Dr Sarah Black is Adelaide’s Diocesan Archivist and Guardian sat down with her recently to talk breeches, Tobruk, and everything in between;
Q. How did you come to be in this field?
A. I started out as a high school teacher, but returned to university for postgraduate study. During my postgrad years I volunteered for the Anglican Archives and the University of Adelaide Archives, and out of that I worked for the University Archives for a year or two, where I received my basic training.
Q. Was history always something that interested you?
A. Yes, I think so. I received almost no history teaching at school, but history was all around me nonetheless – I would have had a hard time escaping it. My mother was interested in family history research, so I grew up knowing history as a very personal matter of backgrounds and origins. I had a grade seven teacher who got us all to do some oral history with a family member, so I interviewed my grandfather, and I still remember the wonderful stories he told me from his life. As a teenager in the 1980s I did a student exchange and lived with a family in Germany for six months. Being quite an ignoramus about the history of the war, I was astounded to find that many people of the older generations wanted to talk to me about it, to reflect on their own personal histories, or their parents’ histories, from that fractured period. It was important to them to share with me how they made sense of their past. I suppose this showed me, in a particularly direct way, that the past is always with us, with each one of us, and that we need to learn its lessons.
Q. How did you come to be the Diocesan Archivist?
A. I was tapped on the shoulder by the previous archivist, Robin Radford, who asked for some help! I had volunteered for Robin years earlier, but in late 2013 she asked me to come back again. In 2014, she retired and at that point I took on the archivist role.
Q. What does the job involve?
A. Archiving is a wonderfully rich role. You may think it’s all about paper, but really, it’s all about people and their stories.
It starts with identifying records that should be preserved for posterity. This means those records that document the life, work, organisation and history of the Anglican Church in South Australia. I work with parishes, church office and various organisations and bodies within the church, to help identify and deal with records of archival merit. I am sometimes approached by members of the church or the broader public who have items that they wish to donate. Sometimes it might be a picture, or a set of letters, or some other record that relates to the history of the Anglican church in South Australia. There are some treasures out there.
Then comes the task of managing and caring for those records. You have to be careful always to preserve the known history and provenance of the record – who made it, when, what the context was, and so on. Respecting the original order of records is another important principle of archiving. The science of archival management is quite a big subject.
There is always plenty of listing, indexing and organising to be done. Records often need physical preservation work, whether it’s removing metal paperclips (tedious but necessary), polishing brass and silver, or preparing photographs for scanning. And then there’s the higher-order work of making sense of a pile of old papers, in order to transform them into a series that has a clear provenance and relationship to the organisational structure and history of the church.
Many of our older Anglican records are lodged in the State Library of South Australia, where they are permanently housed and accessible. I liaise with the State Library staff on this process.
Archiving involves being able to retrieve records as required for reference and research. The diocesan archives office receives many research requests each year, and we aim to provide people with appropriate information as well as we can.
Ultimately, archives are about memory and about communication. People come to the archives when they have a puzzle they need to solve. My job involves finding pieces of puzzles for people, and helping them put the pieces together.
Q. What makes (Adelaide) Anglican history unique?
A. This may sound trite, but – it’s us! It is our history, as part of the community of the people of God. We have our successes and our failures, our aspirations, our processes and our stories.
Each of the Anglican dioceses of Australia has historically been relatively independent of the others, and consequently we have our own culture and ways of doing things.
Adelaide is, by all accounts, a good example of the breadth of the Anglican communion, and of how the Anglican church, being a broad church, has to respect and encompass difference. Our diocesan records reflect this self-understanding from quite early in our history.
Q. What are some of the more interesting articles / items that you’ve come across?
A. Gosh – so many! Inevitably, I have a few of my own personal favourites. One would be a copy of the Geneva Bible, known as the “Breeches” bible because Adam and Eve, in this translation, sewed their fig leaves together to make themselves some breeches! The Geneva Bible was an incredibly important bible, a powerhouse of early Protestantism and the bible that Shakespeare would have used. The copy held by us came down through some of our important early clergy families, and was gifted to the archives in 2012.
Another item that I find very evocative is a set of communion linens used by a chaplain in World War 2, including at Tobruk and at Lae in Borneo. My great uncle was at Tobruk, and I wonder if he might have seen those communion linens in action.
Finally, I’ll mention our collection of clergy memoirs, diaries, correspondence and biographies. These are a marvellous resource. (Clergy, remember that the memoirs and biographies of today will be the resources of tomorrow, so keep on writing those life histories, and sending the archives a copy!) One letter by the young Reverend Leonard Maund, who came from theological college in Canterbury, England to be the curate of All Saints’ Hindmarsh in 1897, describes the joy of riding through the bush, on mission journeys through what are now the northern suburbs, the perfect silence broken by nothing but the sound of a laughing kookaburra. How times have changed!
Q. Why is this job / the preservation of history important?
A. One of our core challenges as human beings is to make sense and meaning out of the past. From our knowledge of our history, we build narratives that give us insight into our present times, and that help us to move forward in life. This is a foundational human activity that enables us to understand ourselves and others, and to chart our course through the present and into the future.
If we don’t, it’s like we are walking around with one eye closed. Try that, and you’ll see what I mean. With only one eye open, we see the same things but we lack depth perception. That makes it harder to move confidently, and we are more likely to stumble. Memory of the past is essential to our functioning. That’s true for individuals, and also for communities and institutions.
For an institution such as the church, archives are important for all those same reasons about memory, self-understanding and orienting yourself in the present and for the future. In addition, well-managed archives are essential for good governance, efficient administration, operational integrity, and for ensuring accountability both now and in the future.
Sir Ninian Stephen, former High Court Justice and Governor-General, said in 1984, “without archives there would be no verifiable past and mankind would be left with no more than the fleeting present and the unknowable future.”
Archives preserve the verifiable evidence of the past, and that what makes them so important. Every time I am able to give a former resident of our church homes information about their time in care, every time I can give somebody information that they need to do their job, or write their parish history, or run their school, or whatever it may be, I know how important the church archives are.