Making records meaningful

The Find & Connect web resource team gave a presentation this week as part of the University of Melbourne’s Researcher @ Library Week.

One of the things that we like to do when we’re presenting is to start with the ‘consumer voice’ – that is, to open proceedings with a perspective from someone with lived experience of being in a children’s institution. It’s a way that our project team can show respect for the wisdom and expertise of Care Leavers and Forgotten Australians. Our research isn’t just about a topic of historical inquiry, or a policy area where services could be improved – it is about real people.

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At the talk last week, Rachel Tropea opened proceedings with a video featuring 2 Care Leavers talking about their experiences locating and accessing their records. (This video was produced 3 years ago, as part of a package of Resources to guide Record-Keeping Practices which support Identity for Children in out-of-home care, an output of the Who Am I? project.)

This video features Frank, who was in ‘care’ in the 1940s and 1950s, and Samantha, who was in resi care and foster care in the 2000s. Despite the different systems that existed for each of them, Frank and Samantha’s stories share many similarities. The records were highly significant to both of them. Samantha said:

My records are really important to me. They meant that I could find out who I was. I was really lost when I left care … accessing my records meant that I found out who I was, and really had a sense of belonging of where I was in society, and what I was doing at certain times in my life.

Both of them were frustrated by the information that was redacted or ‘blanked out’ from their records. The records that Frank and Samantha received were full of gaps – they didn’t answer all of their questions. Frank said:

I’d gone through my whole adult life, raising my own children, not knowing the story … you feel a bit of a goose, not being able to tell your children why you grew up in care …

Both of them spoke about how important it is for workers to think about the child and his or her needs when they create records. As Samantha said:

For me I think the best way for me to have the best records that I could have had would be for me to have a voice in my records, through planning what I wanted in my records, you know, taking photos of myself at birthdays and things like that, so I could have had that when I left care … I would have liked to have had some input into a story that was going to be written about me.

Our session, chaired by Antonina Lewis, was titled, ‘Making sense of the past: reconnecting through records’. Here are the Powerpoint slides and our notes if you’re interested in finding out more.