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Time tunnel

Working with the Fairfax archive is a dramatic journey through time.

Fairfax archive team

Volunteer Rosemary Shepherd, Fairfax Project Lead Peter Arfanis, and Librarian Elise Watts in the Library’s stacks, photo by Sarah Morley

As a child growing up in the 1960s, one of my favourite television series was the American science fiction show Time Tunnel. It featured two scientists swept up by an experimental time machine and ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages’. Each episode saw them hurtle from one period of history to another, careful not to intrude on past events. For me it was riveting television.

I grew up to be an archivist, which in some ways makes me a time traveller, albeit without the drama, danger and vertigo of my childhood heroes. Working on amazing collections in institutions such as the Library often takes me on journeys in time where each day can be a new episode.

The Fairfax Media Business Archive is that type of collection. Perhaps the most significant and comprehensive media business archive in Australia, it consists of more than 2100 boxes of company records dating back to the 1790s, before founder John Fairfax arrived in Australia in 1831.

The records continue until the 1990s when John Fairfax Ltd went into receivership and was taken over by the Conrad Black consortium. At its peak, John Fairfax & Sons published nine major newspapers and several magazines in NSW, Victoria, and the ACT. It operated radio and television stations, was a joint owner in a newsprint mill, and had offices in major cities throughout Australia and in London and New York.

Working on this archive was like peering into the swirling vortex of the time tunnel. Through this enormous collection, we gain a rare insight into the boardrooms, offices and pressrooms of this iconic company and its subsidiaries. This is a rich archive full of events, drama, and intrigue, with characters from the world of finance, politics and media empires appearing throughout.

Our team of dedicated volunteers, who removed tens of thousands of rusting metal paperclips, were enthralled by the content of files that revived memories of past events and personalities. Many surprises were found among the thousands of business files containing the correspondence of the general managers and editors, board minutes, and financial reports. These included photographs and memorabilia from the Boer War, pre-Federation ‘Chapel’ records that document the early years of the trade union movement in Australia, early records of the congregational church, to which John Fairfax was a major contributor, and the logbook of Magic, a yacht owned by Sir James Reading Fairfax.

Fairfax offices, 1931
View collection item detail

Arranging and describing this archive took two fulltime staff over a year. Four other staff were involved in the appraisal and description of over 600 boxes of previously unknown records, and many others participated in conservation and the organisation of data.

We acknowledge our fellow time travellers, the company archivists employed by John Fairfax Ltd — beginning with Eileen Dwyer in 1974, who was succeed by Louise Preston in 1993. They did an incredible job in creating detailed finding aids for a large part of the collection, making our job easier. They were also proactive in collecting material to add the collection, including papers of former employees of the company.

Peter Arfanis, Librarian and Fairfax Project Lead

This article first appeared in SL magazine Autumn 2018.