As promised last week, we’re heading off to Australia to find out about the “other Mitchell”. Wendy Holz is a reference librarian at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney.
I first started in libraries at the prompting of a much admired aunt, a retired librarian, who recognised the tell-tale signs in me. Thirty years later I am still pleased I took her advice. I find it rewarding to help people find information and enjoy the lateral thinking involved in this and other library roles I have undertaken.
The State Library of NSW is Australia’s oldest library. It’s actually made up of two main collections – the State Reference Library, which has an international focus, and the Mitchell Library – our collection of Australiana. We work in partnership with the NSW public library network supporting their services and extending their reach with our reference services, educational programs and exhibitions.
I work in the Information and Access Branch which provides reference services to onsite and offsite clients. Whilst our focus is New South Wales, we also help people from across Australia and internationally when they are seeking information unique to our collections.
My Branch is divided into six client-based teams. My team is the Family History team which consists of 14 staff – library assistants, library technicians and librarians.
For four hours each day, I can be rostered to any four of seven service points across both libraries. At the ‘Ask-A-Librarian’ desk and Telephone Inquiry Service we field inquiries across the subject spectrum. Then there is the Family History desk which is always busy. Actually we get a lot of inquiries about British and Irish family history, so we’d have a lot of similar resources to some UK public libraries.
The most challenging desk is next door in the Mitchell Wing. But first, a little history for context. Our Mitchell Library was named for David Scott Mitchell who in 1907 bequeathed to New South Wales his extensive collection of books, manuscripts, maps and pictures relating to Australia and Oceania as well as a large sum with which to build on this rich foundation. His Scottish father James, originally from Fife, had amassed a fortune from purchasing coal-bearing land in New South Wales and subsequently his son was able to indulge his passion for collecting as a full-time pursuit. Mitchell’s formidable buying power meant that he was able to beat competitors to extremely rare and important material. But he also kept an astute eye out for the future historian. For example, Mitchell had no truck with the late 19th century colonial attitude that the documentary evidence about the (then recent) convict past ought to be expunged from the record, and he consequently saved thousands of such papers from almost certain destruction.
David Scott Mitchell and the State Library were collecting long before the National Library of Australia existed and so we hold the lion’s share of colonial Australia’s founding documents. This includes papers and drawings relating to early contact with Australia’s Indigenous peoples, many First Fleet journals, letters and drawings, explorers’ diaries and maps, colonial administrative papers and the private papers of colonial families and individuals.
The Library continues to collect via bequest, donation and purchase, any manuscripts, pictures and oral histories that document the lives of the people of New South Wales, with the exception of government archives. Our collections of published material and maps are augmented by the fact that we’re a legal deposit library for New South Wales. We are collecting more born digital resources and significant paper based items are going online as part of a ten-year digitisation project.
This all makes for very interesting work at the Mitchell Special Collections desk. We might get a request to see early missionary and church records, then an inquiry about looking through restricted business papers for a court case concerning asbestos; next someone wants to see the Sydney Mardi Gras costume designs for the 1994 parade. We’re kept on our toes providing copyright information (we don’t provide advice!) and we’ll often liaise with other sections managing the acquisition, cataloguing and preservation of our archives.
Our off-desk tasks include answering written enquiries, a large chunk of which now come in via our ‘Ask-A-Librarian’ online service. Last year we processed 4000 of them, of which a quarter were for family history! It’s a free service and we can spend one hour on each inquiry. It’s often a mad rush but you learn a lot. Librarians in my team present seminars and train users and colleagues on particular genealogical resources. We create online research guides and we’ve recently established a Tumblr blog to further publicise our services, resources and news.
I’ve worked at the Library for many interesting years. The collections are unendingly fascinating and being a big library, great opportunities come along to keep the blood circulating. I’ve gone out in the ‘field’ selecting archives on offer from homes, businesses, even an abandoned, spider-infested factory (that was exciting – but all in the good cause of saving history). I’ve been lucky to spend time cataloguing archives, working with the maps collection and being part of the ‘Innovation Project’ which piloted different social media and wikis for the Library. As a result, we now use a number of different platforms to reach new audiences. I have consciously pushed myself out of my comfort zone – something that now pays dividends by bringing extra background knowledge to my work. You may not know how new experiences are going to help but they invariably do. I think it has also made me more resilient in the face of the great changes we’ve undergone at the State Library and in the industry generally. But the best aspect of this work hasn’t changed since my aunt’s professional days, and that is helping people from all walks of life to help themselves to free information, ideas and knowledge. This is what motivates me, and having colleagues that share that philosophy makes for a great day at the office.
So, named after a different Mitchell from “our” Mitchell, but still Scottish in origin! Thanks to Wendy for a fascinating post. You can leave comments or questions below, which I’ll pass on to Wendy..