Delving into the archives, one box at a time

Helen Velissaris delves into the rabbit hole that is the Greek archives and gets a taste of the weird and wonderful things being discovered amongst the 5,500 boxes

For years the Greek archives have lain dormant, untouched and unloved. We’re talking 5,500 boxes, 80 metres of bound newspapers, costumes, newsreels, films, artworks, material stored on 60 computers and a lot of miscellaneous titbits which haven’t seen the light of day for years.

Now, as a three year process to properly store and catalogue the archives’ contents begins, little secrets of what the Greek Australian community held dear to its heart are being painstakingly uncovered, one box at a time.

Housed off campus at La Trobe University, the archives fill their location to the brim, with boxes stacked on top of each other, hundreds of newspapers lining the shelves and huge printing machines taking up whole rooms.

Formally known as the Dardalis Archives of the Hellenic Diaspora, the archives were started in the ’90s by Greek benefactor Zissis (Jack) Dardalis as a call to collect everything old and important in the Greek community.

After the body in charge of archives (the National Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research or EKEME in Greek) ceased operating in 2007, the archives have been left collecting dust ever since.

Now, in the hands of La Trobe University, the archiving process is being managed on behalf of the University by the Library, which has employed three part-time staff, Maria Ammazzalorso, Leonidas Veikos and Michael Protopapa.

Since starting late last year, they’ve managed to catalogue 1,100 boxes and most of the newspapers, including 1,140 bound newspaper volumes. The newspapers already catalogued have been moved to the Library Annexe to relieve some of the congestion in the building and keep them in a better climate controlled environment.

The newspaper collection is probably one of the most extensive in the Greek diaspora anywhere in the world and has Greek, Australian and European newspapers dating back to 1907.

They all preserve the political views of an emerging Greek Australian community.

To the staff, opening each box must feel like unwrapping a present at Christmas, but with more than 4,000 of boxes to go, the novelty will surely wear off soon.

The only indication of what the boxes contain came from an Excel spreadsheet that really didn’t say much. ‘Box no. 4290, contents of room 18’ might mean everything to the person who wrote the spreadsheet, but it really doesn’t help anyone today.

The team has uncovered a database of 351 entries that make up a record of deceased Greeks, but it has not been updated since 2001.

Currently, it’s not just about cataloguing the contents; it’s also about maintaining and sometimes restoring the relics of the Greek Australian community.
From the 314 news reels that have been catalogued by the archives staff, two have been digitised and ten are waiting to be converted before the films succumb to the untreatable vinegar syndrome.

Those newsreels were shown during the Junta years in Australian cinemas every week before a film screening started, informing Greeks of the diaspora what was happening in Greece at the time. The collection here contains some of the last surviving copies of the reels.

The archives also house one of the best collections of old Greek Australian cinema memorabilia donated by cinema mogul, Stathis Raftopoulos of Cosmopolitan Motion Pictures.

It’s a costly process to catalogue everything, and the university has set aside $500,000 to see that the collection gets treated with the care it needs. Already the team has found mould damage and degradation that can’t be helped and have had to discard some materials.

At the moment, the archives are being sorted in ‘scholarly’, ‘cultural’ and ‘low-value’ categories, and the aim is to make the archives available to researchers. Already it has been used by a number of people researching topics like sport and theatre.

Currently the archives are closed to the public but materials can be requested and will be taken to the main library building for consultation.
The university has taken on board this mammoth task to determine the value of the archives but hasn’t promised anything other than just cataloguing it for now.
Judging by the excited staff, it seems like there is a lot more hidden in all those boxes.