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Australian company, trade union and HIV records stowed in hill above Parkes Way

When a truck ploughed into the Acton tunnel last October, 20 kilometres of Australian companies records shook, and records of the great shearers' and maritime workers' strikes of the 1890s shuddered.

Maggie Shapley was on holiday, but trembled too. The ANU archivist feels overwhelmed each time she turns the lights on in the cool bunker that curves the same as the Parkes Way tunnel on which it sits.

Ms Shapley was relieved dog-eared volumes going back to the early 1800s, and thousands of boxes of files, each placed in a freezer for two weeks to kill any silverfish before they were stowed, had escaped harm in the crash.

The bunker holds the Noel Butlin Archives Centre comprising records of Australian companies and trade unions, two collections on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register and minute books of pre-Federation trade unions. ANU archives are there too, including papers of former vice-chancellors, famous scientists and academics from Fenner to Oliphant.

Files from Australia's response to HIV AIDS stand among the records.

When Parkes Way planners took their road through ANU's boundary, they put land on top as a trade off. What was meant to be a car park on the land has been used for archives, which sit under Livesidge Street, and bring researchers, biographers, family history sleuths and academics from around Australia and overseas.


"It is a gold mine for researchers," Ms Shapley says. "Records are created for one purpose, but people find lots of other ways to use them, to do what they are doing," she said.

Records of the old Tooth and Co, which once owned hotels throughout NSW, lure heritage architects, local historians and people converting pubs into homes to rifle through plans and photos.

No law compels organisations to use the archives, yet trade unions are among the most enthusiastic storers.

"You are fairly confident you haven't got any skeletons in the closet," Ms Shapley said. "There often is a correlation between who is willing to deposit and who absolutely won't," Ms Shapley says. "A very strong correlation between accountability and record keeping."

Ms Shapley says it would be almost impossible to digitise the entire collection. "There is over 20 kilometres of records, just thinking if that were all on A4 pages that could fit through a feeder on a photocopier which could be scanned and run continuously, my calculation is it would take 2000 years for a person to copy the records."

Records are continually growing, handled by six archivists, all fit from lifting, carrying and retrieving, and conscious of the weight accumulating above the cars and trucks beneath them. "It is forbidden under pain of extreme sanctions to load records on top of stacks," says a sign on each of the stacks, in case these keepers of history forget.