It begins with opening a box...

The Digitisation of Sir John Monash’s Personal Papers

A university, a hospital, a freeway, a suburb, a street and a museum are just a few of the places in Australia named after Sir John Monash, the distinguished soldier, engineer and scholar. He’s also the man on the back of the $100 note.

Photo of Sir John Monash in military uniform
Portrait photograph of Monash in uniform. 

The papers of Monash were donated to the National Library of Australia in 1980 by his three grandchildren, David and J.C.M. Bennett and Elizabeth Durré. It is a vast collection occupying nearly 300 boxes, equating to approximately 60 shelf metres of National Library storage space.

Monash’s life was extraordinary. He lived through an age of enormous change, he was a military and business leader, a devoted family man and the son of immigrants—and the digitisation of his papers opens new opportunities for research into his life and times.

For the past 11 months, the Library has been undertaking a significant digitisation project to make these papers—containing archival material created or collected by Monash throughout his life —freely available to all Australians through Trove.

The Assistant Director-General of the Collaboration Branch, Alison Dellit, was interviewed about the project and its value in helping unlock stories from our past.

Q: What do you do in your role at the Library?

A: In my role I have responsibility for Trove and the National Library of Australia’s digitisation program. A good analogy is that I am like a conductor, who considers what can be done across all of the Library’s digital platforms. I consider the future of the digitisation program and think about the kinds of digitisation projects we want to undertake to deepen understandings of Australian culture and, ultimately, transform lives.

Q: How much of the Library’s collections are digitised?

A: The National Library of Australia has the largest collection of material in the world about Australia and its people. We also hold the personal papers of Australians who have helped shape our history. At the time of writing this, we have less than 10% of our 10-million-item-strong collections digitised. Even with one of the strongest and most robust digitisation programs in the world, we need to make sure that what we choose to digitise is going to have an immediate and relevant impact.

Q: How did the project to digitise Sir John Monash’s papers come about?

A: Sir John Monash’s papers are one of the jewels in the crown of the Library’s collections. This collection is important because it covers a time that we also have a significant amount of other documentary records about.

Often in early Australian history, manuscript collections tend to be very small and cannot be interrogated alongside other documentary records, simply because other documentary records do not exist. Now digitised, the Monash papers can be considered alongside other primary and secondary sources, so we can navigate Monash’s life, and the events of his lifetime, through all these materials. This is where the magic of Trove, which has been newly updated to allow easier browsing across formats, will be of even greater use for historians, researchers and students of Australian history.

It is for these reasons that the Library made the decision to digitise the Monash papers, once Australian Government funding became available.

Q: What can those historians and researchers find out about Monash, and indeed, Australian history from this material?

A: Monash himself is a really interesting figure in early Australian history. He was the son of immigrants and his story is like so many other migrant success stories.

Letter from John Monash
A highlight among the collection is the earliest letter from Monash, written to his mother circa 1872.

He became an early civil engineer in a period of great expansion in the late 19th century. This was a time when engineers were instrumental to creating access—from building bridges that allowed people to effectively communicate with their neighbours and communities, to creating infrastructure for industry.

Monash was also a prominent soldier and his status as a leader and decision maker during the First World War means he has a notable place in our ANZAC history.

But he was also very interesting personally—he was Jewish during a time when not very many Australian leaders were Jewish, he was deeply interested and engaged with the world around him, and many of his papers contain insights into and understanding of the environment he was working within.

Image of Monash personal scrapbook page
The life preserved in this collection includes a plant pressed into a scrapbook containing a vast assortment of ephemeral items.

Q: How did the Library digitise the material—what was the process?

A: The Library has extensive experience in the digitisation of a variety of material, and we like to consider ourselves a leader in the Australian field when it comes to the digitisation of heritage collections.

What we do first when we get a heritage collection in is document it. It all starts with a person opening a box. We know what is in the manuscript box, but until we have looked at it, we don’t know exactly the dimensions or condition of the material. From there, the archival team develop a digitisation plan for the material and if material needs conservation or preservation treatment, it then goes to expert conservators for that step in the process.

One of the challenges with a collection like Monash’s is the sheer variety of material that he collected. There are a lot of drawings of blueprints—early examples of fragile tissue paper. There are his notebooks, and Monash wrote on grid paper which poses particular problems for digitisation because the ink from pens tends to fade faster than the grid on which it is printed. There are challenges, then, on how this material can be digitised so that it is legible online.

Some of the materials that have required the most conservation are the letterbooks that Monash kept. He pasted copies of his letters and also the replies into books, which are like photo albums. To keep the integrity of these letters, some of which are in poor condition, we need to do a lot of stabilisation work before they can even be unfolded or displayed to be photographed.

Following the assessment and conservation processes, the more robust material is digitised through our scanning processes and the delicate material is individually photographed in our studios. This is the capture stage.

library staff using book scanner
A National Library staff member digitising book pages.

The Library’s digitisation process is complex, and goes much further than simply photographing or scanning a document.

Once we are through the capture stage, we check that the images are properly displayed and lit with no imperfections. We are very careful about the colour mix, because we know that for a lot of people, using the digitised content will be the only time they will see this material.

The next phase involves connecting the image to the correct library record, which has been described in a Finding Aid. A Finding Aid is the original description of the collection contents from when it came into the Library. To match an image with its Finding Aid, we cross-check the data matched the description and the image. The Library has custom built this system and it is the attention to detail for both the description and the connection to the digitised content that gives Trove the depth and detail in its search results.

As part of the Trove update, we have done some incredibly innovative work to allow researchers to connect directly to these digitised copies, by connecting the Finding Aid directly to the digitised item. In short, a description of a letter now connects directly to the letter it is describing. In the past, the connection was surface level, and the researcher was browsing the description rather than looking at the source.

This is groundbreaking work—and it is still under development—but our aim is to liberate the collections. We know it’s not the same as sitting in a Reading Room and going through individual boxes. So when researchers are online, we recognise that they want to dive straight in and go straight from the search result to the digital copy. Both ways of conducting research are incredibly enjoyable—but this work means that accessing this collection can happen anywhere in Australia, not just in-person in Canberra. The Monash papers cover so many different locations around Australia and I am expecting many Australians will make personal connections to this content online.

Q: Are there any particularly unique, or curious items, within the collection?

A: Monash kept some really interesting objects. When he visited sites overseas, if he was interested in a building, he would not only sketch the structure, but he would chip a little bit of the building off. We have a small bag of such stones, which we have to figure out how to photograph and digitally align with the sketch.

He also kept correspondence, including reminiscences from his children.

From World War I, some of the most interesting items are telegrams which, again, are oddly sized but in very good condition and easier to digitise than other formats.

Q: Are all digitisation projects the same?

A: One of the wonderful things about digitisation in an institution like the National Library is the variety of the collections and materials we hold. The backbone of our digitisation program to date has been the work done to digitise two-thirds of Australia’s newspaper output by volume. This collection is deeply loved by the public, because newspapers cover the lives and times of everyone—rich or poor, prominent or not. That kind of collection sits alongside the papers of Monash because they can be cross-referenced to gain deeper understandings of the impact of an individual and their intersection with the public narrative.

We have other projects we would like to do, like looking at our extensive collection of news pictures from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which is a very different kind of project and covers hundreds of thousands of images.

We also have map digitisation projects. Maps can be a very important tool in helping people understand how the country has been understood and interpreted because they can contain information that simply does not exist anywhere else. For example, the maps we hold of Mission Stations are very popular because, for many Indigenous Australians, they are the first found record of their childhood or a relative's life. As tragic and confronting as that is, it is so important to make that material accessible so that people can understand where they have come from.

Our entire collection of audio materials has already been digitised.

Q: You've seen how digitisation has transformed our cultural landscape. Why is it important and how does Trove fit into that narrative?

A: We know that making Australia’s history available is transformative to our understanding of who we are and where we come from. We also know how valuable it can be to connect local and specific questions and experiences to a national narrative. It’s been really significant to learn how many Indigenous Australians have been able to understand more about their histories, their families and their communities through exploring Trove.

We know that understanding of towns in regional and rural Australia, like Mt Isa, have grown and been shaped by what has been found on Trove.

This is also increasingly the case when we see people finding out about the stories of migration and how it has shaped individual lives, as well as national identity.

The beauty of Trove is that it is a single, online destination if you are wanting to explore Australian history. It is one of the most, if not the most, used system for digitised material in the world and this is because Australia established a single site. We are very fortunate that Australia has a cultural sector that believes and strives for collaboration, and Trove is underpinned by these endeavours. In particular, Australia’s State and National Libraries have worked together to fund and support Trove to make its material accessible.

Q: Where does the Library get funding to undertake these projects?

In 2018, the Australian Government provided funding of $10 million over four years to fund digitisation projects like Monash. However, as you can tell from this interview, the Library’s collections contain so many other treasures and large-scale collections of national significance that we are now also seeking philanthropic support to fund the digitisation of collections.

Treasurer Josh Frydenburg looking at Monash collection material
The Hon. Josh Frydenberg MP [second from left] examines diary extracts from the Monash papers ( ​​​​​) with [L-R] Sen. The Hon. Mitch Fifield, National Library Council Chair Brett Mason, National Library Director-General Dr. Marie-Louise Ayres and National Library Assistant Director-General Kevin Bradley. 4 April 2019.

Other projects are funded by groups and individuals who want to support the digitisation of a particular newspaper or journal. These Trove Partners fund the project, and this often extends to other areas like copyright clearance or providing captured images that meet the National Library’s standards.

Q: If you had to sum up why Trove matters to you in one sentence, what would it be?

A: Trove is an egalitarian approach to Australian history, and it enables every single person to find their story in amongst the big story—and that changes the big story.