Noela Bajjali, manager corporate information at GMCT, is a guardian of our rich collection of historical records - some dating back more than 150 years. Following our recent community working bee to prepare records for digitisation, Noela discusses the process of uncovering, preserving and making the stories of our communities available for years to come.
GMCT is the custodian of a range of records from our 19 cemeteries and memorial parks. Many of these were inherited when the trust was established in 2010, through the amalgamation of several existing cemetery trusts. Our cemetery records date back to the 1850s and include documentation of cremations, interments and plot ownership, photographs, plans and illustrations, and governance and operational information.
An extensive project is now underway to preserve these precious historical documents – and the stories they contain - through digitisation. As part of the project, hard copy documents will be captured for future storage in a digital format.
“You look out across the cemetery, and there might be 100,000 interments out there. It’s 100,000 stories, because each person has their own personal history, and their own place in the history of their community, and in the broader community as well,” Noela says.
“As [GMCT] expands [its] heritage role, we will be a facilitator of the stories of other people. I believe that there is a wealth of memory that people would like to share, whether it’s about their loved one, about their experiences in a particular cemetery, experiences of former staff – these things are fascinating and insightful.”
Community volunteers will play a key role in preserving and ultimately making records accessible for researchers and the public.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in the past three years,” Noela says. “We’ve made a lot of connections with historical societies and friends groups, and would like to develop these further.
“We also have an emerging historical volunteer project and recent GMCT- Friends of Williamstown Cemetery is part of that. We want to get people on board who are interested, and who want to be part of the solution. In that way, we might fast track some records and get them available for people who want to use them for research.
“One of the misconceptions about the digitisation process is that it’s just running those documents through the scanner. There’s a lot more to it. The digitisation process is quite complex.
“We believe volunteers can be really effective in preparing the records for scanning. Most of the time they’ve got staples and sticky tape, or we may have to rearrange them.
“They might also help with cleaning documents. If the documents have been discoloured from being stored in a bad place, there are a lot of conservation tools that we can use that make a big difference to the end product. There is a skill to it, but it’s a bit of fun as well!”
Noela says the digitisation process is essential to the preservation of records, as it ensures the highest possible standards of quality and accessibility for future use.
“There are many people who say: ‘there’s nothing quite like a book. Opening that leather bound volume, I get a real sense of history that I don’t get looking on a screen.’ But ultimately, the only way to guarantee long term preservation of many of these things is digitisation,” she says.
“If we’re talking about forever – yes, we do have many examples of paper which has lasted for thousands of years – but we don’t have the perfect, purpose-built environmental controls.
“We do refer to our paper records as part of our day to day operations. Purely by its nature, handling ends up destroying paper – the little bit of oil on people’s fingers, the dust that settles even if you’re wearing gloves. Those things will all degrade a paper record. The ink that was available in 1906, or even the 1970s, doesn’t have the same quality.
“The sheer physical volume of paper records also really works against a paper solution. A digital solution allows us a number of real advantages. It allows us to capture and preserve those documents sustainably. We can also index different aspects of the record and easily generate and distribute digital copies, extending the usefulness of the record.”
GMCT and Friends of Williamstown Cemetery are hosting a series of working bees to prepare a range of historic cemetery records for digitisation. Future dates and details will be published in the GMCT eNewsletter, our Facebook page and on the GMCT website. Join us at future working bees to meet some fellow history buffs and help preserve these valuable historical records.