The Noel Butlin Archives Centre Saved!

When the authorities at the Australian National University announced, on 22 August last year, that the doors of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre (NBAC) – Australia’s premier trade union archive – would close permanently at the end of 1997, a shadow fell over the future of labour history research and writing in this country.

The NBAC is one of the largest non-government collection of business and labour archives in Australia, with approximately 13000 shelf metres. The deposits include the records of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, coal mining unions, metal trades and dozens of other historically important unions, as well as the personal records of many Australian labour activists. The NBAC’s corporate holdings include the records of the Australian Agricultural Company, CSR and Goldsbrough Mort& Co Ltd. There are also individual collections and extensive holdings of business and labour journals. The Centre’s closure would have dealt a terrible blow to labour history archival preservation and research in Australia.

Thankfully, the campaign of opposition which swung into operation almost immediately after the announcement of the impending closure has averted the threatened disaster. Through the efforts of a remarkable coalition of NBAC supporters in the ASSLH, the unions, the universities, both major political parties, professional bodies and business and employer groups, the ANU authorities relented and doors of the Archives were not closed forever on 31 December. The holdings remained intact, though in the custody of only two staff. On 1 January the Menzies Library at the ANU assumed control of the Archives and it has already begun to re-assess its functions. In announcing the transfer of the Centre to the University Library, the ViceChancellor noted that a new mission statement and collecting policy would be developed for the Archives. Consequently, revision of the NBAC’s mission statement are high on the agenda. This will be the basis for reinventing the NBAC and for reappraising its holdings over the next few years. Amongst the trade-offs for maintaining the Centre will be access fees and more restricted access hours

The interim committee of the Friends of NBAC, which was established to coordinate last year’s defence campaign, has drafted a mission statement for discussion with the Library administrators. The draft mission statement is as follows:

The Noel Butlin Archive Centre is a centre of professional record keeping excellence and expertise that contributes to understandings of life in Australia by supporting the management, retention and use of significant components of the nation’s recorded social, corporate and industrial memory.

In particular the Archive Centre:

  1. Develops and markets general guidelines and provides a professional consultancy service for Australian businesses, trade unions, professional associations and industry bodies to assist them in the creation and management of those records which are essential for their efficient operation; and
  2. Identifies, preserves, documents and gives researchers access to records which have ongoing value to society as evidence of the activities of federally registered industrial organisations, nationally significant businesses, professional associations, industry bodies and the labour movement.

Notwithstanding the success of the campaign to save the Archives, the need henceforth will be for ‘eternal vigilance’ to ensure that its survival is assured. With this in mind, the Friends of NBAC Interim Committee has drafted a constitution to place that body on a permanent footing. Under the proposed constitution, the objects of the Association are:

  1. to help preserve and extend the Noel Butlin Archives Centre at the Australian National University in such ways as the Association may determine;
  2. to foster among members of the Association and other interested parties a sense of involvement with, and understanding of, the collections, objectives and operations of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre;
  3. to publicise the resources and facilities of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre and to stimulate greater awareness within the community of the role of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre.

Membership is open to individuals and institutions (including unions and ASSLH Branches) paying a prescribed minimum annual donation. for that section. The donation is payable on the first day of November in each year. For further details, readers shou1d contact FNBAC interim committee representative Rosemary Webb as fo11ows: Interim Committee C/- the NTEU email address(

Well done, comrades!