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Spotlight on: University of Melbourne Archives

You don’t need to have scholars on the family tree to find university archives useful. Shauna Hicks takes us through the extensive resources on offer at the University of Melbourne Archives.

Universities maintain their own archives for ongoing records generated by the university itself, such as those relating to staff and students. But few realise that many university archives are also collecting archives. What does this mean for family historians? The archives may also collect records on their local area or on specific subject areas.

For example, the University of Melbourne Archives holds not only the historical records of the University, which was established in 1853, but also a range of other materials. Established in 1960, the Archives has records dating from the 1850s to the present day, spanning approximately 18 shelf kilometres of records.

It collects records of Victorian businesses, trade unions and other labour organisations, community and cultural organisations as well as the personal papers of prominent individuals, including former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

In 2013 the University Archives announced that it is acquiring the personal papers of Germaine Greer (filling more than 150 filing cabinet drawers!), but not all of us have connections to famous people. So what else is of interest to genealogists?

The Archives’ holdings of labour history material is quite substantial with more than 100 trade unions represented. Another major strength is its records relating to over 300 Victorian businesses, plus the personal papers of many individual businesspeople.

Examples of professional and community organisations held include the Commercial Travellers Association, Australian Association of Social Workers, Citizens Welfare Service of Victoria, Melbourne City Mission, Royal College of Victorian Nursing and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to mention just a few.

For your own research,the online subject guides are a useful starting place covering a variety of topics such as nursing, early Melbourne retailers, Gippsland, real estate agencies, sports, women, Ballarat, mining, Ned Kelly and much more. Clicking on a guide link brings up a list of collections relevant to that subject. For example, the guide on women has three sub-categories: individual women; organisations run by and for women; and women in trade unions. Selecting the latter category leads to records on boot trade employees, postal and telecommunications, hairdressers and wigmakers, textile workers, clothing and allied trades, felt hatters and female confectioners.

The online finding aids to the individual collections are a good place to start browsing what is in the collection. This is a useful way to get to know the collection before searching the image catalogue or the Archives’ main catalogue with either simple or advanced searches. Remember that archival records are usually described at series and item level; they are mostly not indexed at a personal name or place level.

In 2010 it was the University of Melbourne Archives’ 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion an exhibition Primary Sources: 50 Years of the Archives was held. A number of stories from the exhibition highlight the diversity of the Archives’ collections. For example, one story entitled ‘No sweet life for confectioners’ tells how hard it was for females working in the confectionery trade. In 1909 male confectioners were being paid two and a half times more than women doing the same work.

‘A letter from Gallipoli’ is another story featured and it was written by William Hoggart in April 1915 shortly before he was killed in action at Gallipoli. He was an alumnus of the University and had been a teacher at Melbourne Grammar School before his enlistment. In the letter, which was written to University Principal Dr John Smyth, Hoggart refers to divisional exercises, his impressions of Egypt and details what life was like on board his transport vessel. He left behind a wife and two daughters.

‘For God, home and humanity: the temperance movement’ provides an interesting look at the history of this movement. The largest temperance organisation in Victoria was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, established in 1887. Its aim was to educate the young on the perils of liquor, to reform drinkers, to influence public thinking and to agitate for legislation against the liquor trade. It is accompanied by a photo of the 1937 Jubilee Convention.

The University of Melbourne’s Collections magazine is a twice-yearly online magazine featuring articles based on and around materials held within the University’s cultural collections including the archives.

Visiting the archives

The collections are stored off site and must be ordered the day, or several days, before viewing at the Baillieu Library in the University of Melbourne. Current opening hours are on the website. Before making a personal visit it is essential to determine what records you want to view.

Explore the University of Melbourne Archives website, visit its online exhibitions, read its online magazines, browse its images and archives catalogues and maybe find some records that are of personal interest to your own research. Or perhaps try another university archive closer to home. Happy researching.

Shauna Hicks is the director of Shauna Hicks History Enterprises and has more than 35 years’ experience in Australian, English, Scottish, Irish and Norwegian research. Visit

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