On Wednesday 7 June, Cate O’Neill, Nicola Laurent and Kirsten Wright gave a talk called “Find & Connect: What even is it?” at the Digital Studio, Arts West, University of Melbourne. We provided a history of the development of the Find & Connect web resource and discussed some of the records and archives issues: access to records, use of historical language and broken links. This post summarises what we discussed.

The Find & Connect web resource brings together historical resources relating to institutional ‘care’ in Australia. The site went live in November 2011 with the aim of identifying every institution going back to colonial Australia and up to the present day, with a focus on the twentieth century.

The web resource comprises over 16,000 pages including information about:

  • Homes – their location, who ran them, when they opened and closed and including photographs if possible
  • Key events that had a significant impact in the story of child welfare – such as World War I and the Great Depression
  • Legislation
  • Archival collections

We collaborate with Care Leavers in any site developments, and remain guided by Frank Golding’s motto:  “Nothing about us without us”. Our audience includes a range of people who have been affected by child welfare history: Care leavers, but also their families, descendants, and the organisations that hold records, many of whom continue to provide out of home ‘care’ today. They too were our research collaborators in the site’s development.

Find and Connect aims to assist Care Leavers find out where, if their records still exist, they may be found and some historical information about institutions. Given the power imbalance that exists between Care Leavers and institutions, we also provide information on best-practice records access.

People who grew up in institutions are hugely reliant on official records. These records are often overly official and bureaucratic. They are often fragmented, and can be very judgmental and insulting. They can be totally inaccurate. Sometimes they haven’t survived at all.

To access their records, Care Leavers may have to interact with the institutions who harmed them in the first place. Once they navigate through the process required, the records provided to them can be heavily redacted, which can be confronting and upsetting.

Redaction may also be done to ‘protect’ the Care Leaver from traumatic material contained in the records, and the issues with this are summarised in the Open Place submission to the Royal Commission’s Records and Recordkeeping Practices Consultation Paper.

The moral owner of the record is no longer a child. The owner of the record is an adult and must be treated as an adult. Notions of protecting the vulnerable are patronizing and paternalistic. Support may be needed but lack of support is not an excuse to redact material.

Organisations can choose to release records outside of any official processes or to go through Freedom of Information legislation. In many cases there may be the option for supported release – where someone sits with the Care Leaver to go through their records, explains any unknown words/abbreviations to make sense of the files and to make sense of what is/is not contained in the files.

Offensive ideas and language are part and parcel of the history of institutions for children that are represented on the Find & Connect web resource. This includes material about policies and practices that were, for example, based on racist ideologies, moralistic ideas about women, children and families, and eugenicist views of people with disabilities or mental illness.

Find & Connect has always used the original language of items when titling and describing archival material. This is because Find & Connect is built on archival principles, which state that original language should be used in this way. However, given that our primary audience is Care Leavers and that as a website, it is also a communications tool; we asked ourselves recently if it was better to privilege the living people who used this site and who may be distressed or offended by seeing these words, rather than adhering to archival principles.

We are now:

  • writing a policy around the use of historical language,
  • developing protocols around our specific process, scoping what material needs changing,
  • rewriting our existing content warning to encompass this issue,
  • considering taking down some material completely or looking at how it can be appropriately contextualised.

In our usability testing, an unforeseen finding was the impact that broken links can have on Care Leavers.

Feedback included: “That’s what we have been coming up with all our lives (no information),” and “The Government must be hiding something. They never want to tell us the truth.”

So when our primary audience see a broken link they are not just frustrated or annoyed, but trust is broken.

There are simple things that can be done to ensure links don’t get broken that include persistent or permanent links, robust links, redirects, Clean URLs, and direct links. You can read our blog post about broken links here.