Margaret Medcalf OAM

Margaret Medcalf OAM BA Dip Ed FLAA, was born in Albany, Western Australia, in 1926. After attending school in Albany and Perth she went on to complete her BA Dip Ed at the University of Western Australia before travelling overseas.

On her return in 1955, Margaret joined the Archives Branch of the State Library and rose to become State Archivist and Principal Librarian of the Battye Library in 1971. She was made a Fellow of the Library Association of Australia in 1986 and retired in 1989. In 1999 she received the Order of Australia for services to history.

Margaret got her start in archives through meeting Miss Mollie Lukis (State Archivist from 1945) and recalls how she came to be fascinated by the material in the archives, papers “really written in 1829 with Stirling’s signature”. There were very few staff and no-one had any formal training in archiving. Miss Lukis was a mentor to her and later Ali Sharr (State Librarian from 1953 to 1976) was also a great support.

In 1956 the Battye Library was formed by bringing the Western Australian printed material from the State Library together with the material in the Archives Branch. The Library collection had been built up through legal deposit since 1895 and Westraliana collected over the years. So the staff had roles of both librarian and archivist.

Under a Premier’s instruction, Government agencies were not permitted to destroy records without permission from the State Archives and the archivists spent many hours in departments making individual decisions on every file. One of the highlights of this labour was seeing the files she managed to save from destruction by the Department of Native Welfare now being much used by Aboriginal people.

Rumours about a Commonwealth move to get some control over state archives in the 1970’s provided the impetus for State legislation. But the 1974 Act did not require departments to deposit records - transferring them was voluntary, departments tending to send files to archives only when they ran out of space.

From 1977 onwards there was some specialisation of responsibilities with the appointment of an archivist to be responsible for official records and a librarian responsible for printed material. Records management was promoted in departments. A cadet conservator was appointed.

The formation of the Friends of the Battye Library in 1981 brought moral support and volunteer labour to the library. However space had run out and much time was spent in planning for a new building, particularly while Margaret was Acting State Librarian in 1984. The new Alexander Library Building opened in 1985.

During her career, Margaret travelled widely learning a lot about how archiving was done in other places. In New Delhi, she was introduced to laminating in 1962. In Koblenz, the West German archives were in a “terrible mess” because many of the records had been reorganised in America after WWII by the military, and then by Intelligence, and then by a historian. She had a “lovely time” working for the London County Archives and recalls records back to the 13th century.

In 1970 Margaret went to the US to see what they were doing with computerised indexing and was not particularly impressed with what looked like spoon feeding researchers. However, there was no avoiding technology and, in 1974, Margaret was at the University of Sussex to do a course on automatic data processing (and playing croquet on the lawn after lectures!)

Some of her memorable times were in the 1950s and 1960s when staff went out to country towns. She recalls being stuck in the pub at Agnew when they blew a tyre on their way to Sandstone. By the time they got to Sandstone the policeman who was to meet them had been waiting all afternoon in the pub and “he was not too good the next day when he was supposed to be helping us with the records.”

Margaret says she was very frightened about retiring wondering what she would do, but that she has found the reverse to be true.

Portrait of Margaret Medcalf

Margaret on her retirement

Photo courtesy of Des Birt

Page last updated 28 September 2012