Mining the Archives

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They say you don’t value things until they are gone. This was very much the case for our sister school Frankston High (also established in 1924). They lost much of their history–both photos and documents–in devastating fires in the 1990s. Since then, the school has tried to remedy the situation by seeking archival contributions from former students, and constructing a purpose-built onsite museum to house and store what they have left. Their alumni association has over 4000 members. What is the state of the archives at Mordialloc College?

The Mordialloc College Archives

Mordialloc College is lucky to have a substantial record of photos and documents, dating back to before the school’s inauguration in 1924 (the photo on the right is deciding on the site for the school in around 1920). The archive was largely neglected until the establishment of the MCAA in 2014, and prior to this, only seen at major anniversaries. While some of the archive has been lost; much of it remains, some of it in private hands.

Since the establishment of the MCAA, we have taken steps to digitise and catalogue the collection, and make it available to all former students via the internet. This is a particularly important give the impending centenary of the school in 2024. We hope that former students will be interested in what we have achieved and will join us.

What you see on this website is the result of our present efforts. The work continues. New contributions are being donated regularly from members all the time, and the school continues to find records, both documents and photographs sequestered away, and forgotten, in dark corners of the school. A large collection of 8 thousand negatives and slides–known as the ‘Ian McDonald Collection’ (after the science teacher and photographer)–are yet to be digitised. This will take some effort and expense and the procurement of a dedicated negative scanner. For further details of this and other fund-raising proposals, see Campaigns.

kim_and_gail_jpgBeginnings

The process of mining the archives began shortly before the 90th anniversary of the school in October 2014.  A group of former students: Kim Puleio, Michelle Green, Lisa Foster, Lynette Williams, Gail White, Eberhard Rabich and Martin Davies, got together to begin the process of sorting it out the photographic record of the school. They did this by sorting the archives into decades, taking home piles of photos to scan and returning them. This was a haphazard process and we frequently digitised the same photo twice, and neglected others. Initially, we did not scan at a consistently high resolution, so some digitised photos looked better than others. A more systemic approach was required.

Scanning heritage photographs requires some skill. Photographs must be scanned at 600 dpi or higher, they need to be cropped carefully, and many need colour correction using programs like Photoshop. They should be carefully labelled so that they can be found using the computer’s search function. Similarly, documents require careful handling. Venture Yearbooks, for example, need to be scanned as pdfs, page-by-page, and compiled into the one document so they can be read as a book.

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The Committee came to the view that the archives should be stored semi-permanently off-site, and dealt with over time. Foundation committee member and former College teacher, Dorothy Meadows OAM, graciously offered to host them. Dorothy spent many days sorting the collection and documenting what we had, and refining the process of dating the archive. From this, we could systematically scan the photos ensuring that we copied everything and nothing was missed. While we have digitised much of the collection, this work is ongoing, as we replace ‘first cut’ scans with better ones.

Storage

We also had to decide how to keep the collection preserved from further decay. Archival quality storage of photographs is very important. Many commercial binders are not acid-free, and photographs will deteriorate over time. In 2015, we applied for a local Kingston City Council grant to assist us and were successful at winning $2000; in 2016, we were successful in winning a further $7,400 from Kingston City. Investigation into acid-free archival quality storage options resulted in a number of potential providers and these had to be researched and compared. We looked at various providers including Albox and Zetta Florence before making our decision.

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Treatment

Another problem we faced was photos that had been glued down for 60 years. It was not a case of a bit of glue in each corner. They were seriously stuck down. There were eight photo albums in particular that had dozens of class photos glued on both sides of the paper. Cutting them out was not an option without the loss of one photo. Leaving them glued was not an option either as it would surely result in deterioration over time. What could we do?  They had to come out.

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Our first attempt involved using dental floss and a hair dryer: carefully “sawing” the photo from the backing whilst blowing warm air over the photos. This worked to some degree, but it was causing damage to the photos, and it would have taken too long. A coarser material, fishing line, was tried without success. Discussing the problem with professional photographers, it was suggested to try water–the glue might be water soluble. We attempted one page of photos with some trepidation. Fortunately, it worked. The process became: bathing the photos for around twelve hours, drying them carefully, and then pressing them between book covers to flatten out again. Much of Dorothy’s house was filled with soaking and drying photos!

Naming Conventions

But removing glue, digitising  photos and putting them in archival folders, was one thing; sorting and naming them was quite another. The problem here was that many of the photos are not labelled and unidentified. How could we identify and label unidentified photos from the past?

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Several initial efforts were wasted as we had not arrived at a ‘system’. But slowly we arrived at something workable. Scanning photos from Venture Yearbooks was helpful as—while they are not good enough quality for printing or reproduction on websites—most photos are labelled. They have peoples’ names on them. They are also dated by year. We called these a “named” photo. So a Venture photo scanned as (say): “Boy’s Senior Cricket team” from 1956, scanned with the suffix “_n” (for “named” photo) could be matched with the corresponding digital photo if it was in the archives. It would be just a matter of matching them up. Easy, right?

But unless one kept a consistent naming convention, it would be very hard to find matching photos amongst the large archive of digital copies: it’s hard to find “Boy’s Senior Cricket Team” amongst thousands of photos if it is named “Cricket, Boy’s Senior Team”, or “Boy’s Cricket Senior Team” or “Cricket Team, Boy’s Senior” because they are sorted differently. So we had to adopt a strict naming convention: [year]_[sex]_[sport]_[level], e.g., “1956_boys_cricket_senior” (no apostrophes or capitals as this can create problems on some browsers). Using this convention, all the “1956” photos will be sorted together, and then the “Boy’s” photos and then all the “Cricket” photos and so on. Once that happened one could match the “_n” file with the corresponding photo file—if we had it. Photos that were not clearly identifiable were given a descriptive title, e.g., 1958_boy_under_tree.

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In many cases, of course, we did not know if it was a “Senior” cricket team: one photo of a cricket team from decades ago looks much like any other, so we just had to sort photos into albums by sport and cross-match, and take an educated guess as to which was a “senior” team and which was “junior”. Likewise, we did not have identification for many class photos. To this day we have dozens of unidentified photos. These photos can be viewed in the album Undated Photos* in the archive. We call upon our membership to assist us in identifying these photos. This will be the final stage of a very long and tedious process (*link available to members only). 

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What is out there?

Do we have all the archives? Not by a long shot. The Public Records Office has hundreds of school documents from the 1920s onwards. These are yet to be digitised and will require time and expense. As recently as December 2015, five unknown albums of 1960s photos (see right) and 70 large photos on backing board were discovered, by accident, in an old bike shed!

In May 2016, former science teacher, Ian McDonald, gave us more than six thousand negatives and slides from the 1970s-90s period (see left). He saw the MCAA as a rightful custodian for his collection—now known as the ‘McDonald Collection’. Now more than 40 years old, this collection will fade and deteriorate without treatment, so we have launched a campaign  to save them.

And, as recently as February 2017, the caretaker from the school found another major haul in the first aid room of the school–the ‘First-Aid Room Collection’We have not yet trawled through this new find yet, but suffice to say, it is very, very important. So far we have found:

  • Two thousand or so more negatives;
  • A 33 record from 1956 (see right);
  • Loads of documents, certificates, and correspondence  (for example, a parent asking for her child to be moved to another class as they were being disrupted by another child);
  • Hundreds more photos–many of which are new to the MCAA archives.

As noted, much of the collection has been lost, and much is in private hands. However, with effort, and support, we can accomplish a lot in terms of preserving our collective history. But we need to get moving. The centenary is just around the corner.

What Can I Do?

We need both money and time to do the job. At the very least, join the MCAA as a member; if you have the resources, donate as well (see the home page button or the “donate” button when you join). If you are not so inclined, but have time on your hands, offer your services and help out. It’s that simple.

Finding all the photos, identifying them, getting the archive into suitable folders, and cataloging and itemising what we have, will take time, money and effort. Please help us achieve our aims.

Recent photos courtesy of Kim Puleio