Archives of children’s voices

Volume 8 Number 11 November 12 - December 9 2012

University of Melbourne Archives, 2005.0104, PA133p16.2, Photographer Unknown, Malcolm Fraser with Indigenous children, Northern Territory, 1978
University of Melbourne Archives, 2005.0104, PA133p16.2, Photographer Unknown, Malcolm Fraser with Indigenous children, Northern Territory, 1978

The voices of children are not often heard in archival collections. In an edited extract from a recent essay, University of Melbourne Principal Archivist Helen McLaughlin explores their views, voiced through documents kept in various collections of the University of Melbourne Archives.

In 1979, during what was the International Year of the Child, the Literature and Visual Arts Boards of the Australia Council initiated a project inviting Australian children to “write and draw a personal image of their own world”.

The competition was advertised through a poster sent to every school and library in Australia and resulted in more than 10,000 entries responding to the question: “How do you see your world?”

The entries were culled by Margaret Dunkie, a librarian, and a panel of Australian schoolchildren in Melbourne and resulted in the publication of 500 drawings, paintings, stories and cartoons. These entries are preserved today within the McPhee Gribble Pty Ltd collection housed at the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA).

The publication: Our World, by the kids of Australia, published by Nelson in association with McPhee Gribble was considered to be “...quite disturbing, emotionally wrenching...” by reviewer Walter McVitty of The Age who was shocked to discover that children could lead lives filled with “...deep-seated alienation...”.

Over at the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney the event with the greatest response that the Institute runs is a school essay competition titled What Matters? which this year attracted over 3500 entries. Like the Our World publication in 1979, students complete and enter an essay about what really matters to them in today’s world.

During the annual Sir Robert Menzies Oration on Higher Education at the University of Melbourne this October Professor Janice Reid, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, described the functions and public programs of the Whitlam Institute, established 12 years ago in part as a repository for Mr Whitlam’s personal collection: all of his personal papers, letters, books and memorabilia.

The Institute is also charged with a public program focusing on social justice and public policy which mirrors the former Prime Minister’s interests. 

During her addresss Professor Reid noted that: “The winning entries to the essay competition are invariably insightful and heartfelt, ranging from a reasoned call for politicians to be ‘more patient with people, even those [they] disagree with’, through to mature rationales for the ‘sharing of wealth’, and articulate advocacy for tolerance of difference and compassion born of understanding”.

In a similar vein, children’s voices resonate throughout the electoral correspondence within the Malcolm Fraser collection housed at the UMA.

In a particularly charming letter, a young boy enquires as to Mr Fraser’s health, tells him that he misses seeing him on television, mentions a visit to Parliament House (including a sketch), and says his uncle had worked with him.

Lacking any sense of guile, the boy writes: “I hope that I be a politician. My mum says you got to have thick skin. Is it hard to be a prime minister.”(sic)

This letter is not alone in the correspondence. Primary schools throughout Australia at the time ran programs and projects resulting in children writing to the PM. What is striking is that Mr Fraser responded to all of his electoral correspondence.

From painfully honest and detached responses, to passionate and articulate wishes, and comical endearing asides, it is clear the archives house the views and opinions of Australian children in a variety of circumstances and collections.

In 2004 Malcolm Fraser designated the University of Melbourne as the official custodian of his personal papers. 

The collection currently runs to 120 metres of shelf space and includes correspondence, official documents, Liberal Party minutes, photographs, speeches, subject files, diaries and much more. The collection includes papers from Mr Fraser’s grandfather (and former Senator) Sir Simon Fraser, his mother Una Fraser and his father Neville Fraser, including his World War I diaries. 

The Malcolm Fraser papers date from 1940, beginning with correspondence by Malcolm Fraser at the age of 10, through to material relating to reconciliation and refugee rights in the mid-2000s. The University of Melbourne also houses Mr Fraser’s personal library, in the Malcolm Fraser room in the Melbourne Law School

Records that are designated as Commonwealth under the Archives Act 1983 remain at the National Archives. The two collections are thus complementary.