Volunteers Preserving Australia One Page at a Time 

Volunteers Preserving Australia One Page at a Time 

News Release

The Public Record Office Victoria in North Melbourne has an atmosphere of adventure in spite of its ponderous name. “The PROV” as it is called by those who work there holds legal records of millions of early Australians. Hidden in those records are their life stories.

In the Records Preservation room downstairs in the PROV, ten volunteers from the United States work from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday making those stories accessible to the millions of people in Australia and throughout the world who are looking for their Australian ancestors.

Generally retired from their former professions—banker, judge, teacher, computer technician, homemaker--they work from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday photographing wills, probates, and court records from the 1840’s to the 1950’s. Working in assembly-line fashion using eight cameras, they photograph approximately 15,000 pages every day. 

The Nikon cameras they use “currently cost 3-4,000 dollars each and are getting cheaper and more efficient all the time. Just a few years ago they would have cost 20-30 thousand dollars,” said PROV Coordinator of Digital Projects, Daniel Wilksch, who manages the volunteers’ work.

The photos are stored on hard drives and shipped to Salt Lake City, where they are indexed and made available by FamilySearch at no charge to the public. A copy of the hard drive is sent back to the PROV, which also makes the information available to the public through the PROV website.

The highly efficient process that allows the volunteers to accomplish so much is organized into assembly lines. For example, wills stored in boxes are carefully unfolded and all the 19th century “jewellery” (strings, clips, staples, and pins) removed. The will is then laid out and covered with plexiglass on which lead weights are placed. After 24 hours under the weights, the will is placed on the camera bed and photographed. It is then carefully folded back up and placed in the box it came from.

The ledger books which contain the petty crime and probate records are also photographed, one page at a time.

Occasionally someone will exclaim, “Look what I found!”  Everyone gathers around and takes a moment to enjoy the discovery. It might be an intricate drawing doodled on a page, perhaps by a bored law clerk, or an unusual name, occupation or event.  Whatever the discovery, it reminds the workers that the names they are capturing represent real people who lived interesting, usually difficult and often tragic lives.  

“Sometimes we can almost feel them in the room, looking over our shoulders to make sure no mistakes are made and celebrating the camera click that brings their name to light for the first time in 50-150 years,” remarked Sheila Reynolds.

Stephen and Deborah Thompson visited an old cemetery in Melbourne to get a sense of the reality of the work they were doing. “It made us feel close to the individuals whose names we were photographing. So many of them died young, between the ages of 25 and 35. They didn’t have very long to experience life," observed Kathleen Bingham.

The volunteers are in constant motion throughout the day, keeping the cameras clicking. “What we do sounds like it could quickly become tedious and boring. However it’s anything but. It’s great being together as a team, all working on the same thing. Interesting things are always popping up on the documents.  For instance, a 19th century will we recently handled had a recipe for ‘lemon butter’ written upside down at the bottom. I made it, and it was really good,” Nanette Justus said.

“It’s especially fun to read the ‘petty crime’ charges from the court records, commented Bill Justus. ‘Failure to vote, not killing rabbits on one’s property, not getting child vaccinated, obscenity in a public place, lighting and leaving a fire, riding a horse while drunk and parking a horse illegally. All are examples of what could get a person in trouble a hundred years ago,” 

Mr. Wilksch expressed appreciation for the volunteers, who come for 18-24 months and pay their own expenses. “We’ve had volunteers working here since 2004. We are heavily indebted to them for the work they do. They have made available vast amounts of information which can now be accessed online. It’s fantastic and very generous of them!”

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