home > shllc1999 > papers > ALIA 8th Special Health and Law Libraries Conference: papers
STRAIT to the future
8th Asia-Pacific Specials, Health and Law Librarians Conference
From colonial outpost to world leader
- 100 years of information collected by the Perth Mint
Keywords: Gold; Recordkeeping; Perth Mint
The Perth Mint has survived for one hundred years by re-inventing itself in times of change. It has kept the same site, the same operations and much the same name for all this time. This gives it great heritage value which, in its latest incarnation as an aggressive marketer of precious metal products, it is using effectively as a marketing tool. It uses different media to provide information to potential customers and encourage them to purchase as collectors, investors, or both.
The Perth Mint opened on 20 June 1899 as a branch of the Royal Mint of London, that was financed by the Western Australian Government. The Premier, Sir John Forrest, had encouraged his Parliament to show confidence in the 'permanency and richness' of the new goldfields by building roads, railways, telegraph stations and post offices. A 600km pipeline to bring fresh water from the Perth hills to the dry inland gold mining centres of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie was perhaps his most ambitious project. The Mint would, Forrest claimed, be 'the copestone of the edifice that we are rearing up'.
The Mint was to receive the rough gold produced by the mines and prospectors, refine it to a high purity and mint sovereigns from it. These sovereigns would be legal tender throughout the British Empire; their Perth origins identified by the small 'P' mintmark.
The celebration of a centenary is the celebration of the successes of the past one hundred years. When the information on these is locked in hundreds of boxes of files and ledgers, in the memories of ex-workers, and in the bowels of the State Records Office, the search for information begins ...
The first publication put out by the Perth Branch of the Royal Mint was a bright pink watered-silk booklet written by F E Allum, the Chief Clerk and Accountant. Titled Information For Depositors of Gold, it was handed out to all the potential customers of the Mint, to the visitors on Opening Day and anyone who requested a copy. It clearly showed the meticulous planning that had gone into the operations of the new mint. It set out the ways in which deposits could be made, the charges for refining and coining, and briefly described the establishment and operations of the new branch mint. Mr Allum was a natural Records Manager - he organised his files by subject and one of the regulations in his little book is that 'only one subject must be dealt with in each letter.' Like most publications, his book soon became out of date as the charges had to be reduced to make the Mint more attractive than the established refineries in Melbourne and London. Later editions were printed as broadsheets, presumably to make it easy to keep up with the changes.
The next publication was another 'useful little book'. In the 1930s, gold production was at an all time low and the gold price had risen so much that the value of the gold in a sovereign was worth more than its £1 token value. Britain came off the gold standard and sovereigns were no longer minted. This left the Perth Mint operating solely as a refinery; coining operations were at a standstill. The Commonwealth Treasury regarded Perth as too far from the centres of population in the east for it to be given any Australian currency to mint. The Deputy Master (the equivalent of the CEO today), H A Corbet realised that the Mint could help the thousands of prospectors who were driven by unemployment to try their luck. He published Hints to Prospectors and Owners of Treatment Plants in 1933. This was popular all over Australia and grew in size and scope through its ten editions.
The Mint prospered again in the 1940s, largely because the Commonwealth Treasury needed to address a rapid increase in demand for coins. It sent a telegram asking if The Perth Mint could make pennies and halfpennies. The Mint rose to the challenge and continued making bronze coinage until 1964 when it began making 1 and 2 cent coins ahead of decimalisation on 14 February 1966. These coins were produced until 1984 when the newly built Royal Australian Mint in Canberra was able to meet the demands for Australian coins on its own.
The 1980s were a boom time for gold production but The Perth Mint's equipment badly needed updating. The newly elected Labor government, under the leadership of Brian Burke, set up the Western Australian Development Corporation which was to spur on the plans for the Mint's redevelopment. In 1985 Burke gained the approval of the Commonwealth Treasurer, Paul Keating, for Australia's Precious Metals Coin Program. The Perth Mint would make precious metal coins, aimed at both collector and investor markets, to sell all over the world. They would be legal tender Australian coins and, thus, free of sales tax, which would make the prices very competitive.
Instead of merely satisfying orders, the Mint now had to take an active marketing role in promoting sales of its products. The publications generated by these marketing campaigns were not all collected or organised properly at the time and such ephemera are difficult to collect retrospectively. Fortunately, coins always carry a date and so the year on the picture of the coin gives an accurate date for the publication of the brochure. Now copies of the brochures are automatically filed in-house as well as sent to the Ephemera Collection of the Battye Library of Western Australia. But even here a question arises. Some of the marketing brochures are informative booklets; customers demand an explanation of the coin design as well as information on the designer, the Mint and the metal. Each year a Nugget Kangaroo gold coin, a Kookaburra silver coin and a Koala platinum coin are released, in a bewildering number of different sizes and combinations. Are the accompanying booklets parts of a series and do they need an ISSN? Are they really worth anything without the accompanying coins which anyone else has to buy (and which are not appropriate to donate to the Battye library)?
Two promotional journals have been published several times a year since the late 1980s, and these now have the ISSNs printed on the front covers. The Nugget Journal keeps its readers up to date with the latest information on the precious metals industry. The Numismatic Post is published when new coins are released and carries a series of articles, From The Perth Mint Archives, which draw extensively on the archival records.
The correspondence files
In spite of Mr Allum's good intentions, his subject filing fails because of the lack of any kind of a thesaurus. The files are numbered from 1 and recorded in a Register which is indexed. Unfortunately the indexing is inconsistent and the terms used are not obvious. In fairness though, many of the records really do relate to GOLD, and the retrieval terms used today would not have been envisaged when the entries were first written. For instance, the 1999 Conservation Plan required a historical list of the changes made for the building. As the Public Works Department (PWD) was responsible for all these changes, it seems reasonable to assume that changes would be indexed under PWD. On the contrary. Building alterations were indexed under the name of the room - 'V' for Verandahs (which actually look more like balconies) or 'A' for Assay Offices or 'D' for Drains. The search became too difficult.
Most business transactions were short and to the subject, such as orders for dies or chemicals and notification of deliveries of coins, bars and sweep (literally the sweepings from the floor of small pieces of precious metal). But often the letters have a Postscript with an intriguing piece of gossip, if the two correspondents know each other. A classic example was added to a request from the Curator of the Museum in Perth on 24 June 1899 asking for two sovereigns for the collection; the words 'The Albatross is ready' are written in the corner of the page. The Mint Officers enjoyed boating on the Swan River. Perhaps the Curator had a new yacht.
For historical research, Miscellaneous Correspondence and Semi-official Correspondence are the most informative files. The latter consists of the correspondence between the Deputy Masters of the Perth and London Mints. Information is passed on very simply and thoroughly to the Londoners, who perceived Western Australia as having a 'semi-civilised society' where the 'heat and the flies must cause great discomfort'. Deputy Master Corbet had grown up in the Victorian goldfields and described the finer points of 'specking' and 'dollying'. He also explained why the stamps he sent to the stamp collectors in the London Mint are covered in thick paste, as if they had been pasted on by a paperhanger: 'An ingot of gold is comparatively heavy, and has to be grasped firmly by sweaty hands. Marble Bar is 1200 miles away. It has a record three months, every day of which had a temperature over 100.'
One of the problems of communication by sea is illustrated in a letter to the Deputy Master in London: 'On the bottom left hand corner of the envelope containing this letter, the figure '1' appears. No information about the loss of mails is published, and so that you will be able to inform me which letters fail to reach you, envelopes will in future be numbered consecutively'.
The whim of the clerks seemed to decide whether new material should go into an existing file or if a new file should be created. Some files lasted for many years; a personnel file relating to pension schemes that was set up in 1949 is still needed for some Mint pensioners today. Nearly everything seems to have been filed, from samples of fabric for making the workmen's clothes (no pockets, no turn-ups, and no way of secreting gold) to catalogues of equipment and pages of calculations done before calculators were invented. The recordkeeping system was simple and it worked. In 1970 the Royal Mint handed its administrative role to the Western Australian Government, a new filing system was initiated - the numbering system began again with the number 1. This was finally discarded in the mid-1980s when the Mint was redeveloped and began its Precious Metals Coin Program. Management was keen to remove all associations with the run-down institution that the Mint had become and made a complete break with the recordkeeping traditions. Any records management depended on the individual creating and receiving the records. The most common method was Correspondence In and Correspondence Out with the ubiquitous Day Files; a system that is virtually useless for any retrievals more than a month after the files are created. Today the files are subject-based, in a decentralised system, and subject to a Retention and Disposal Schedule. Historians in one hundred years' time are not likely to have the fun of wading through today's informal correspondence, because it is not significant in the business operations of the Mint and can be destroyed. It is unlikely that the current archives will survive intact because of the space requirements and fragility of some items.
Business operations at the turn of the century were very much simpler, people were busy, but technology today has speeded up all those manual tasks. The size of the records demonstrates this - as much paper was kept in the inefficient recording of information for the first seventy years of the Mint's life as in the following twenty years. Today it would only take a couple of years to generate as many paper records. In 1999 the operations are much larger, the product range more diverse and the operations more complex than ever before.
The collection of ledgers in the archives contains information that is now often kept only in electronic form. As well as the usual run of account books - real ledgers, with neat writing and red and black ink (and blots) - there are books that contain information unique to mints. Some of them have been used in the smoky Melting House and the blackened pages demonstrate this. It is a credit to the quality of the paper that the records are still legible because the cost of restoration would be prohibitive. They have to be kept isolated to avoid contaminating other volumes.
The die registers are invaluable research tools for numismatists. Each coin has an obverse and a reverse design, created by pressing an obverse and a reverse die onto a metal blank. British and Australian coins have an effigy of the monarch on the obverse with the denomination and a design on the reverse that usual represents a national icon. The art of coin design is very specialised as not only do the original drawings have to be appropriate, they have to be translated into the relief on the metal blanks. The surface finish, frosted or gloss, is another design variable. A die is made of steel and has the mirror image of the design etched on the surface, which is transferred onto a blank coin in a coining press.
The Perth Mint did not begin to make its own dies until 1951. Before this, the dies had to be requested and delivered from the Mints in London or Melbourne. The registers record the number of the die, the number of pieces it struck, the machine it was used on and the reason it was destroyed. Mints are only concerned with manufacturing a product, a coin that satisfies the legislative requirements of weight, diameter, thickness, metal and purity. Numismatists are concerned with details of the date and design details, such as the number of beads around the edge of a coin and the way these line up with the letters. The die records do not always record details of the year, or the mintmarks that identify the mint - these have to be worked out from samples of coins in circulation. Rare coins become valuable. Although the Miscellaneous Correspondence files have letters from Deputy Masters reassuring the public that a penny is only worth a penny, the rare 1930 penny soon became worth far more. One misleading piece of information was a 'joke' played on people's greed. It stated that 1927 pennies were worth at least £8 - of course they were - at 240 pennies to the pound, 1 927 pennies are the equivalent of just over £8.
To interpret the information on the die registers, modern numismatists need to study them in conjunction with the production records, the correspondence files, and the coins themselves.
The collection of ledgers has another use, which calls for some innovative cataloguing. Some of the 'mood shots' of the coins offered for sale today feature a background taken from the covers or the endpieces of the ledgers. To know which volumes might be suitable, the catalogue has to include a record of the colour, decoration and general attractiveness of each volume, to satisfy requests from the marketing department.
A mint's operations are unique and totally unfamiliar to most people. The written word is often not enough for users to understand the information they are given. The Perth Mint Gold Exhibition has a selection of exhibits relating to the Mint. Visitors can attempt to lift a gold bar and realise how heavy it is and why the minute particles in the floor sweepings are significant. The coins on display give so much information about the history of coining at the Mint. The succession of kings and queens on the coin obverses give a taste of the history of the British monarchy.
Links between the objects can be complex. For instance, an automatic balance is a piece of equipment designed to weigh sovereigns and reject those that are over or under the specified weight range. One such balance is on display, with its accompanying explanatory signage; it is in historic photographs, it has a maintenance record dating from the days it was used, it appears in a catalogue of equipment, its purchase and importation into WA are recorded in the registered correspondence and, recently, it has been rescued from its hiding place under the stairs and restored. The process of restoration has been described and photographed and the balance appears on today's asset register as an antique, not a piece of obsolete equipment whose initial cost has been completely depreciated. It has a current record of conservation maintenance as well as any loans to other museums.
Photographs give an impression of the dirt and the noise, but many images are not dated. The visitors who come in to visit their grandfathers' workplace are invaluable in identifying their ancestors in the group staff photographs, and recounting their stories. In return, the Mint archives often have birth certificates, medical reports, samples of handwriting and other records of a personal nature that are copied and given to families.
The Mint provided an unusual work environment, the workers were locked in together through the working day, took showers together when they left and came to love their work and their workmates. Many of the customers today are retired or former workers who maintain their links with the past by purchasing new coin releases.
The website http://firstname.lastname@example.org/
The Perth Mint website was created in 1997, essentially as an information site. The home page has buttons, which link to different aspects of the Mint's activities. Users can search for information about coins produced for collectors or about precious metals for investors. They can sign up on-line to receive more information. The Public Relations buttons provide the news of Centenary events and general information, mostly about the gold industry, for school projects and general enquiries. Use of the web page has increased steadily and so has its information content. It has some 400 pages of information and its depth of coverage is much appreciated by the users who each spend an average of ten minutes on the site, a long time in internet terms.
The site is now in need of updating to become an interactive electronic commerce facility. This will enable the Mint to take advantage of the huge marketing opportunities the internet offers. The United States is the Mint's biggest customer and this country has far and away the largest number of internet users.
The Perth Mint archives provide detailed information on the Mint and insights into Western Australian history. Not a great deal of this information has been published and much of it has not been made available to the public. For specialist researchers, it has a wealth of information not held anywhere else. This information is housed in a variety of media and often more than one source is needed to satisfy a request. The archival collection has drawn all these disparate items together so that the information retrieved is more complete and easier to understand.
The archives demonstrate how the challenges of information management have been addressed over time, and their strengths and weaknesses as retrieval tools for the information required today. The index terms provide a guide for thesaurus construction.
The problems of isolation - from the rest of Australia and from its parent mint in London - are as if the Mint in Perth has indeed been an island, surrounded by both a sea and a sea of desert. The future of the Mint is about to change dramatically. With the increasing use of electronic payments, the demand for coinage is decreasing and the fundamental role of any mint, that of producing the Nation's coinage, is under threat. Whatever future the Mint has, the internet will remove any difficulties that its isolation has caused. The Mint will be able to develop markets for its products, and conduct business, electronically. The isolation and political stability of Western Australia make The Perth Mint attractive to precious metal investors; being an island is advantageous.
Anthea Harris has been a consultant in special libraries since 1983, mostly for mining companies where her background in geoscience has been an advantage. She has a BA Hons in Environmental Studies and a Graduate Diploma in Library Studies. Her roles at The Perth Mint also include Records Manager, Archivist, Curator and Historian.