I have been a member of the PMI for so long I can hardly remember how I came to join. I think I joined in 2001, by which time I had been working as a freelance historian for 3-4 years. Prior to that I worked for Coles Myer, managing its archives, records management and art collection. That seems such a long time ago. Being retrenched when Coles Myer went through a series of restructures forced me to take the leap into what I had always wanted to do – write history. Since that time, I seem to have had a steady stream of commissions and worked on some wonderful projects with some equally marvellous clients. When I last wrote for the PMI about my work in 2009, I wrote about juggling the work of an historian with being a mother to my two sons. Goodness, time has flown. Those boys are now in their early 20s and, while I am as busy as ever, I do have more freedom over my working day now than I did back then. The only thing that hasn’t really changed in that ten years is my reliance on the PMI as a valued repository for historical sources (and my passionate support for the Collingwood football club.)
Since 1997, I have researched some 14 books and practically all of my work has involved the use of the wonderful PMI collections. At the moment I am writing up my PhD on which I have been working for the last three years. My thesis is focused on the role of women who filmed the rocket tests at Woomera during the Cold War. Even though this research is South Australian based I have used a number of items at the PMI including a history of the Woomera area school and some of Len Beadell’s books. For those who do not know, Beadell was a famous ex-army surveyor who surveyed the original land for the Woomera township and built the roads leading into it. He is known as the last Australian explorer. Many of his books are held by the PMI, in addition to a biography.
While working on the PhD I was also working on a book that looked at the history of the timber industry in Australia. This book, A Sharp Vision, is held by the PMI and tells the story of John Sharp and Sons, once the largest timber business in Victoria and situated in Lorimer Street.
The site is now home to the Herald and Weekly Times business. This was a fascinating book to write and alerted me to the dearth of sources on the Victorian timber industry, but once again the PMI came to the rescue and I was able to find a number of helpful works. At the same time, I have been working on the history of Kew mansion. It was once lived in by Amy Castles, who was sometimes known as “the next Melba.” A very useful biography of Amy is held by the PMI.
Most of my other books have most certainly drawn on PMI collections. My history of the Goulburn Valley Grammar School, Something Quite Noble, used a large number of the PMI’s holdings on Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley. My book on the Prahran Library, The Pride of Prahran drew on both PMI secondary sources and archives as the story of the first Prahran library service and the PMI are inextricably linked. Another of my books, A Club for Life, a history of the Elwood Lifesaving club also used PMI holdings on the suburbs of Elsternwick and Elwood.
Whenever I begin a new project the first thing that I do is consult the PMI catalogue or send an email to the wonderful PMI staff asking for their assistance. This is always worthwhile as they will think outside the square and often make recommendations one may not have thought of. I especially love using the special collections that used to be in a locked case when the PMI was in High Street, and are now held in Stacks at the PMI, they are fabulous for any project involving colonial research.
I imagine that as long as I am working as an historian, the PMI will be a precious resource for my work. I just can’t recommend it and its staff more highly.
Stella M. Barber