I read an article in The monthly, an Australian magazine which analyses politics, society and the arts. It features the archive of manuscripts amassed by Australian Geoffrey Cains, now being catalogued in the State Library of Victoria. Cains collected 60 boxes of material from 200 Australian writers in a collecting career of 50 years. 

Phillip Larkin, poet and librarian, says that archives have both “magical value and meaningful value”. I understand these two values. Whenever I’ve trawled through archives (the letters of my great uncle from WW1 found in an old family trunk; the orchid paintings of George Raper and Ellis Rohan in the National Library; the magazines of German prisoners of war in Australia in the State Library of NSW; the diaries of battalions and individual soldiers in the Australian War Memorial) I’ve experienced a frisson that has more to do with magic than meaning, although meaning is obviously important. I wonder whether I’ll be able to access the Cains archive while I’m in Melbourne later this year. 

More immediately I wonder what the Meg Davis archive would look like. 

These days I try to keep as little paper as possible but I have rooms full of it: chronicle-diaries from the early 1990s; letters on handmade paper, many written in calligraphy, to a man from whom I got them back under false pretences when the romance faded; 30+ albums of predigital photos, including family albums and photos from Egypt, Syria and Jordan; three notebooks of my research into the background to my great uncle’s Great War; a box of material representing my teaching and consultancy life (lesson notes, workshop plans and teaching materials); files of letters from before email took over; cards and artwork from children and grandchildren; notebooks full of clippings, plans, photos that chronicle my big-picture life since retirement; two small notebooks, one reviewing theatre, one art exhibitions, both extinguished by the onset of blogging;

This is my paper archive. Then there’s the digital one. Thumb drives and CDs of photos in my early digital days: a dossier of orchids; more teaching stuff; all the teaching material I wrote for the NSW school magazine. Eight blogs: two Potato Point ones, one closed artist-and-writer one, five Warsaw ones.

This is by no means all. There are archives from other family members: the bundle of letters my great uncle wrote from the western front in World War 1; my grandmother’s postcard album; a box of theatre programs from the 1940s -and 1950s saved by my theatre-going aunts; my mother’s diaries from travels to New Guinea and Tasmania, her collections of quotes and comments on what she was reading, and a few of her daily diaries. Then there’s the suitcase of unfinished crocheted quilts and embroidery, tablecloths, duchess sets and doilies (those words and skills from the past), salvaged from my aunts’ house.

All this, and I’m in no way an important person. What must the archives of Important People be like?

I pursue the Cains Collection: I write to the State Library of Victoria to see if I can access it when I’m in Melbourne in May. Here’s the same-day answer:

Yes, it is possible to see some of the processed material; however not all the collection has been fully processed. You can ring 03 8664 7220 (the Library’s infomation desk) and they will take your order. You could view the first three boxes of material. This will give you an idea of the sorts of things the collection holds. If you have a particular writer you are pursuing then we could certainly look for material on that person.
I ring the information desk and I now have a booking for May 24th, 10am to 9pm, to peruse the contents of those three boxes, pencil in hand, no need for white gloves; and an appointment to have items copied if I so desire.