Celebrated NT archivist joins forces of two governments


Phyllis Williams
Phyllis Williams

Archivist Phyllis Williams has been made the permanent “joint director” of the Northern Territory Archives Centre, which houses records belonging to both the territory and federal governments.

State and federal archives are also co-located in Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia, but Williams is the only director appointed jointly by the two agencies that run them.

She has been director of the joint facility under contract since a 2013 agreement to combine the collections, and took up the role on a permanent ongoing basis on Monday. Williams has worked for the National Archives of Australia since 1996 and became director of its Darwin office in 2002.

NAA acting director-general Anne Lyons said she had made “a considerable and dynamic contribution” to the combined centre and was instrumental in making the process of joining forces “smooth and successful”.

At the time, the ABC reported the decision to establish the joint NT Archives Centre was the result of “public outcry” at the prospect that the local arm of the National Archives could shut up shop entirely. Now the NAA says there have been “significant benefits” of the co-location agreement. Lyons said:

“We continue to receive positive feedback on having the collections of both Commonwealth and Territory governments in one location.

“The benefits for researchers include a shared reference service where staff have knowledge of both collections and access to both collections in a single reading room.”

The centre also features joint branding and the two agencies hold regular joint staff meetings and enjoy a “cohesive respectful working relationship” according to a spokesperson for the NAA.

Lyons’ praise was echoed by the chief executive of the NT Department of Arts and Museums, Hugo Leschen, who said he was “extremely pleased” to see Williams cemented into the role, which also includes responsibility for NT and Commonwealth archives in Alice Springs.

In the unusual arrangement, Williams reports to Leschen as well as National Archives assistant director-general Louise Doyle, who runs the access and communication division. The agreement between the two governments created a shared governance arrangement, with the employees of each entity operating officially under their respective legislation, policies and procedures as they would otherwise.

The highly respected archivist has worked to build bridges between her profession and some Indigenous people, according a joint statement from the NT Archives Service and the NAA:

“These roles have resulted in, among other achievements, a memorandum of understanding for access to Commonwealth records by Northern Territory Aboriginal people who have been affected by past removal policies. She was also involved in developing the National Archives’ Uncommon Lives website on Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda in consultation with the Wirrpanda family.”

Williams also chairs the Aboriginal advisory groups for the two archives organisations and is involved with link-up groups that assist members of the stolen generations. In 2011 she won a Public Service Medal for “driving significant reforms to communications and service delivery in the National Archives of Australia, particularly in relation to Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory”.

The Darwin based collections include important historical records, including primary source material about the 1966 Wave Hill walk-off — when about 200 members of the Gurindji people went on strike over extremely exploitative employment conditions — such as photographs and an oral history of the strikers’ now-famous spokesman, Vincent Lingiari.

Other examples brought out when the two collections were put together two years ago include a letter about ‘the first European lady resident in the Territory’, a request to shoot crocodiles or kangaroos, the memories of a military nurse during the Darwin bombing, the concerns of a patrol officer about relocation of local Aboriginal tribes, and recollections of Cyclone Tracy by a detective whose house was destroyed around him and his family.

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