette: handling items with care and wearing gloves when touching precious documents and books.

To respond to and explore the hypothesis: ‘life as a Brisbane Girls Grammar student was very different in the past’, digital school ports were made available to the students. These comprised genuine items from the School archive. The suitcase contains items from 1900 to 1922: a leather writing tablet, an early post card of the School, Beatrice Monteath’s Diagrams book, an early newspaper article about trams, Doris Kennedy’s 1915 quarterly report card and a photograph of students seated in a classroom in 1922. Once students had studied the contents online, they were asked to decide the accuracy of the hypothesis for themselves from the evidence provided.

Pedagogical initiatives such as this inquiry-based learning task and document-based questions at all levels make primary resources an important teaching tool. The library staff, including the Special Collections Librarian, work closely with teachers planning and resourcing units. More and more, the School archive is able to offer information about the content of its collections relevant to units of work. The archive is able to allow students ‘to tell their own stories’ and it is not lost on the present students that perhaps, one day, future students may be opening 2016 school bags to glimpse their world.

It would be remiss of the archive staff not to conclude with a plea for donations. It is important that any member of the School community, past and present, feel free to offer memorabilia, no matter how apparently insignificant. The aim is to develop a more comprehensive portrait of the life of the School and, especially, its students. Of particular interest, because the archive has so little, is work completed in class: workbooks, annotated textbooks, equipment, anything that adds to our understanding of the lives of those who spent so much time within our walls.