Australian Prime Ministerial Libraries-Comments and Reflections
Piggott, Michael, Australian Academic & Research Libraries
Something strange and exotic began appearing in the 1990s. Australian universities, particular kinds of universities, began establishing a local version the US presidential libraries. At the time, however, I confess my immediate reaction was that the idea was not just surprising, but odd: odd as in 'oddball', only slightly more understandable than the Grainger Museum or the Stockman's Hall of Fame. So it seemed to me then, given my background with two Australian national institutions which held prime ministerial collections and where I had worked on papers of the two Billys, Hughes and McMahon. I also knew none of the universities in question involved were prime ministerial alma maters, and more importantly, knew that the US presidential library system was effectively part of national archival arrangements. (1)
Some believe the jury is still out on prime ministerial libraries (PMLs). Some, perhaps with an axe to grind, think that they are an experiment which may still fail; that we have only the barest outlines of a prime ministerial library system in this country. We cannot ignore a decade's activity and achievement by half a dozen universities, however, and we should reject querulous eyebrow raising and attempt serious understanding.
It is commonplace to observe that much about a society can be revealed by the mode it adopts to memorialise and remember its political leaders and heads of states. Images of pharaohs and pyramids, giant statues of heroic leaders, and men in Mao jackets and outstretched arms typically come to mind. Similarly telling can be the repercussions for leadership worship when wars are lost (Germany post 1945) and political systems collapse (USSR and Eastern bloc regimes, 1980s and 1990s). At times of great change in a society's regard for a former leader there are consequences, too, for their legacies in libraries archives and museums: changes in access to relevant documents, exhibitions and official histories and biographies.
Spain provides a case in point, given the reaction in 2002-2003 to the Partido Popular government providing 83,000 euros to the Francisco Franco Foundation to modernise its archives, including its vast Franco collection. Around the same time, in Malaysia with its National Archives run memorial museums to prime ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak, there was similarly interesting discussion as to how Dr Mahathir Mohamad would be remembered through his personal collection of books and speeches. In Canada, despite the central political papers role of the Library and Archives Canada, in June 2003 Jean Chretien's decision to establish a political museum prompted calls for a university-based prime ministerial system using the John Diefenbaker Centre in Saskatoon as the model. In the US, widely cited as the benchmark, there is disquiet. Late last year the focus was on the way Bill Clinton was being presented by his presidential library, a renewed debate reflecting concerns of the moment with some detractors referring to 'Clinton's Lie-Bray'. And even America's cold war enemy is experiencing sharp discussion about the continued display of Lenin's body in his mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square. A poll conducted last year showed most Russians support burial, despite a communist party campaign to ensure the status quo.
International comparisons would place local PML debate at the mute if not entirely moot end of the spectrum, although apart from some similarities with the US system the contrasts themselves are stark. For instance, some including cartoonists may fondly recall Sir Robert Menzies as 'Ming the Merciless', and who remembers the identity of 'Honest Joe'; whereas the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, has been immortalised with the title 'Ataturk'. Similarly, three western leaders have entered the language via 'Reaganomics', 'Churchillian' and 'Thatcherism' in a way 'Keatingesque' and 'Whitlamite' so far at least have not quite achieved. But within the Commonwealth our prime ministerial libraries render us distinctive. How did this happen?
To account for their emergence, we should start with the 1980s and 90s context. There were varied centenary of federation programs to stimulate interest in government, political history, civics, and especially the early prime ministers. There was also a renewed scholarly focus on Australian prime ministers resulting for example in more revisionist 'warts and all' biographies, (2) on their national leadership role, their office bureaucracies, their advisers, their speech making and the role of their wives. Archivists even began to explore their documentation. (3)
The higher education context is also suggestive. Prime ministerial libraries are recent creations by newer institutions--gumtrees, unitechs and new universities, though Liz Curach's description of UWS as aspirational, young and energetic captures the idea too. (4) By contrast, for the first 60 years of prime ministerial rule, it never occurred to old sandstone and oldish redbrick universities to establish them, nor to do so today though the precedent has been set. Each university of course has its own particular motives, as contributions to this volume show, but are there additional more general explanations? Cultural historians have noted how seriously new nations emphasise heritage and traditions, and there is some evidence to suggest we might extend this to universities. (5) It is interesting how keen the contributors on Curtin and Hawke are to stress their premier status ('Australia's first prime ministerial library'; 'World's first prime ministerial library established in the lifetime of the prime minister'). It is similarly interesting that, as Sandra Mackenzie explains, the 1850s established University of Melbourne, despite having relevant associations and collections, chose a different model for Menzies in the 1970s, and though it flirted with the PM library model in 2000, rejected it recently when acquiring the library and papers of another ex prime minister. Similarly, the redbrick University of New South Wales in the mid 1990s appointed Paul Keating a visiting professor, made him Honorary Doctor of Laws and inquired after his personal papers, but nothing more.
The prime ministerial library phenomenon raises all sort of questions--about the host universities and our society. It is remarkable there are no high profile university based 'libraries' honouring state premiers, despite many long serving candidates who enjoy/ed wide community and bipartisan esteem. The Don Dunstan Foundation, based at the University of Adelaide, represents the closest approach. (6) However it is Flinders University, also involved with this project, which holds the Dunstan papers. Flinders is also home to the Evatt papers and Evatt Foundation--Australia's only alternate prime ministerial library, so to speak. We might also speculate as to why there would almost certainly never be prime ministerial libraries to certain prime ministers. To date PML universities have very carefully negotiated bi-partisan endorsements, if not direct federal government funding. But the need for this and other realities such as length of time in office makes it hard to imagine a prime ministerial library centred on, for instance, Chris Watson, W M Hughes, Earle Page or William McMahon. In the US, even presidents who served only one term or less, or who resigned from office in disgrace, have their 'libraries'.
Looked at functionally, prime ministerial libraries are an attempt to provide services and resources about the subject's life and times better packaged and more conveniently and expertly delivered than one receives or might have received elsewhere. They aim to gain custody of, or digital copies of, all relevant materials across the collections sector, in Australia and beyond. Though called libraries, as hybrids covering all curatorial disciplines and more they adopt what Canadians would call a 'total archives' approach. They aspire to hold all kinds of sources about their ex PM, his multiple contexts and his social and international causes and interests, and to provide a 'one-stop-shop' gateway to all relevant sources held elsewhere, and to present them as part of a total cultural, scholarly and educational experience. The access model is on-line, value added and comprehensive, and happens in a learning and research setting.
Digitisation is especially relevant here. One of the key natural advantages of PMLs--their specialist focus--is potentially undermined because none of them began with the central prize of the archival papers. These were usually already with the National Archives or National Library while much additional material was scattered in other institutions and private hands. Providing on-line copies of as much relevant content as possible largely overcomes this disadvantage. All PMLs obviously made a strategic decision very early to provide as much electronically as their budgets and partnerships allowed.
The PML specialist access model vis-a-vis the Canberra-based generalist institutions recalls debates within and around the National Library in the late 1970s and early 1980s when some film division staff in concert with film history researchers and industry representatives argued for a new film and sound archive institution. With the successor ScreenSound 20 years later, the reverse argument was rehearsed around the proposal to amalgamate it with the Australian Film Commission. One might even place the lineage earlier, to arguments for and against the Commonwealth National Library retaining its archives division and discouraging Professor Noel Butlin at the Australian National University from collecting business archives. There are also many parallels in the gallery and museum worlds, where generalist national institutions are complemented by specialist concentrations on portraits, war, maritime history, mining and so on. Similarly, in the archives and library manuscripts community, one sees special focuses on individuals (eg Ted Strehlow), broad societal themes (business and labour) and special case agencies (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Reserve Bank).
So on balance, we may argue that the public, schools and scholars benefit. Who else? The host universities? Approached firstly at the most superficial level, it is perfectly sensible for a university to profile an eponymous Monash, Cowan, Flinders or Macquarie; perfectly normal to see on their websites scanned photos, timelines and a concentration of resources in their archives or library special collections, and the cultivation of a continuing relationship with the descendants. This is hardly the motivation for Curtin and Deakin, of course, and does not account for the University of Western Sydney (ie not Whitlam University) and the University of South Australia (ie not Hawke University).
The public aside, in reading the seven accounts for this theme issue along and between the lines, it is clear the host universities also had much to gain, and gained much. Alan Bundy's insider's account of Professor Bradley's reaction, and the Curtin authors' first quote from consultant George Nichol's report could not be clearer with their references to profile and reputation. Ex prime ministers have also provided universities with a very high profile name and associated rationale around which to develop academic programs, public events and developmental opportunities.
A tougher question to consider is whether the National Library and National Archives have benefited too. After all, as Graeme Powell and Maggie Shapley explained, for many decades these were the accepted custodians of prime ministers' papers only to face competition for relevant material, for the attention of families of deceased prime ministers, and in several cases the prospect of ex prime ministers directing that their personal papers be moved out to a new home. They have responded with both resignation and maturity, as one would have expected, cooperating through digitisation, joint exhibitions and other partnerships. They have designed discovery infrastructure so that interest in a particular prime minister directed primarily to a PML is encouraged back to their own materials, and cooperated (with the National Archives in the lead) to create the key prime ministers gateway with strong government backing.
Finally, we may assume--and trust--that ex prime ministers who have their 'own' library, and the family of deceased prime ministers, have not gone unrewarded. In the former case, they are able to see debates and research relating to their beliefs, interests and causes undertaken and promoted. Thus in his inaugural lecture marking the beginning of the Hawke Centre, Bob Hawke expressed the hope that it would 'help to stimulate, in young people particularly, the joy of learning and intellectual pursuits and that the research institute will, in some small way, foster a better understanding of issues that are important for our society and the region in which we live'. (7) For the families, the libraries represent public recognition in an educational and knowledge setting, and in a country which has not automatically recognised occupants of high office in many enduring ways.
To my mind, the core challenge represented by PMLs is getting the framework right. This agenda has two elements. The first is the need for a clearer policy vision for universities' cultural and research collections of national importance, as clearly identified in Alan Bundy's paper. Such an approach would ideally avoid the narrow museum focus of earlier efforts such as the AVCC commissioned Cinderella collections and emulate the inclusiveness of the recently established Collections Council of Australia. To achieve genuine acknowledgement for universities' national collections role, however, the CCM board membership may warrant some fine tuning. (8)
Secondly there is the absence of an Australian prime ministerial library system. The four PMLs aside, the memory of our prime ministers is perpetuated through portraits, biographies, busts beside lakes and gardens, scholarships and trusts, the Menzies Foundation being easily the best example to date. Their names have been used in a myriad of formal settings, from Canberra suburbs to US destroyers. (9) Officially, however, arrangements and protocols are in place for entitlements, gifts, graves, state funerals and official archives, little more. And for all the parallels with the US presidential library system, several very significant differences stand out. (10) In the US, Congress has legislated four times in the past 50 years to establish and refine a system for its presidents' effects.
Do we need a tax payer funded legislatively backed proper equivalent to this system? Despite what is implied by some of the previous authors, the loss of papers was not due to the lack of a relevant prime ministerial library, but neglect by those who controlled them and the failure for whatever reason to attract a collecting institution. Perhaps we should let the Australian public decide if it wants to remember a former prime minister through a library. If enough individuals and institutions want to support one, just as they subscribed $6.2m for the Menzies Trust in 1979, so be it. Otherwise, taxpayer funded infrastructure is there in the form of the National Library and National Archives if proper custody and management is needed. On the other hand, there is surely a continuing national need, which the PMLs help address, for developing school level and community understandings of our federal system and our leaders.
For the moment, however, federal parliament is silent and government policy has not changed since five years ago, when the second Howard government rejected several universities' requests that it contribute funds for prime ministerial libraries in favour of the prime ministers' website. (11) Since then funds have been allocated under the 'Commemoration of Historic Events and Famous People' grants program to refurbish graves of W M Hughes and John Curtin, install a plaque recording the scattering of Lord Bruce's ashes, and support the preservation and display of Sir Earle Page memorabilia at the Clarence River Historical Society.
Clearly, the potential at least for 'politics' in the form of current party alignments to colour the way prime ministerial library programs are officially regarded will always be present. No serving prime minister approached for funds for a PML, for instance, would want to be seen favouring an ex prime minister from his own side of politics, nor should we discount the possibility of intense dislike between a serving and former prime minister on the same side of politics. Paul Keating, for instance, has been dismissive of Curtin's and Chifley's greatness and his feelings towards Bob Hawke are easy to guess. More generally, the Labor attitude to defectors such as Hughes and Lyons is not known for its tolerance. And ex prime ministers do not become politically neutral on leaving parliament, mellowing into revered statesmen fondly remembered by all because of widespread respect for the office they held. While this article was being written, there were calls by the Young Liberals for Malcolm Fraser to resign from the Liberal party for, among other misdemeanours, constantly attacking John Howard's border protection policy.
Within the PMLs the political dimension can become fraught too, if the presidential library experience is any guide. In their exhibitions for example, Professor Michael Nelson has written that they 'typically emphasize the events for which a president would most like to be remembered while playing down those that are important but embarrassing.' (12) The fine line the Clinton Library attempted to follow over Monica Lewinsky is the most current of innumerable available examples. An earlier case in point was the deeply compromised position of the Nixon Library on certain Watergate tape recordings.
By extension, there any number of contentious aspects of an Australian prime minister's record which his library would treat warily, if not avoid altogether. Even the seemingly innocent release of 30 year old cabinet documents can stir old sensitivities and enmities. (13) By definition, PMLs minimum starting point is mildly 'pro' their man. At their worst, they are a never ending official biography compromised by the need for family and party support and approved access to personal items in private possession. Those who disagree should read David Day's experience researching his new accounts of Curtin and Chifley. (14)
That granted, the existing libraries have worked well together with only the occasional awkward moment (eg over the Hazel Hawke papers) despite the absence of strong government support and lack of a true PML system. Nevertheless they do face specific challenges. The founding generation of university librarians has departed, and their replacements will have to be enthused and in some cases new vice chancellors convinced. Funding will remain difficult to secure even for those whose focus is still alive. Attitudes to our prime ministers and philanthropy will change very gradually and probably never match US levels. The existing libraries have achieved much, nevertheless, especially through partnerships with industry and other cultural institutions.
A final, and equally vexed challenge for the PMLs, is the development and implementation of their collection policies. The broader context is hardly encouraging, of course. In 2001 Professor Sue McKemmish concluded in relation to archives that, as yet, there is 'no coherent, collaborative, nationally coordinated, encompassing fourth dimension collection policy framework for the whole of Australian society'. (15) This lack has been noted many times in Australia, but we are better at analysing the problem and recommending solutions than implementing them. (16)
Even at the scale of a single prime ministerial life and times, the scope for such collecting is daunting. Thinking generically, consider the implications of trying to locate (to acquire or copy) the personal and official papers of his parliamentary and ministerial and political party roles, of his wife/s, family, ministers, leading advisers and senior officials, speech writers, and even biographers. Such a goal is readily complicated by such factors as the ex prime minister's death; his ministerial papers may be of interest to another prime ministerial library; he may also have been a minister in or Premier of a state government and held other senior appointments outside politics. All this is compounded further if one endeavours to document his reading habits, develop a reference collection about him and his time, and acquire relevant artefacts. And, finally, there is the reality of preserving relevant dynamic websites and email communications. As John Howard, said to be very conscious of his place in history, enters his tenth year as prime minister, we can only watch with interest the evolving responses to these challenges.
In 2001 a survey of historians judged Australia's five greatest prime ministers to be, in order, Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies, John Curtin, Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam. (16) On that score the relevant universities, new and old, should be acknowledged for their prescience and responsibility, as should the national library and national archives where key official and, in the case of the top two PMs, key personal papers have been well managed for decades. That ranking will change, if only because historians' judgements about the past ever changes in the present. So too will the efforts of prime ministerial libraries and, one trusts, the recognition of universities for their national collections and political education roles.
(1) For a convenient summary of the system, see D W Wilson, 'Presidential Libraries in the United States: Personal Monuments or National Treasures?' in Someone Special: Issues in the Development of Person Specific Libraries, Archives and Collections. Proceedings of a National Conference Presented by The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Library 18-20 October 2001 University of South Australia 2003 pp2-15
(2) New major biographies appeared by G C Bolton on Edmund Barton and D Day on John Curtin and Ben Chifley, and earlier biographies were reissued by Bookmans Press Black Inc with new introductions by F Moorhouse. The single volume on all the PMs continued to be popular, M Grattan (ed) Australian Prime Ministers New Holland 2000. As this article went to press, Allen & Unwin released J Edwards' Curtin's Gift: Reinterpreting Australia's Greatest Prime Minister.
(3) See G Powell 'Prime Ministers as Recordkeepers: British Models and Australian Practice' in S McKemmish and M Piggott (eds) The Records Continuum." Ian Maclean and Australian Archives First Fifty Years Ancora Press 1994. Related more general work includes P Dalgleish 'The Appraisal of Personal Records of Members of Parliament in Theory and Practice' Archives and Manuscripts vol 24 no 1 May 1996 pp86-101 and J Anthony 'Political Archives; Defining Key Issues in a Significant Private Records Arena' Archives and Manuscripts vol 31 no 1 May 2003 pp25-50
(4) An institutional taxonomy based on architectural/historical criteria popularised by Professor Marginson and doubtless familiar to AARL readers. See for example S Marginson and M Considine The Enterprise University: Power, Governance and Reinvention in Australia Cambridge University Press 2000 chapter 7
(5) On universities, see N Bulotaite 'University Heritage--An Institutional Tool for Branding and Marketing' Higher Education in Europe XXVIII no 4 December 2003 pp449-454
(6) The University of Adelaide provides ongoing support in the form of the provision of a business and development manager as well as administrative support and professional services, while Flinders is involved in the Foundation's governance with its staff also contributing to its management and activities. The Dunstan papers are also held there.
(7) A Confident Australia. The inaugural Hawke Lecture given by the Hon R J L Hawke, AC in the Brookman Hall University of South Australia 12 May 1998. See http://www.hawkecentre.unisa.edu.au/speeches/lecturel.htm [accessed16 February 2005]
(8) The membership of the CCA's governing board, divided between four heads of museum, art museum, state library and archival authorities peak bodies, and seven unaligned knowledgeable individuals, thus cannot acknowledge universities as a sector who must regard their individual collections as broadly covered by state libraries or museums or art museums or government archives. Presumably, to take three examples, prime ministerial 'libraries', composite entities which span all curatorial types, my own archives (a collecting archives not an archival authority) and other university collections such as herbaria must look to the vagaries of the individual appointments for representation.
(9) For a list of such occurrences, see the John Curtin PML's 'Commemorating Australian Prime Ministers' at http://john.curtin.edu.au/resources/memory.html [accessed 22 February 2005].
(10) For a discussion of similarities and differences, additional to those touched on in the preceding articles, see M Shapley 'The Virtual Solution for Prime Ministerial Archives: Or Why the US Presidential Library Model Won't Work Here' Someone Special pp64-68
(11) Interestingly we learn from the home page that 'The Prime Ministers Papers Project at the National Archives of Australia was supported and approved by Cabinet'
(12) The Chronicle Review vol 51 no 12 November 2004 B15
(13) J Stone 'Archives Distortion demands Remedy' The Australian 17 January 2005 p9
(14) D Day 'Cabinet Table and Kitchen Table' Meanjin vol 62 no 1 pp35-39
(15) S McKemmish 'Placing Records Continuum Theory and Practice' Archival Science no 1 2001 pp333-59 at p351
(16) One could also see the Conference of Commonwealth and State Archives in 1949, the Schellenberg seminars in 1954, the Conference on Source Materials for Australian Studies in 1961, the Australian Libraries Summit in 1988 and the Archives in the National Research Infrastructure Round Table No 10 in 1999 as attempts in part to examine common approaches to appraisal and collecting. On the vexed issue generally, see A Cunningham 'From Here to Eternity: Collecting Archives and the Need for A National Documentation Strategy' LASIE vol 29 no 1 March 1998 at http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/lasie/prepdf.htm [accessed 26 February 2005] and M Piggott 'A National Approach to Archival Appraisal and Collecting' paper presented to the Archives in the National Research Infrastructure Round Table No 10; see http://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/nscf/roundtables/r10/r10_piggott.html [accessed 18 February 2005]
(17) See J Roskam 'Alfred Deakin and the Historians' MRC News vol 2 no 1 Summer 2001 at http://www.mrcltd.org.au/uploaded_documents/ACFA17.htm [17 accessed February 2005]
Michael Piggott. University Archivist, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Vic 3010. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Australian Prime Ministerial Libraries-Comments and Reflections. Contributors: Piggott, Michael - Author. Journal title: Australian Academic & Research Libraries. Volume: 36. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2005. Page number: 74+. © 2007 Australian Library and Information Association. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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