Convenient Fires and Floods and Impossible Archival Imaginaries

Describing the Missing Records of Children's Institutions

  • Nicola Laurent
  • Cate O'Neill
  • Kirsten Wright


This article concerns one notable feature of narratives around child welfare records: the prevalence of stories of records destroyed in natural disasters. These stories have the power to rouse strong emotions for people who grew up in institutional “care.” Care Leavers, many of whom have a justifiable lack of trust in institutions and authority as a result of their childhood experiences, are skeptical about the supposed loss of their records in fires and floods. They remain suspicious that the records do exist but are being withheld to protect the reputations of the institutions. This article considers Gilliland and Caswell’s notion of “archival imaginaries” in the context of missing, lost, or inaccessible child welfare records in Australia. The authors argue for an approach to describing these records that is not only person centred but also trauma-informed. The article presents two case studies that demonstrate the potential of applying this approach when describing records supposedly destroyed by fires and floods. Descriptions need to document the full story of the records, whether they materially exist or not, in a way that validates and acknowledges Care Leavers’ strong feelings about records and demonstrates archival organizations’ commitment to remediating the damage and hurt caused by past practices.

Author Biographies

Nicola Laurent

Nicola Laurent (she/her) is the Senior Project Archivist on the Find & Connect web resource team at the University of Melbourne. Nicola advocates for trauma-informed archival practice, including the creation of resources and support networks to support its implementation and the promotion of sustainable access to online material through the preservation of links, and discusses the impact of vicarious trauma on archivists. Nicola is the International Council on Archives’ New Professionals Programme Coordinator, the President of the Australian Society of Archivists, and co-founder of the Trauma-Informed Archives Community of Practice.

Cate O'Neill

Cate O’Neill (she/her) is a historian with a love of archives. Cate has been a member of the Find & Connect web resource team since the project’s inception in 2011 and, since 2004, has worked on a number of projects to improve access to records for Care Leavers and members of the Stolen Generations. Cate strives to put community engagement and collaboration at the centre of her academic work and acknowledges how much she has learned from those who have been willing to share their lived experience with her.

Kirsten Wright

Kirsten Wright (she/her) is the Program Manager, Find & Connect web resource, University of Melbourne. Prior to this, she held a number of roles at Victoria University (Australia), including University Archivist, and also worked at the Public Record Office Victoria. She has previously published and presented on topics including archives and power, historical language and archival description, trauma-informed archival practice, and out-of-home care records. She is a co-founder of the Trauma-Informed Archives Community of Practice.

How to Cite
Laurent, Nicola, Cate O’Neill, and Kirsten Wright. 2022. “Convenient Fires and Floods and Impossible Archival Imaginaries: Describing the Missing Records of Children’s Institutions”. Archivaria 94 (December), 94-119.

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