Librarians: ordinary citizens turned hero, there to help borrowers in times of need, finding items and answering questions. But at USyd’s very own Fisher Library, something fishy is going down.
On July 27 last year, an undergraduate arts class was whisked along on an excursion to the mysterious Rare Books & Special Collections. The research and preservation department, the Library’s den of excitement, is located on Level 1 of Fisher, storing antique, unusual or highly significant texts. It boasts a collection of over 170,000 materials.
This particular presentation, which began at 10:00am in the Rare Book seminar room, was conducted by one of the archival librarians before a captivated audience of around 10-15 people. It was an overview the same as any other: how to use requested materials, the purpose and history of Rare Books and some trivia about certain items they hold—precious versions of the Quran and Isaac Newtown’s earlier works are sealed in a vault.
But our story concerns a publication closer to campus. Rare Books houses the Library’s archival copies of this student rag, Honi Soit.
During the open question time, one student asked about the ethical issues encountered during the job. In response, they were told something very curious. In the past, people had requested editions, specifically those that mentioned or unfavourably commented on now-prominent Liberal politicians. Using tools they had secretly snuck in, the nefarious culprits cut out whole articles, and graffitied over names to redact them. No mention was made of when this happened or who by, on the day, nor did anyone probe for more detail.
Even when told in passing, an anecdote like this is hard to forget. Rare Books is basically a monastery for antique texts. All material requests are viewed in a special reading space. Desks are spaced out to prevent interaction between borrowers, and strict rules are enforced: hands must be clean, book rests used and only pencils allowed for note-taking on separate paper. Rare Books says they also have a “need for [their] staff to supervise the use of these materials.” Students or staff would have had to pull off daring actions, bypassing the glass panes separating the reading room from the front desk, in order to execute their revisionism of history.
Yet, if true, it is a grave injustice—that damning stupol articles might have been removed from the historical record. Without the archives, we’d never know that Turnbull smoked a joint after a debating meeting, Abbott punched a hole in the wall of the SRC or former Treasurer, Joe Hockey, was called “Judas Hockey”—all during their time as USyd undergraduates.
More concerning is the hefty punishments these unidentified fiends would have escaped. According to the bible of librarial law and order, the University of Sydney (Library) Rule 2011, a user must not “misuse, damage or destroy any library resource or library property”. The repercussion would be heavy: death. Just kidding. The realistic outcome would be a fine, determinable by the librarians, against the mutilating borrower.
Honi’s archives have been preserved in various ways: digitally since 2016, via microfilm (collection numbers 079.9441 5 – 1929-1994) and in physical form (collection number 378.944S R 21) stored at Rare Books. But, without details of the alleged vandalism, the culprits’ motives and the editions targeted, remain unclear. When asked for a fact-check, a representative from Fisher Library said that no one was available to talk.
Later, they told Honi the librarian who presented the Rare Books seminar had no memory of mentioning any mutilations, and that the Library has “no evidence of the removal of particular issues and/or images from Honi”. They did not accommodate Honi’s request to chat in person.
But myths, especially those shared between custodians of knowledge, do not spring out from thin air. With the Library denying the claims, Honi conducted an investigation of our own. Using the digital archive on the Library’s site, we rummaged through over 100 Honi editions from the 60s to late 80s, to cover the time of Howard to Hockey. But the digital archive returned nothing more than smudged ink, sticky taped folds and meticulously written accession numbers, in an undeniably aged, but otherwise pristine collection.
Yet hard copies of the originals are still stored in boxes, hidden from public view. If some of these physical copies were ruined by the folly of man, perhaps only the untouched duplicates were selected for the public, digitalised record, and the real evidence suppressed forever in cardboard.
The SRC’s own leather bound annuals were also consulted, with further examples of tampering and incision. However, when cross-referenced online, only ads for an optometrist in the 80s who worked at Manning House were cut out—like three times. Were the Liberal stupol articles, like the advertisements for Chris McMahon the eye guy, really removed for permanent disposal? Or did the culprits cut them out for their own, personal, sick needs?
A sizeable portion of the undergraduate class were asked about what they remember on that fateful day, July 27 2017, and all of them distinctly recalled the tale; unless a mass case of the Mandela Effect has left them delusional, something isn’t quite right.
It’s impossible to say whether the anecdote was true, or a fun tidbit used to entertain guests. Perhaps this is all a huge coverup for a conspiracy, to protect significant federal politicians or deflect attention away from an uncharacteristically careless, unmonitored viewing session that left archival material permanently ruined. The Library’s silence censors the vandalism. Their taciturnity is deafening. This time around, some things will have to remain ancient history.