Born in Brisbane in 1957, Laura Beacroft came to Canberra in 1974. She worked in the Parliamentary Library on a casual basis in 1975 and was in the building on November 11, 1975.
Interview with Laura Beacroft part 1
E Helgeby: This is an interview with Laura Beacroft who worked in the Parliamentary Library at Provisional Parliament House from 1975 to 1976. Laura will be speaking with me, Edward Helgeby, for the Oral History Program conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. On behalf of the director of the museum I would like to thank you for agreeing to participate in this program. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure will be subject to any disclosure restrictions you impose in completing the Rights Agreement?
L Beacroft: Yes I do.
E Helgeby: This being so may we have your permission to make a transcript or a summary of this recording should we decide to make one?
L Beacroft: Yes you do.
E Helgeby: This interview is taking place today on the 5 November 2013. Can we begin with a little bit of background about your family, where they came from and also your own — where you grew up and your education and so forth?
L Beacroft: I grew up in Queensland in a suburb in Brisbane. My father worked for TAA, Qantas — became Qantas — and he got a transfer to Canberra so I came to Canberra as soon as I had finished high school, so I was 17 years and I went to ANU, and I was living with my parents and my siblings here in Canberra …
E Helgeby: This is in 1975, ’76?
L Beacroft: I came in 1974.
E Helgeby: Seventy four, okay. What was — at this point so you had finished year 12…?
L Beacroft: In Queensland.
E Helgeby: Your parents — where did they come from?
L Beacroft: My parents came from Queensland; my father grew up in Brisbane, Yeronga, an urban setting, and my Mum grew up in the granite belt; she was the daughter of a veteran who had got some land and had grown apples. So country girl, urban boy, and he had started work as a steam train mechanic on the railways and then when the aircraft industry took off he got a job as a licensed aircraft engineer at TAA. And as I said, he got a transfer down here because the airport in Canberra was expanding, and that’s why I moved down, I’d never been to Canberra before.
E Helgeby: How would you describe Canberra back there, when you moved in here? What’s your first impression of Canberra?
L Beacroft: Cold, and I came in summer. I remember I got off the plane after my school formal, so that would be the end of ’74 — perhaps it was the end of ’73 — I can’t quite remember the year but it was so cold and it was December, and I just didn’t know how I was going to survive here but of course in the end you get the right clothes and it was all fine. Australian National University was a lovely university; it had a very small student population, beautiful campus — I mean not as — not as many buildings as today, it was lots of parkland, and Canberra was like a big country town, there wasn’t any night life, and there was a recession in Australia through the seventies so work was very hard to find and I was new to Canberra. But I found work through the ANU Student Employment Service, and one day they had — they used to just post up handwritten notes — they had something posted up — so this must have been at the end of my first year, so I think was at the end of ’74, Whitlam was already in power — and it said, ‘Library assistant for the Parliamentary Library’ and I applied. And I was a fairly studious person, had good marks and knew a fair bit about libraries — which of course in those days were non-electronic — and was fit and agile, which proved to be necessary because of the way the Parliamentary Library worked; it had these stacks that went up to massively high levels and you had to climb up these ladders that you pulled out like a fireman’s ladder — of course I didn’t know any of this — anyway, got the job and I was very pleased, and I ended up — I can’t quite remember when I started but when Whitlam was dismissed in 1975 — is that right? — 1975, so I’d been working there for some time, I was fairly well known there, I knew what I had to do — sorry I think I must have got the job at the end of ’74, at the end of my first year uni.
E Helgeby: Were there any particular qualifications or any training, particular training required for you to get this job?
L Beacroft: Well in some respects I was surprised I got the job because I thought they might have wanted someone training to be a librarian but they — I can’t remember the interview very well but one thing that I do remember is they asked me whether I was agile and — I mean you could tell that I was at the time — and I realised after that it was a lot to do with the physical nature of putting books away, but obviously I knew my way around a library and they certainly checked that out, and I did have very good marks and they asked for my resume.
E Helgeby: What subject were you studying at ANU at the time?
L Beacroft: I was doing Science degree, yes.
E Helgeby: So did you apply for this job for any particular reason other than perhaps to earn some money or…?
L Beacroft: Yeah to earn some money, and I wasn’t very political, I was very — I mean I would have taken any job. I didn’t really think through working in Parliament House. I suppose other people might have thought that was going to be very glamorous and there might have been political science students that were very anxious to work here; I just didn’t think about it at all, I just wanted a job because there was a recession on. I had tried to get work in the hospitality industry and I had worked in retail in Brisbane but of course I’d moved and hadn’t been able to get anything, but I remember my Dad who was very political, he said to me, ‘Wow,’ you know, something like that, you know, ‘you’re going to be working at Parliament House, that’s going to be so exciting!’
E Helgeby: So your interest in politics was already very limited or non-existent at that time was it?
L Beacroft: Yes, well I mean I used to listen to what my parents said and my Dad, as I said, he was a lifelong member of the Labor Party and we always listened to the news and he scrutineered at elections, so he would talk a lot about politics and he kept abreast of all events, and he told me at that time I remember, that it was going to be an interesting time working at Parliament House because there was so much conflict, but I have to say I wasn’t very political and I didn’t follow things and in those days, pre-internet and so forth…
E Helgeby: So you never — you weren’t a member of the party at the time?
L Beacroft: Not at all, I was very apolitical, I was just a very studious Science student.
E Helgeby: Looking for some extra income.
L Beacroft: Mmm, and I was quite young, I was younger than most of the other students because in Queensland you finished a year younger, so I had only just turned 18 when I got this job.
E Helgeby: Some people would say there was perhaps some — might have been some status associated with working at a place like Old Parliament House.
L Beacroft: Well when I started working here I realised that it was — it was a good job to have for lots of reasons; it was very interesting, there were a lot of very smart people that worked here, it was a very lovely environment. It was probably — it was my first entree to a more professional environment because I’d always worked in retail and I was very young as I said, so yes, I mean it was really very lucky that I got the job given that there were probably a lot of other people who would’ve, you know, really wanted the job, but I somehow or other won the job.
E Helgeby: You said — you mentioned the interview process; you can’t remember what that entailed?
L Beacroft: Well the thing I remember which surprised me is they checked out a lot of my physical capacity; they obviously wanted to make sure no one was going to hurt themselves, and this was before the day of really Occupational Health and Safety practices, they just wanted to make sure I was capable of it, and even then I didn’t really ask them why they were asking me that but on my first day on the job I realised why. Yeah, I mean those ladders were like fireman ladders.
E Helgeby: In detail, how would you actually describe the job? I mean as you faced it on day one? What exactly were you expecting to do?
L Beacroft: Well look it was a lovely job and people were so professional, so I remember coming in, and of course I knew my way around a library but I wasn’t a librarian and they couldn’t afford to have one single book misfiled because a misfiled book is a lost book, I remember the librarian told me that. So their emphasis was on quality: ‘Just take your time, put everything where it should be, be very pleasant with everyone but you don’t have to interact with the politicians, you don’t have to do their enquiries, if anyone asks you a question you refer them up to the enquiry clerk,’ and you know, and they were very well trained to find everything, ‘Your job is to get those books exactly where they should be and precisely where they should be.’ And so every day there would just be hundreds of books that had to be put away. I don’t think they had a lot of people like me, I think I was trying to back up the librarians, and some of the librarians weren’t very agile so you know, they weren’t going to go up the ladders. So yeah, my job — so I spent most of my time way up the top of an incredibly high ladder, and you had to be very organised, you had to know where the books went so that you only went up the ladder and put those books away and then you came down this big ladder and moved it along a bit and went up again. So it was quite an organised job.
E Helgeby: When you talk about the very high ladder, this building is not exactly a very large and tall building and the library itself is not a — hasn’t really got very high ceilings; where exactly were the books that you worked with stored?
L Beacroft: Well the library was spread out all over the place but the main library was in the hall, which is in the centre here, and yes — and it did have high stacks so I’d have to go and have a look to see how high the ceilings are, I don’t know whether they’ve done something with the ceiling — it had high stacks, and also there was a Parliamentary Annexe which was very large and I used to work there sometimes as well, which is now the Intercontinental Hotel.
E Helgeby: The Hyatt.
L Beacroft: The Hyatt I’m sorry, the Hyatt. So that was interesting as well.
E Helgeby: And that was actually from 1976 onwards that that was turned into an Annexe for quite a number of years…
L Beacroft: That’s right, so initially I only worked here, but then after a while I was placed over there. So I worked — yeah, so I must have worked at the library for quite a while if I ended up over there because you were saying that only opened up in 1976.
E Helgeby: Well it actually had — that was when it was — it turned into and it became an Annexe effectively to those administrators.
L Beacroft: Okay well I must have — yes, well I was definitely still with the library then. I remember that as well because what was very surprising about the Annexe, it was as if Martians had come and taken everybody overnight, and everything had just been left, clean but put where it was last used. You could open the cupboards and the linen was in there, the kitchen was totally filled with crockery, cutlery, everything was there. It was just as if all the human beings just got removed in an instant, and we worked around all of that. Yes, and so — and I guess the consequence of me working on the stacks is that I didn’t necessarily interact with a lot of the politicians because I was up higher than them; I was very rarely down on the ground.
E Helgeby: Well that sounds — I’d like to come back to that in another context a bit later on if I may. Just, but before we do, there’s another aspect of the work that we’re interested in; what was the relationship between the National Library of Australia and the Parliamentary Library from your perspective? Do you have any insight on contacts, you know, in that…?
L Beacroft: No, I mean there’s nothing that I knew about…
E Helgeby: There was something called the Legislative Research Service which was introduced in 1968 which was very important, and I wondered — wondered whether — did you have any involvement with that service while you worked at Old Parliament House? Or if not, did any of your colleagues get engaged with that?
L Beacroft: Well because I was young I’m not totally sure of who, who it was, but I do — there was a beautiful cafe which is where the cafe is now, it was beautiful — and a great tradition was that everybody at morning tea and lunch, as much as possible — it wasn’t always possible, it depended on our workloads, people were very hard working — but as much as possible we would try to go there, and it was very, very social and you could interact with people who were working in the building, and there was a very large unit which was on — I’m pointing to this side of the building — so it was all open plan with lots and lots of desks and people were very hard working and committed and they were very smart people, and they did a lot of research, they wrote papers and — I’m not sure if they also did — if that was perhaps also the research on the legislation — and they did media monitoring — it was very intensive and sometimes you could see they had special projects and they’d work long hours, and I’d hear them talking in the cafe about all sorts of things they were working on, and you know, that was very interesting because they were very knowledgeable people. Now often they would come into the library as you would imagine, there wasn’t any email in those days, and they were big users of the library, and now and then as I got to know some of those people I would particularly help them; it wasn’t really my job but of course I did find I did get to know the library quite well. But some of them had very sophisticated searches they were trying to do so they really need a librarian to help them and things would be ordered in. But yes, there was a huge unit, I mean for those days, a big unit which did lots of research, and for parliamentarians and I guess for committees and that sort of thing.
E Helgeby: In one sense, a bit more precisely, which part of the building did you actually work in on a regular basis? Was it this storage area below here, or was it in the — what used to be the Parliamentary Library? Yeah.
L Beacroft: Yes, well largely I was working in the Parliamentary Library where — which I think is the Great Hall now is it?
E Helgeby: No it’s actually a part of the museum, it’s one of …
L Beacroft: Oh is it? Okay, all right, yes, and you entered through the big doors which was right as you came in, you came through the foyer area and then you went through the big doors and then you were right — it was right in the centre of the building.
E Helgeby: So that’s where — that was sort of your regular venue? And were there — apart from the library and the storage, the stacks — were there any other areas of the building that you regularly used?
L Beacroft: No, I didn’t, I was very much in those areas because I was putting the books away. When the Annexe opened up I did a number of special projects over there, for example there would be parliamentary documents that were not located in one bound volume which for various reasons were considered of some importance, so I would locate all of them, and sometimes that was quite a Sherlock Holmes job — of course this was all before internet — so you’d actually have to see if some of the parliamentarians had kept copies and so forth, so you’d try to find various things that would then create the compendium, and once I’d got them all together and indexed them and checked their authenticity that would be bound. And they were a whole range of things; they could be submissions for an old committee enquiry that was historically of interest or it was relevant to a new one coming up, particular documents that were released by government and so forth. So that’s what I ended up doing.
E Helgeby: So in one sense what I seem to be hearing is that your job was rather different to what you described at the beginning as someone who stacked books, and you mentioned — used the term I think ‘librarian’ in a sense, so it — the role did widen as time went by? Or was it — were there other reasons that you were actually moved into other forms of duties?
L Beacroft: I think as people got to know me they could see that, you know, I was capable of many different things and they were good enough to give me challenging jobs, and I knew all the processes and the systems and the people and — well not all of them but I knew a lot of them — so, and so I just, you know, I think I just — it was seen that I could do it, yes. So after a — well I can see the timing is — but after a period of time I never stacked any books anymore.
E Helgeby: So that is an interesting — you said — mentioned also they moved to the new Annexe at the old Hotel Canberra; did that change how you worked or did those changes, had they taken place here and you moved, you know, over to this new — to this old building doing other things — doing the same things that you’d been doing here?
L Beacroft: Yes, well I mean that environment, as I say, was a bit like a tomb, it was just like we walked into this hotel and everyone had just left, but it was a more modern workplace in that we had teams and I had a team leader, and we had projects and we had team meetings, and I had a workstation — I didn’t have a computer — but it was a more modern workplace, I wasn’t in the actual library dealing with books. So yes, it was a very different environment, and I know that the library was very happy to get that Annexe because I had gathered that they were terribly cramped and you know, had lots of work they needed to do but just had nowhere to put people. I mean you could imagine how people outgrew this building, it is actually a very small building.
E Helgeby: So in one sense they — how did they — from the point of view of the users, the members of parliament who wanted access to the books and material, did you — when you were here in the big Old Parliament House itself, you would supply them with those books and make sure that they always had — when you went over to the Annexe, did that change? Did you still move over here, come over here with the material they needed and so forth?
L Beacroft: No, I didn’t really interact much with politicians then, except if I was tracking down a document I thought they might have, you know, I mean some of the documents had been released by particular politicians for example, and so if I got permission from my team leader I could contact their office to see if perhaps they had archived something, and quite a few of the politicians had pretty good filing systems so you know, many of the documents were able to be found.
E Helgeby: Did you by chance when you were in this building or during your time working for the Parliamentary Library, did you ever — have you seen the chambers?
L Beacroft: Yes, I can remember that was encouraged. Now you could tell me better, I’m just a bit vague, but I recollect that in the Parliamentary Library there was a spiral staircase and a door and you could go through that staircase and you could listen to — I think it was the House of Reps — and we used to do that sometimes. I’d only do it escorted because I didn’t have all the security that everybody else had. So we were encouraged to go and listen, and actually if the voices rose up a lot you could hear it in the Parliamentary Library. I guess that’s the House of Reps, I think it was particularly the House of Reps you could hear.
E Helgeby: A loud mob.
L Beacroft: Yes, if they were shout — you know, sometimes they’d sort of all celebrate something or yes, I mean, yeah, so it was encouraged, as long as we got our work done we were encouraged to find out about what was going on and to speak to politicians; there weren’t many barriers.
E Helgeby: Did you have access to all the facilities here at Old Parliament House? Things like tennis courts and gardens or the restaurant, cafe?
L Beacroft: Look I may have but I didn’t really enquire, I didn’t — I probably did, I mean I was a casual worker but I had a clearance to come into the building — I probably did. I was studying so I didn’t tend to loiter, I did my job and then I went home or went to uni so…
E Helgeby: Perhaps go back — I’ll need to go back a little step — and exactly how would you describe a normal work day for you?
L Beacroft: Well I worked part time and the Parliamentary Library was very good about fitting it around my hours, so I can’t remember how that worked but I know I did one long day, that was always very convenient because I was bussing it so it was efficient for me to only come over as little as possible really, because in those days you had to — the buses weren’t very frequent. So I recollect I worked one very long day most weeks unless I had exams or something, and then I did one morning, something like that, and then sometimes in the holidays they’d give me special projects or they’d want me to come in more days because people were taking holidays, so I would do more if I could. I never worked full time though; they never had that much work.
E Helgeby: How many hours would you, in an average week, work?
L Beacroft: I think I was probably doing at least five, if not ten, and then some weeks if I had exams I’d ask if I could not come in at all or maybe just come in for a couple of hours, so I wasn’t doing a lot of hours but it was a reasonable number of hours for a full time student.
E Helgeby: What type of equipment was used in the library during the years that you were there?
L Beacroft: Well it was a very old fashioned library, you know, a little bit if you go into the New South Wales State Library, you know, it was very wooden, you know, lots of wood, desks, librarians at your service, books everywhere…
E Helgeby: All manually handled?
L Beacroft: All manually handled. I didn’t actually wear gloves or anything; I mean they had these ladders that travelled along the stacks, they were just those metal ladders; once again if you go to the State Library you see those; they’re very secure, they’re very stable. It was a very British, old fashioned feeling building, it was quite — I remember when I first started working it was quite intimidating; there was sort of a hush, and I guess because of the carpet and the wood had absorbed the sound it wasn’t — very little echo, so it just had that sort of — yeah it had a very — nothing resonated, so it had a sort of hushed feeling to it. And the lighting was poor actually, because of all the dark wood and of course lights in those days weren’t that great, so yes, it was just, had an old fashioned, a little bit of a Harry Potter feel really, like Harry Potter’s school.
E Helgeby: Did that change at all when you moved to the Annexe?
L Beacroft: Yeah the Annexe was like a modern workstation; lots of light, but it didn’t really have interaction with the politicians but…
E Helgeby: Did the way you worked change?
L Beacroft: Yeah we did a lot of telephone work; people would ring up and ask for things, lots of light workstations, open plan, you could personalise your work environment…
E Helgeby: You didn’t have a special — your own workstation when you worked in Old Parliament House?
L Beacroft: I didn’t have a workstation at all; I came in, I reported to the librarian who was usually on the front counter serving people, I didn’t even sign in I don’t think, I mean you know, she just knew I — I mean I had hours and I was honest so I turned up. And I’d tell her what area of the stack I’d be working in and she’d tell me which books — they sort of had it prioritised as to which books — and sometimes there’d be a book that they wanted me to get down or a whole — sometimes there were lists of books, that’s why I know about Mr Wentworth because there was often a list that he wanted. So if for some reason they wanted me to get all those books down I’d get them down and put them somewhere where they knew where they were, but then I would just progressively and methodically put away the books. And as I say, sometimes they had a priority order; they’d say, ‘Will you do that lot first and then that lot?’ Yep.
E Helgeby: What sort of — well who would you describe as the library users in a sort of daily sense? Apart from your staff, the staff working there and including yourself, who were the users?
L Beacroft: Well as I said, there were a lot of researchers who used the library and they were — they usually had very specific things they were researching, so they — I could see the librarians had to do very sophisticated searches for them. But there were a number of politicians who were obviously big readers and that’s why I really remember Mr Wentworth…
He was always in the library, and you know, he was a reader, he wasn’t chatting to people, he was really looking at the books and he’d ask for lots of books and often I’d be the one to go and get them, and through the librarian give them to him, and one week later they’d all be back, and I mean, who knows if he read them? But I think he did read them because then he’d be looking for other things which had come out of it, and I’d hear him asking librarians for certain things. He was quite a gruff-speaking man, he didn’t have a lot of niceties around him and he would get frustrated quite quickly if something couldn’t be found or if something was a little bit late, but some of the librarians knew him very well. I was always — because I so young I was very scared of him because he was very gruff and quite short with people, but we sort of got onto nodding terms and I could see he sort of knew that often I was the one that went and got the books. So I didn’t really speak to him very much but if I got a request from the librarian for his books I’d always make a priority of getting them because I knew that he would be in to get them, but he really sticks in my mind, and he just borrowed so many books. He probably would have been the biggest user, based on my observation.
E Helgeby: I’m certain that, because in the days, even in the 70s there was a large number of parliamentarians who didn’t have offices, that they actually used the parliamentary library as their space to work.
L Beacroft: Well you — and that probably is right; I certainly wasn’t aware of that, but the library was quite a populated place. There were a lot of desks, it had that hush; I mean these days people just sort of talk in libraries, but it was different then, and yes there was always quite a few people in there, so maybe that’s right, they were actually there doing their work. Certainly Mr Wentworth would have had his own office because he took the books away, but yes, there were a number of desks and people — I was always very mindful about speaking or what I said in the library because I felt like it was a totally public space with lots of people there.
E Helgeby: Were you the most junior person there?
L Beacroft: Oh I would have been, I would have been the youngest by far because I had only just — I would have just turned 18 when I got the job, so I was very young.
E Helgeby: Who did you actually work with? Who were — did you have work colleagues doing — sharing your job, the kind of work that you did, or did you work by yourself?
L Beacroft: No, no I worked very much by myself; I think they’d just managed to find this money to help put books away and that that then freed the librarians up to do the more complicated technical tasks. I mean, yeah I mean there probably were other people putting books away, I mean I do remember a couple of older gentlemen who, you know, did various things including putting books away, but I was pretty quick I think, yep.
E Helgeby: How would you describe the relations amongst staff or between staff?
L Beacroft: Very harmonious; I just remember it as being a very sophisticated workplace, people were very pleasant, they were very hard working. It was quite small, people knew each other, there were a lot of women which — there were a lot of men but there was particularly a lot of women — and yeah people were very inclusive, and the cafe was a focal area when people could get away, lovely to have a coffee there, people talked about very intellectual subjects. When I moved to the Annexe I got an even better impression because of its very great team environment; I had very good experience there of being in a team and working with someone who made sure I had everything I needed to do my job, very, very good.
E Helgeby: So you talk about the team meaning — then a member of a team, but when you were here it sounds more like you were, you know, a lone wolf.
L Beacroft: Well yes, I think it was the nature of my work, at that stage I was — I mean people did include me and chatted to me, although my work was rather isolating, and I, you know, I didn’t hang around when I wasn’t working but I enjoy — no it was — but it was an enjoyable environment and I would certainly have morning tea breaks and lunch breaks and people were very inclusive when I’d chat to them in the cafe, it was just a big event to go to the cafe, so…
E Helgeby: When you talk about the cafe, you mean the one in the courtyard?
L Beacroft: Yes, well…
E Helgeby: In the House of Reps courtyard?
L Beacroft: Yes, it was just, it’s over to my left…
E Helgeby: On the back of the…yeah.
L Beacroft: Yes, it was more, you know, it was just for staff then.
E Helgeby: Non-members?
L Beacroft: Non-members, and then there was a politicians’ cafe somewhere.
E Helgeby: So you used those facilities on a regular basis?
L Beacroft: I did, it was very nice, yeah.
E Helgeby: How would you describe the — I mean, I know you worked, you know, temporary hours and shorter hours — how would you describe the working hours and conditions working in this building?
L Beacroft: Very pleasant, I thought they were very pleasant, I mean it was my first real job, but I mean I’d come from working in retail for Woolworths and in those days you had a bundy clock where you had to put your piece of paper in and everything was done, you know, with bells, like you didn’t go to morning tea until the bell went, and then if you weren’t back when the bell went you got in trouble, and I mean it was a very authoritarian, regimented environment, that’s what retail was like in the 70s. Plus my first job in Woolworths I got unequal pay so working here I got equal pay, people relied on me to be honest, committed, self-managing, which I was, and people were very smart and intellectual so I — and they were very flexible around my hours — so I can’t really comment on how permanent people found it, but from my point of view it was great.
E Helgeby: Was there any difference between Old Parliament House and the Annexe in terms of the working, the atmosphere, the working arrangements? You talked there about being a member effectively, of a team; that seems to imply…
L Beacroft: It was totally different, yeah, I mean it was — I mean I had a team task to do and I was doing projects working to a team leader, whereas I guess in a way I was processing books when I was in the library, I was more like a process worker, people didn’t need me to think outside the square or anything, I just had to reliably put away books, which you know, was a fine and relaxing task, but it was good that they let me move on to doing something that used my brain a bit more.
E Helgeby: Did the hours change when you went over to the Annexe?
L Beacroft: Yes, I’m a little bit hazy but they were — basically what I was being asked to do there was put as much time as I could into a project which had a beginning and an end, so obviously they didn’t want it to go on for a year, so they’d say, ‘Well if we got you to do this, how long do you think it would take you to do?’ Like, ‘How many days can you do?’ But then I might have nothing for four weeks and then they’d say, ‘All right, we’ve got another one we want you to do.’ So I did a few of them in a row but they didn’t necessarily have them stacked up neatly one after another, but that was fine too, I didn’t mind.
E Helgeby: That was actually a question I was going to ask you; whether you were always busy or there were periods when you had no specific duties so, let’s call them ‘slack’ periods; what, did you then go back to doing other tasks or did you simply not turn up?
L Beacroft: No, so when I was stacking books that was just regular days that went on — I can’t quite remember — but certainly for a year or so. When they got me to work at the Annexe it was mini projects and they’d say, ‘Can you do this? Let’s talk about what your availability is, how long it will take you,’ and then I’d just stick to that, but then I might have no work from them for four weeks and then they’d ring me up and say, ‘All right, we’ve got another one; can you come in and we’ll have a talk about how you might go about that?’ So that was good, and…
E Helgeby: Did it affect your income? I mean those shorter hours you had, so did you take other jobs, take other work to compensate for the fact that you had…
L Beacroft: Yes I think ultimately it did peter out, I think it did peter out because they were actually getting more and more librarians on board and of course they were also starting to get into electronic means, so they were sort of professionalising the personnel.
E Helgeby: And you didn’t deal with any or have to deal with any of the electronic side of the business all during the time you were there?
L Beacroft: No I never did, no. And also as I advanced in my degree I was more and more trying to get work in my field, which, I mean I enjoyed working here but I was never going to be a librarian.
E Helgeby: Where did you actually live when all this was going on? Where were you staying?
L Beacroft: I lived at Page in Belconnen.
E Helgeby: With your parents or…?
L Beacroft: Yes with my parents, yep.
E Helgeby: All right, and how did you travel to work every day?
L Beacroft: Bus, yeah, or sometimes ride; I rode my bike a lot although I’d normally bus it here because you don’t want to sort of get to work, you know — like you had to be very well dressed to come to Parliament — or, well I felt you had to be very well dressed so I would sort of have shoes on that weren’t great for a bike and so forth, so — and I don’t remember that there were shower facilities here; perhaps there were and I didn’t know about them, but yes, I would tend to bus it here…
Interview with Laura Beacroft part 2
L Beacroft: Would be quite well dressed.
E Helgeby: Can you tell me who was your boss in a direct sense during — who were your bosses during the time that you worked there?
L Beacroft: Oh gosh, they were all librarians and they were women, although — I mean there were a number of men working there but the people I reported to were senior librarians who were women, and I’m sorry, I can’t remember their names; they were all women between about 30 and 45. Just really nice people, sensible, easy to work with, smart, and I can’t remember their names I’m sorry, yeah.
E Helgeby: Did you find it difficult because of the age difference between yourself and the staff there?
L Beacroft: No, no, they were very educated, very pleasant. No, they were very pleasant people to work with actually, very clear in what they wanted me to do; if I had a problem I could go back to them, they were very accessible, they were very experienced. Yeah I wasn’t reporting to really junior people, no, they were…
E Helgeby: And your bosses would have changed — could change from week to week or…?
L Beacroft: No, not really; I remember when I worked here — no I would have thought they had a lot of continuity in their staffing actually, I don’t remember massive changes. I mean I was a little bit out of the politics of the workforce but I remember a lot of stability, and certainly I reported to a woman at the Annexe for a long time, yeah.
E Helgeby: I was going to ask you, did the Annexe situation where you were a team member, how that changed?
L Beacroft: Yeah, and she was there for as long as I was there. She was quite young actually; she was probably in her early thirties; she was a librarian.
E Helgeby: The project that you were working on in the Annexe, what sort of — can you describe an example of what kind of a project that you might have been involved in?
L Beacroft: Well as I say I was pulling together compendiums of documents that, for one reason or another belonged together but which had never been bound together, and I mean I just remember one I did was a whole series of media releases that had been put out in a certain period of time by a certain minister because they wanted to track what he’d said about it and it was considered of interest, and you know, it was trying to find all those bits of paper, I mean they were sort of strewn all over the place in various politician’s offices in the Parliamentary Research Area, the library had some of them, and so I’d just have to find them all and if we got them all we would then get them bound and indexed. And I mean some of that work was just because that period of time was interesting, or perhaps there was a committee hearing coming up and they wanted to have some kind of perspective on — and media releases were of interest because they often were a ministerial statement about a particular topic and an announcement of some policy initiative or something like that. So yeah, so I mean that was just one I did I remember because it was actually quite tricky that one because the media releases didn’t necessarily get treated in the same way as a report, so it was trying to find all of them, and that because they’re all numbered you could tell if you had missing ones. Yeah so there must have been some process in Parliament House for the release of media releases I think, and therefore you could tell whether you had missing ones. Anyway so it was sort of — it was interesting work.
E Helgeby: While you were at the Annexe did you spend any — I think you said that you did not spend any time at Old Parliament House itself often or…
L Beacroft: No, not very often actually, after I went to the Annexe it was — well in a funny sort of way I knew more about what was going here because we started to have team meetings; you see, people who haven’t worked — younger people who are in the workforce don’t understand what it was like in the older workforce so — I mean I never went to a team meeting when I worked in the Parliamentary Library here. I would get all of my communication about the workplace from the person I was reporting to; now I’m not sure if she went to team meetings but it was a very hierarchical kind of old fashioned communication line, but when I went to the Annexe it was different, it was a flatter structure and the open plan meant people chatted, and because we didn’t have the public there you were freer to chat I guess, and we also had team meetings, and there were written documents about, ‘This is your project, this is how long it will take.’ It was just an entirely different context. Now I don’t know if that was because the Annexe did different work or whether a transformation had occurred, but that’s what happened when I moved to the Annexe.
E Helgeby: Would you say that library staff were integrated into the social relations of the building, or was there a tendency for them to be, let’s call it a subculture, within the larger culture of the Old Parliament House?
L Beacroft: Well it’s hard for me to say in a way because I was casual, but I guess the observation I’d make is that the people who were in the media monitors and the research area were the dominant culture amongst the staff; they were very outspoken, there was a lot of them, they did very intensive work, they had close relationships with politicians, they just seemed to fill up all the conversation at the cafe, and obviously they were dealing with points of substance, whereas librarians kind of do more the process behind the scenes, so I certainly got the impression that if you wanted to be a ‘star’ you probably should go to the research or — if you want to be noticed you should go to the research area or the media monitors. It was all done manually, people worked very hard and fast; when you went into that area there was a lot of — it was like a stock market, you know like those scenes from stock markets, people are talking to each other, ‘You found this,’ ‘Where’s that?’ You know, it was just a — and the politicians would wander around and pick out their favourite researcher, and that seemed to be the place to be.
E Helgeby: Did you ever take part in — be part of that, or were you…?
L Beacroft: Well I used to like to go in my break, I used to like to walk through there to kind of pick up the vibes and it was just fascinating to watch, and it was a bit — it’s like — it’s a bit like a stock market sort of environment, you know, and the politicians would be wandering around chatting, and it was just a very interesting place to be. No, I didn’t really get involved with that, and jobs did come up but I was always told I’d have to have graduated and possibly even have my Masters before I could get a job there, so I never applied for a job there.
E Helgeby: Where exactly were they located, these others, staff…?
L Beacroft: Well my recollection — well the Parliamentary Library — the Parliamentary Library is I think there, is it? I’m pointing.
E Helgeby: Yeah, it’s in between, it sits between the House of Representatives and the Senate…
L Beacroft: Okay, so I used to have to walk through this huge open plan research media monitors area, which I think was below where we are now — like it was big — to get to the cafe. I mean I could have gone through the courtyard but Canberra’s very cold, so I would actually walk through their work area and also I’d be able to get the vibes of this amazing kind of, you know, engine room. So I think it was under here, and it was very open plan and the cafe was sort of over in that corner there somewhere.
E Helgeby: Were there any social clubs here that you…
L Beacroft: Well look there were a lot of social clubs; I know there were, but I didn’t join any. I mean I was a bit out of my age group and because I was a casual — I mean this probably happens even today but — I just wasn’t as integrated into everything as perhaps a full time worker would have been.
E Helgeby: So did you not socialise with your colleagues that way?
L Beacroft: No I didn’t socialise, except when I had coffee with them. I mean I was quite intimidated by a lot of people here, I mean you know, they were very educated, very politicised, very outspoken, very confident, you know, more so than I had encountered in my environment up until that time.
E Helgeby: So in terms of the work here — I know you worked part time — but you also were a full time student; how did this impact on your family life or private life?
L Beacroft: Oh it was great, I mean I earned some money, it was very interesting; my father, as I say, is very politicised and he was always just delighted to, you know, find out what had gone on and whether I had seen anything, and I was probably — I probably disappointed him — I mean you know, I didn’t necessarily see anything, but I mean he used to say, ‘Oh,’ you know, ‘this happened in parliament today,’ and ‘did you see that?’ and I’d say, ‘No.’ [laughs].
E Helgeby: That’s a good question actually; did you have security clearance at all to…?
L Beacroft: No I didn’t have a security clearance but I had a pass obviously, but I didn’t have a — so there were certain parts of the building I could not go into, that’s true. I could not go through all parts of the building.
E Helgeby: And did you have to sign any sort of declaration that you would not talk about work or anything of that nature?
L Beacroft: No I didn’t. Not that I really ever saw anything of a particularly sensitive nature, except on the day when poor Mr Whitlam got sacked! That was just, yeah I mean, who would’ve known that, you know, I would’ve been here that day? But no, I never signed anything, even when I left I never signed anything. But I mean I didn’t see secret documents or anything.
E Helgeby: Can you talk about the parliamentary — as a member of the Parliamentary Library staff, was there anyone that you came to greatly admire? People that you had dealings with, staff that you dealt with, but particularly people that — parliamentarians or others that you might have had some dealings with? You mentioned Wentworth.
L Beacroft: Well I think one thing I learned — as I say, I’d come from a family — I come from a family where people are very strong Labor supporters, so we grew up in Bill Hayden’s electorate, very strong Labor electorate, and my Dad, you know, is a lifetime member of the Labor Party; he used to scrutineer at the elections, he used to do fundraising, so I guess when you grow up like that you think that Labor people are really nice and Liberal/Coalition people are horrible. But when I worked in the Parliamentary Library what I realised is that, you know, some of the Labor politicians would come in and some of them were very pleasant, some of them were very rude; their personal politics could be quite varied, and likewise with the Liberal/Coalition. You know, the personal politics of people — I mean obviously that was just too simplistic. So I guess I learned that, you know, both or all parties have people with varying personalities and levels of courtesy, and of course in those days they were all men, and you know, some of them were extremely rude and some of them were very pleasant.
E Helgeby: I was coming to the, you know, when you said, ‘extremely rude’, were there any that you particularly would mention as being that you definitely did not admire?
L Beacroft: Look I’ve forgotten, to be honest with you. I remember some were very pleasant, very, very pleasant, and I can’t remember who they were to be quite honest with you. I remember discussing it with my Dad. I mean Mr Wentworth could be very rude and very gruff and very impatient…
E Helgeby: Mr Wentworth?
L Beacroft: Mmm, and quite a — well these days it would just be regarded as totally unacceptable, but he was handled well by the librarians.
E Helgeby: So he stood out in many ways because it sounds as if you were quite impressed by his interest in…?
L Beacroft: Well it was funny, he was such a big reader and he was quite — after a while he was quite pleasant to me because, like I used to get his books and he kind of got used to me I suppose — but I always let the librarian handle him because if something didn’t go according to his plan he would get very cross and…
E Helgeby: Did you know anything about him at all as a politician?
L Beacroft: No I didn’t, as I say, I was very naive. I’ve since read about him. I just had — I mean, at the time I met him he was a small, chubby man, quite elderly, not a very good communicator, you know? He’d just sort of, ‘Mmmgggmmuurggh,’ it was really down to that. So no, and I had no idea of his history or anything.
E Helgeby: He left parliament in the year after, in 1977, that was.
L Beacroft: Did he? Okay, well there you go. So yeah, he was quite elderly I remember, yeah. I mean there’s no way he could have even gone up the ladder a little bit, I mean he just wasn’t…
E Helgeby: Did you have any personal, you know, communication or discussions or talks with him at all?
L Beacroft: I used to, I mean he would just say — I mean after a while he realised I was the one that would often get his books, and now and then when he’d be there he’d say well, ‘I’m actually looking for this book, can you get that book for me now?’ rather than going through the librarian, and I’d go and get the book for him. I was always very obliging to him because I knew he was a big reader, and that was my job anyway. No I didn’t, I didn’t know who — I mean I knew his name and I used to talk to my father about him and my father was very interested and obviously had a lot of respect for him, he knew that he’d been in parliament a long time. But I didn’t — later on I looked him up and I realised his long history and so forth.
E Helgeby: You mentioned as a political event that stands out in your mind the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975; can you talk a bit about — what exactly — how did you find out and where were you in a sense and, walk me through.
L Beacroft: Well I mean, I was due to work here that day; it was one of my rostered on days, and being the apolitical Science student that I was I just got up and got ready, as you do, and on my way to the bus my Dad said, ‘You’re going to have an interesting day today,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Oh well, there’s all this going on and they’ve stopped supply.’ And I didn’t even know what he was — I didn’t really know what it all meant because as I say, I just didn’t even know how parliament worked, and I said, ‘Oh right, okay,’ and I just listened to Dad and didn’t react or — I just thought, ‘Oh well,’ you know, ‘things happen at Parliament House all the time and I don’t notice them really.’ So when I came in — I normally started about nine — so I came in, I just came in as I normally do, you go down the double doors, and I remember there was a lot of books to put away that day, and I went up the ladder, and I was actually more anxious about getting all the books because I remember that day there was a lot of books to go away. And I was up there putting books away and I just — I’m really vague on times — but I remember thinking, ‘Gee there’s something funny,’ you know, ‘the sound of the library isn’t quite what it normally is.’ And I think what it was was that it was quieter than normal, I mean even though there was a hush sound it was like dead quiet.
So I came down off the ladder and, as I said to you before, it was usually the case that the library was quite well populated — I mean you had librarians and people coming in and getting books and, well you’ve pointed out that some of the politicians didn’t even have offices, but certainly there was people around — but when I came down I couldn’t see a soul; there wasn’t a single soul in the library, not a person. So that sort of gave me a fright; I thought, ‘Gee, has there been a fire or something and people have forgotten about me?’ because I was up this ladder and that’s sort of understandable, you know? So to be honest with you I got a little bit anxious. I’m really vague on timing; I think I wandered around, I think I probably went outside for a while and looked in the Great Hall and there was no one out there, it was like — everyone had gone! And I thought, ‘That’s just bizarre, where has everybody gone? Why has everybody just disappeared? Why wasn’t there an announcement or why didn’t someone come and get me?’ So my anxiety was increasing actually, I just couldn’t understand it. And then I went — I think — I certainly remember being in the library just wondering what to do, and then I heard this incredible commotion, like all this yelling and yelling and yelling, and then I thought, ‘What is that?’ and it was anger, like I could hear it, and I could only — the only thing I could think of was that that was the House of Reps and that there was a debate, perhaps it was the no confidence motion, I’m not sure, and there was just all this yelling, and it was louder than I’d ever heard it before and it went on for quite a while.
So I knew something unusual was happening and I thought it must have been something to do with what my Dad had said. And so I thought, ‘Oh well, maybe I’ll just go out to the front steps and just see what’s going on out there.’ And I laugh now but at the time I was quite anxious, because I went out through the foyer and there was no one around, there wasn’t a soul to be seen, and I went through those front doors where the main entrance is now and there was like a wall of police in front of me, but of course they had their backs to me, and they were all facing out and so they didn’t know I was behind them. And there was — like no one could see me, like they were just all facing out, and I remember thinking, ‘What are they facing out for?’ like, ‘What’s going on?’ I just couldn’t understand it, it was really bizarre. And I sort of peeked through a gap between the two of them, and that was the scene that really sticks in my mind because in those days you didn’t have the Tent Embassy there, and it wasn’t — that whole park area wasn’t as filled with trees and so forth, it was much more open, like Canberra in general was much less treed and it was just like a big kind of beautiful green field out there, and in those days you had all the main departments were sort of in a semi circle off Parliament House, you had sort of Finance and PM and C and Treasury, and I mean to some extent they’re still there but — AGD, Attorney-General’s Department — but then it was really quite a discreet environment, and when I looked out there were just thousands of men — because in those days the public service was men — with white shirts, skinny ties, black pants — running towards Parliament House, which is where I was. And they were just like running, all running, and what I was looking at was the front wave, like there wasn’t anybody there yet; what I saw was like a wave and it was just starting to come at Parliament House, and I suppose the wave was about 100 metres from the road, and I was standing there thinking, ‘Why are they running towards Parliament House? What on earth has happened?’
And then one of the police saw me behind him and he was like, grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘What are you doing there?’ And you know, I said, ‘Well I work here,’ like, ‘what is going on? Where has everybody gone?’ So I explained to him that I worked in the library and he said, ‘Show me your pass,’ and I showed him my pass and he said, ‘Well look, just get your things and go home, it’s too hard to explain, just get out of the building,’ and I still didn’t know what had happened. So I just walked back into the building and by that time I thought, ‘Okay, well it’s not a fire so I’m not in imminent danger.’ And I still couldn’t see anybody; there wasn’t a soul in the building. I went back and got my stuff, there was still no one in the Parliamentary Library — and I used to come in and out by a side door which was over there — and I just went out the side door, and I didn’t stick around, which is a pity, and I went home, and of course my father wanted to know all about it, and then I saw the news that night, yeah.
E Helgeby: A shock for the system?
L Beacroft: Yes, well it was interesting; I just thought that was how a revolution started, you know, like all those people running towards — and they were — in those days, for an adult to run was — no one went running, especially public servants in suits, so for them to be running at Parliament House, that was a very extreme action, and as I say, there were thousands of them.
E Helgeby: How did you react when you found out what actually had happened?
L Beacroft: Well I mean, it was very politicising really, I mean I just remember thinking, ‘Gee, well obviously they see it,’ you know, ‘all those people running saw it as a major infringement on our rights,’ and because I was at ANU there were a lot of demonstrations and in fact, at the time I had a boyfriend who was in one of the colleges, and bizarrely, Sir John Kerr was expected to speak there one night when I happened to be with him just having a meal, and in the big room next door Sir John Kerr had been set down to speak and there was this massive demonstration, which we sort of accidently got caught up in, and the police arrived and things were being thrown. Yeah, so I mean, I guess it just made me realise what a significant moment it was and you know, how close we were to — well I mean they call it a constitutional crisis and — but also the vacuum in authority it created and the incredible concern it created, you know, with all the public servants, and yeah, I mean it was a very tricky moment in Australia’s history, I can see that, which I think we’ve possibly put behind us because now it would be very difficult for someone to persuasively argue it’s a good idea to stop supply. And I think, actually there’s agreed protocols now that would slow that process down, but yeah it was just, I guess interesting that I happened to see it as a very innocent bystander.
E Helgeby: Quite an experience, and from what you say it sounds as if it may have shaped your outlook on politics as well?
L Beacroft: Yes, well it certainly began to build my awareness that you can’t take things for granted, and I mean funnily enough, subsequently I did Law which, if you’d asked me when I was 17 would I do Law I would’ve said, ‘Well no, I don’t even know what Law is.’ But then I ended up doing Law and of course when you do law you realise what — you then realise on a whole different scale what a tricky moment that was in Australia’s history and how polarising it was and how dangerous it was, yep. So yeah.
E Helgeby: You left the job I understand, permanently, as in the Parliamentary Library sometime in 1976?
L Beacroft: Yes.
E Helgeby: What would you describe as your fondest memory of your time that — the two years or about two years that you worked here?
L Beacroft: Yes, I think the thing I remember the most — because since then I’ve worked in the public service and I’ve worked a lot in the new Parliament House and so forth — is everything was so small and intimate, like really you could interact with anybody here and people did, it was — the parliamentary environment was very intimate, like you just rubbed shoulders with everybody. It was very informal and in a way sort of egalitarian in that sense.
E Helgeby: Did you have a sense of belonging?
L Beacroft: Yes I did, yeah, and I mean this building is a difficult building I know, for parliamentarians, but it actually — it has a centre and it was appropriate when the size was smaller; it was actually a lovely building to work in. So you just — I think just that, that’s my fondest memory, is how small and intimate and accessible everybody was. I mean I often saw the Prime Minister and politicians walk past me. I mean if you go to new Parliament House now to some extent you can see that if you’re in the corridors working to ministers, but I was just an 18 year old casual and they were just all around; I could have spoken to any of them about anything.
E Helgeby: How would you describe, or what would you describe as your worst memory of the place, if any?
L Beacroft: Yes, well it’s not so much of a worst memory but I think, yeah it’s a funny sort of feeling when you suddenly see the building empty like that and all those people running at it. You know, it’s not the sort of thing I’d thought of about Australia; Australia, you know, my experience of Australia up until then had always been, everything was very predictable and considered and worked out, and I mean of course we know that there was a lot of inequality and so forth, but we somehow muddled our way through it, but yeah I guess I just thought then, ‘Gee,’ you know, ‘you could have a revolution in a place like Australia,’ I mean if something — you know, if something really appalling was done, that’s what it would look like, initially. So I guess that’s a bad memory in a way; it’s an educational memory [laughs]. And I guess the other thing is how male everything was; okay there were women working here but I mean I do remember the other thing is that they were all males running, because you know, I think in that day and age if you were a female and got married you had to leave the public service — somehow or other there were exceptions for the library here maybe, or perhaps they weren’t married, I’m not sure — but it was a very male scene as well, so that’s always stuck in my mind as well, is ‘Where are all the women? What’s going on here?’
E Helgeby: Can you recall any particularly funny incidents during your time here?
L Beacroft: Well I thought that was a funny incident when the police officers were looking out and then they looked at me, and I mean I must have looked like a, you know, a hippie; I don’t know if they thought that somehow or other one of the demonstrators had got behind them, and that the fact that I snuck up behind them — not that I meant to. And you know, I suppose in a way, my interaction with Mr Wentworth was, you know, it was kind of educational to see that he was such a grumpy guy but so well read.
E Helgeby: Funny in a serious way at times?
L Beacroft: Yeah, yeah.
E Helgeby: Tell me, when and why did you leave?
L Beacroft: The work just petered out, and I didn’t pursue it either because as I say, I was looking for work that was more in my professional field.
E Helgeby: Well that brings us to the end; are there any final comments you would like to add before we close the interview?
L Beacroft: No, I think that’s everything, I think that’s all.
E Helgeby: Should you have any second thoughts when you hear the tapes that there are things that you would have liked to have said then just let us know and we can arrange for a supplemented section to be added into the recording of that.
L Beacroft: Okay, no problems, not at all.
E Helgeby: Well in that case all that remains is for me to thank you on behalf of the director of the museum for your willingness to participate in this interview, and you know, I think that’s been very interesting, very interesting.
L Beacroft: Thank you, well thank you, and good luck with it all.
E Helgeby: Thank you.
[End of transcript]
This history has multiple parts.1 2
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