“I can close my eyes and tell you what was in Beardy Street 100 years ago,” said Bill Oates.
A records officer and an archivist for more than 25 years, Bill has spent the last 15 years at the University of New England (UNE) Heritage Centre, and readily admitted he lives in the past.
“I have to,” he said.
“But it is also helpful for the future. Often times we’ll get asked questions about where petrol stations used to be. Looking for underground fuel tanks and looking for remediation issues in the main streets.
We handled a query once about where the border of NSW ran against Queensland. There was a dispute about where it ran, and there were two linesBill Oates
“The classic Armidale issue was the large-scale contamination issue in Martin Street decades ago, which is now getting beyond living memory, but is still something that people will pick up doing creek samples or soil samples there for decades ahead in the areas that weren’t remediated.
“There are a lot of different reasons why someone may call on the history of the older record, be it environmental or legal.”
The centre is located in the former CB Newling Library building on the corner of Dangar and Kentucky streets.
Filled with the history of Armidale on about 4.5 kilometres of shelving, it contains everything from handwritten general ledgers from local cattle and sheep stations of the mid-1800s to the names and achievements of everyone who has ever studied at UNE.
The centre is an amalgamation of the UNE Archives with the Armidale College of Advanced Education Historical Resources Centre and Museum of Education.
“We’ve got three different collecting institutions under one roof and we’ve been collecting sines 1947,” Bill said.
“Some of our records predate European settlement. Some of our settlers brought their records from the United Kingdom with them so our earliest stuff from the 16th Century.
“Archives is essentially communicating across time, and education is also a matter of communicating between people.”
Bill thought photography was an example of a media that provided a 150 year window backwards, but the providing material in a format people could access involved technology.
“Often times it will mean transcribing or copying from an old format and bringing it forward, and of course that technology has changed over time. Scanned or digitised images that we made 20 years ago don’t cut the mustard now when compared to a modern digital scan,” he said.
“Then, if you are getting really clever, you can start moving into infra-red or unltra-violet scanning where you can go beyond the visible range and pick up more stuff that we would never have dreamed of capturing back in the 1990s, when we were playing with that stuff.”
Bill admitted they remained somewhat in a “snail mail era”.
“For a lot of our material physical transfer is probably the only way you can go. Then I can digitise some of it and then communicate it with someone electronically,” he said.
So what about all the digital stuff being made on the internet these days? Well, that’s up to someone else to capture, and Bill said he hoped it was one of the good guys who had that task.