Searching through General Education Department Correspondence – An Example

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The Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) has a significant collection of nineteenth and twentieth century records relating to education. It can be daunting to a researcher starting out on a quest to find material because the collection is so large. However it was well indexed when the correspondence was received and with the assistance of additional finding aids you will often find the documents you are interested in.

Step 1 - Consult vprs 893: Classified Subject Index to Inward Registered Correspondence c1864-1984

To understand how this index is created and what it does, take the time to read PROV’s explanation of VPRS 893 by clicking the blue arrow next to “Description of this Series”. This index is held in a series of very large volumes. Here is what one page looks like:

DSCN6968 Vol 5 p331CAA.jpg

The description for the underlined entry says, “Baron Von Mueller Calls attention to desirability of encouraging a study of indigenous plants at the State Schools”. Baron Von Mueller was a celebrated botanist who was employed in this work by the Victorian government. This précis is useful but it would be even better to find the letter that Baron Von Mueller wrote.

In order to do this there are two very important pieces of information which we have to note so that we can find the document:

  1. The document number for the letter we want to find is in the left-most column next to the date and précis of the item. It looks like the document number of this item is 13811.
  2. The year in which the document was received. This is generally recorded at the top of the page in the left-most column with two numbers preceding “/” and the document number. The year has been circled above. If you enlarge the image you will see the numbers “75” in the yellow circle. So this letter was received in 1875.

It is also a good idea to take a photo of the page in the index in case you need to consult it again. If you are in a hurry you can skim read pages and photograph those which might have items that interest you so that you can read them properly at home after your day at PROV. Researchers at PROV are generally allowed to take photos of the documents that they consult as long as they fill in a form which is obtainable from the enquiries desk, and don’t use a flash.

Step 2 – Which Series to Consult Next?

Once you have found the year and number of the correspondence you are interested in, you need to work out in which series at PROV it will be stored. PROV’s description of VPRS 893 lists the following series where correspondence is stored:

1. Correspondence relating to specific schools/colleges are filed in either school number order or school name order in the following series:

    a)Primary Schools: filed in school number order - VPRS 640;

    b) Secondary Schools: filed in school number order - VPRS 10249;

    c) Technical Schools: filed in school name order - VPRS 9514;

    d) Consolidated Schools: filed in school name order - VPRS 10538;

    e) Subsidised schools: filed in school name order - VPRS 3859 ;

     f) Teachers Colleges: filed in college name order - VPRS 10536

     g) School zoning: filed in school number order - VPRS 3915

      h) Girls Schools (Domestic Arts Schools): filed in school name order - VPRS 10274

2. Departmental administration: filed in registered number order - VPRS 794

3. General Technical School matters: filed in chronological order - VPRS 9515

4. Scholarships: filed according to the scholarship name or type - VPRS 10308

5. Correspondence schools, curriculum development, psychology and guidance, libraries, teachers association and other classified headings - VPRS 10537.

6. General school transport policy: filed according to subject - VPRS 10065.

7. School Garden Competitions - VPRS 3856.

8. Establishment of a State School: Some applications for starting schools - VPRS 3860. Most however, will be found on school building files (see below).

9. Building: Correspondence was filed in several sequences according to school type and school name or number. It can be found in:

    a) VPRS 3857 (Buildings General Correspondence),

    b) VPRS 795 (Primary Schools),

    c) VPRS 3916 (High Schools),

    d) VPRS 9513 (Technical Schools),

    e) VPRS 3852 (Manual Training and Cookery Centres),

     f) VPRS 3854 (Domestic Art Colleges),

     g) VPRS 3917 (Temporary Premises).

      h) Later papers relating to building can be found on Capital Expenditure Works (CEW) files which are subsequent series to Building Files. CEW files are listed in the Summary Guide.

10. Special Case Files: Correspondence concerning policy or of an ongoing nature was sometimes filed separately. These files were known as Special Case Files - VPRS 892 and VPRS 9516 (Technical Special Case Files).

In our case there are two series that are most likely to contain the letter from Baron Von Mueller. While VPRS 794 (number 2 above) is described as containing correspondence relating to “Departmental Administration”, it contains a large amount of correspondence on a vast array of topics, not just administration. If the correspondence that you are looking for does not fit the topics held in the other series, you should always look in VPRS 794. Likewise the Special Case Files, VPRS 892, also cover a diverse array of subjects.

Which should be consulted first - VPRS 794 or VPRS 892? There is no hard and fast rule.  I find VPRS 794 quick and easy to check so I generally go to this series first unless I am aware from my reading of histories of education that the topic of the correspondence was of particular interest to the Department and there wa a number of other pieces of correspondence on the same topic.

Using vprs 794 – Central Registered Correspondence Files

There are nearly 1,500 units in VPRS 794 PO which might contain nineteenth century documents such as the one we are searching.  To determine which unit contains the letter from Baron von Mueller we need to consult the Records Description Lists stored in the VPRS 794 series information folder held in the PROV reading room in North Melbourne. It is not available online.

DSCN7074 RDL CA.jpg

According to the Records Description List above document 13811 from 1875 is stored in Unit 213. Now we can order VPRS 794 PO Unit 213 and see the original correspondence from Baron Von Mueller.

The Original Correspondence in VPRS 794

The initial search of Unit 213 is disappointing.  Document 13811 is in the box but it is a totally unrelated document to the one we are seeking. Evidently I had misread the document number in the original index. 

DSCN7076 No13811 C.jpg

In this situation it is a good idea to refer back to the index and have another attempt at reading the document number.  This is easy as a photo had been taken of the original page so instead of having to order the index again and wait a few hours until the order is sent to the reading room we can instantly refer back to the photo. However, in this case the number is still hard to read.  It could be 138211 but this is unlikely as that number has an extra digit compared to the immediately preceding documents on the index page.

Another tactic is to leaf through the other documents in the box.  Most documents in VPRS 794 are filed in roughly sequential order. In this case we are lucky and find the document. It turns out that the document number was 13841.

DSCN7077 No13841 CA.jpg

Each item of correspondence received by the Education Department during the period Baron von Mueller’s letter was received was given a cover sheet which enclosed the correspondence. The document number is clearly recorded on the cover sheet.

Turn over the cover sheet and voila! We can now read the original letter that Baron von Mueller wrote in 1875.

Page 1 of the letter from Baron von Mueller to the Minister of Education in 1875

Page 2 of the letter from Baron von Mueller to the Minister of Education in 1875.

Estimating the Time Required to Research Education Department Records

While it is possible to do this type of search all on one day, it is more likely that you will need to visit PROV on two separate days in order to complete your research. A suggested timetable is:

  1. Order the volume(s) of the Classified Subject Index to Inward Registered Correspondence (VPRS 893) which you would like to consult before 8am on the day of your planned visit.
  2. Arrive at PROV in North Melbourne by 10am. Collect your order and start reviewing its contents.
  3. When you find the item you are looking for, look it up in the Records Description List held in the series information folder for VPRS 794 in the reading room.
  4. Order the unit that contains the document you are interested in. If you can do this before the 11:30am deadline for the 2pm order deliveries you are in luck and may be able to finish your research in one day. However, it is better to assume that you will miss the 11:30am deadline as it can take quite some time to find the record of the item that you are seeking in the Classified Subject Index.

A Caveat

There is no guarantee that all the records received or created by the government in the past have been retained. You may find that even with the best detective skills the document you are seeking is nowhere to be found because over the decades since it was created it was lost or thrown out because it was considered to be of little consequence at the time. Keep in mind that if you found a précis of the item recorded in the volumes of VPRS 893 you will have more information about it than you had before you commenced the search.


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