Bringing archival treasures to life

One view of the 50 Treasures: Celebrating 50 Years of JCU exhibition held at Perc Tucker Regional Gallery in 2020-2021.

Supplied by Bronwyn McBurnie.

Personnel Image

Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

27 October 2021

Preserve and protect

Bronwyn McBurnie, the Manager of JCU Library Special Collections, has the important task of preserving the past for future generations while also making archival items available to researchers today. This October 27 is the United Nations Audiovisual Heritage Day and highlights the important work of preserving these special treasures of the past.

Bronwyn’s role in Special Collections is to manage and care for each and every historical or archival item that ends up in JCU Library’s care. The Special Collections are home to many items that cannot be found anywhere else in the world and speak to North Queensland’s unique history in the Tropics.

Bronwyn’s excellence in promoting and preserving JCU Library Special Collections was recently recognised by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. "Receiving the Centenary Medal was a real honour and very encouraging for me to continue to work hard in this important area," Bronwyn says.

While some of the archival items have been collected over time as part of the history of the university, other items end up in the collection through generous donations from people. “The Shaw collection, for example, was donated over a period of many years by Miss Edna Shaw. There are rare books about Australian culture and art, among the thousands of other items,” Bronwyn says. Edna’s outstanding contributions to JCU were recognised in 2021 with the awarding of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.

Among the Special Collections are many audiovisual archival items, which require specific care and attention. But these items rapidly deteriorate after a period of time, and while the National Archives of Australia faced a race against time to preserve its audiovisual collections in 2020, Bronwyn faces a similar challenge. Certain audiovisual records — such as cassette tapes and VHS tapes — contain magnetic tape that can degrade over time, particularly where humidity or dust may be present. If these audiovisual records cannot be transferred to a different type of media, they could be lost forever.

“Different archival items have different needs,” Bronwyn says. “For example, audio tapes need to be kept in colder and dryer conditions than paper records.” In the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library on the JCU Townsville, Bebegu Yumba campus, Douglas, the Special Collections have multiple storage rooms, each with precise temperature and humidity monitors specific to different materials’ needs.

A gold medal laid in a blue box. The medal has Royal Historical Society of Queensland and Centenary Medal engraved on it with the image of a building.
JCU Special Collections Manager Bronwyn McBurnie stands smiling next to Emeritus Professor John Pearn while they hold a gold medal.
Left: The Centenary Medal award to Bronwyn by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. Right: Bronwyn with Emeritus Professor John Pearn who designed and commissioned the Centenary Medal. Supplied by Bronwyn McBurnie.

The archive lives on

The Royal Historical Society of Queensland recently recognised Bronwyn’s outstanding service and dedication to the research, preservation and promotion of Queensland’s history, awarding her a Centenary Medal. The award highlights Bronwyn’s important work within the JCU Library’s Special Collections. “It’s important to engage people with the collections but also to support historical research here at the university,” Bronwyn says.

“A lot of work goes into managing the collections and making them accessible for everyone. Every new archival item we receive has to be described accurately so that it can be discovered by researchers when they are searching for materials,” Bronwyn says. “Often there are still living people attached to newly donated items and so we have to be aware of certain conditions that might pertain to copying or access.”

There are many ways that Bronwyn makes the archives engaging and interactive for the wider community. Jean Devanny, a famous author, political activist and feminist who lived in North Queensland, has her own unique archive held in Special Collections. Among collections of her personal letters, writing and other personal papers, the Special Collections has recently worked to digitise some of this collection.

“The process for including the Devanny archive in our recent 50 Treasures exhibition was really fun,” Bronwyn says. “We were able to have one of our talented librarians actually read a chapter from one of her manuscripts so that it could be heard in the 50 Treasures exhibition.  This recording can now be placed alongside the digital version of the manuscript in NQHeritage@JCU – our online repository for the Special Collections. It’s a way to add extra layers of meaning.”

Digitising archival records is a process that Bronwyn says requires care and attention to detail but is an important step in ensuring their preservation. “Even for a simple digital copy of a photograph, we have to make sure all of the files are correctly labelled and named.  Sometimes, with historical images, we need to modify the images to ensure there is enough exposure to reveal the most detail for researchers,” she says.

“In some cases, we have to perfectly colour match items,” Bronwyn says. “The burning ghosts artwork by Judy Watson, for example, has a specific shade of orange that needs to be carefully replicated in digital versions. If we were to lose the original in a cyclone or disaster, that digital record would become our only record.”

JCU Library’s 9th Treasure - British Marine Algae from the Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

Supplied by Bronwyn McBurnie.

Treasures of the past

In 2020, a specially curated collection called the 50 Treasures: Celebrating 50 Years of JCU was developed to celebrate JCU’s 50th anniversary. All of these rare and unique items were digitised as part of the collection and were also developed into an exhibition that was preserved in the form of a virtual tour.

When it came to selecting the 50 Treasures, Bronwyn says she thought about both the significance and diversity of items held within Special Collections. “There were a lot of items of significance both to the university and North Queensland’s history, but I also worked really hard to represent the wide diversity within the collections,” Bronwyn says. “It’s not just books or photographs, but also artworks, furniture, sketchbooks, and even the JCU Mace.”

With Bronwyn’s work and the 50 Treasures exhibition, people can step into history with just an internet connection. Some of these important historical items include a full lecture presented by Eddie Koiki Mabo in 1982 as part of a Race and Culture course, as well as rare footage from the early days of JCU graduation ceremonies accompanied by recollections from Chancellor Bill Tweddell.

"I’ve been here for ten years but still have people contact the JCU Library Special Collections requesting an item I didn’t even realise we held. There’s just a vast amount of holdings in the various collections.”

JCU Library Manager of Special Collections Bronwyn McBurnie

If you want to learn even more about North Queensland’s unique history and JCU’s role within it, you can explore JCU’s 50 Treasures or discover the JCU Library’s Special Collections here.

Explore JCU History

Explore the JCU Library's Special Collections and unearth treasures of the past that develop our unique history of the Tropics.