Valuing history

PAM HARRIS retired as the librarian at the Fremantle History Centre in Fremantle Library in December 2018 after working there since September 2007.

SINCE retiring in December 2018 I have watched with interest the opening of the new Walyalup Civic Centre and Fremantle Library, with special interest in the Fremantle History Centre.

Given that it was a large part of my life for over 11 years it was distressing to see what has happened to the centre in the new space.

Firstly, let’s start at the beginning.

Part of Fremantle’s charm and importance is its history and heritage and this has been reflected in what is arguably, the largest local history collection in the state.

It was also one of the first to start collecting.

In the 1950s city librarian John Birch (1958-1971) started collecting newspaper clippings and filing them by subject for future reference. 

Later city librarian Betty McGeever (1972-2005) continued to collect Fremantle’s history and was responsible for appointing the first local history librarian Larraine Stevens in 1974. 

From this beginning Ms Stevens (1974-1998) went on to create a very comprehensive collection including all aspects of Fremantle’s history.

That’s now demonstrated by a large collection of photographs, books, maps, plans, ephemera, subject files, biographical files and over 1000 hours of oral histories. 

The community owes a large debt to Ms Stevens for her determination and tenacity to develop the amazing collection which was readily available to the public. 

When the new library was being planned, library manager Julie Caddy (2005-2017) 

asked staff to indicate their requirements in the new library. 

An extensive list was developed for the history centre including a larger climatically controlled archive room, room for map cabinets and architectural plans, several compactus as well as working space to work with large materials.

It is evident that none of this was taken on board as when the first set of plans for the library was revealed the space allocated for the history centre is what you see today. 

Largely dependent on digital materials with little room for physical items apart from books which are locked in cupboards, certainly no space to lay out large maps or photographs, or comfortable study areas. 

The world is becoming digital but not all formats can be digitised and it takes time, funding, appropriate software and staff to make digital materials available online. 

Prior to the impending demolition of the Fremantle council building in December 2017, I was responsible for the collection; it was very difficult to dismantle and pack this amazing collection.

Even more difficult was the fact that I could see that the new library was not being designed to accommodate the huge collection which had been housed in a purpose-built extension to the library in the early 90s with federal funding. 

The area included a climatically controlled archive room, three compactus as well as a large reading room with the ability and space to look at photographs, maps and plans to your heart’s delight with the assistance of staff. 

The very openness of the new area is also not conducive to the use of historic material, some of which is quite valuable and irreplaceable.

Now most of the collection is still offsite and there is very little room to continue to collect Fremantle’s history. 

Furthermore, the amount of physical materials is growing with continual donations 

of items such as Fremantle community archives which have been collected for years by various organisations in the community.

It is difficult to accept that an effective space for the collection has been reduced to such a small area with no room to process, store or view physical materials. 

Any researcher/historian will tell you that whilst digital material is quick and easy to access it doesn’t compare with looking at original materials which has levels of detail not always captured in the digitisation process.

I recently visited the new Visitor Centre and was amazed at the space available to staff and visitors and it was virtually empty. 

Tourism is a large part of Fremantle’s economy but it should be recognised that this is largely because of Fremantle’s amazing history and heritage.

Finally, history is important for communities. The History Councils of New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia have jointly adopted a statement about the Value of History. The following extract from the statement says it all: 

“The study of the past and telling its stories are critical to our sense of belonging, to our communities and to our shared future.”

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