The National Library of Australia has a fascinating collection of performing arts scrapbooks now available to view online

Preparing a scrapbook of theatre memorabilia for digitisation. Picture: National Library of Australia
Preparing a scrapbook of theatre memorabilia for digitisation. Picture: National Library of Australia

Eighteen scrapbooks of our theatrical past contain insights into performances by Dame Nellie Melba, concerts by the Essendon Musical Society and the acts of circus and vaudeville performers. They were compiled by a number of dedicated and, sometimes, unknown fans across the late 18th to the mid to late 20th centuries.

The scrapbooks contain images, programs, advertisements, tickets, reviews and news clippings of and for a great number of theatre, vaudeville, ballet and opera performances.

Some depict the impact of the Boer and First World Wars, while 'My Ballet Diary' from the 1950s tells a more intimate tale of a young girl and the ballerinas whom she idolised.

Nestled within the brittle pages of two of the scrapbooks are images of British actor and singer Lily Brayton. On the brink of the First World War, Lily met and married Australian actor, producer and director, Oscar Asche.

Two large scrapbooks add significantly to the recording of their careers between 1901 and 1911.

Oscar was born in Wollongong, NSW, but took off to London where he became a famous actor, director, author and entrepreneur.

Lily Brayton was a popular English actress and business woman in her own right. They were married in 1897, established their own company specialising in Shakespearean roles, and toured to Australia three times.

Pages from one of the National Library of Australia's scrapbook collections. Picture: National Library of Australia

Pages from one of the National Library of Australia's scrapbook collections. Picture: National Library of Australia

Together, they starred in a series of successful shows, including an interpretation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and the musical comedy Chu Chin Chow, which was written and directed by Asche. Amid programs stuck in the scrapbook of T.J Buckland is a rare gem: an 1884 concert program in which the line-up of performers includes the 'First Appearance' of 'Mrs Armstrong. (Miss Mitchell)'.

Twelve months later in June 1885, in another concert program in Buckland's scrapbook, Mrs Armstrong was billed as 'The Charming Soprano'. This was, of course, none other than Nellie Melba.

These two programs lovingly pasted into a scrapbook represent her earliest public concert appearances. In another twelve months she travelled to Europe, where she changed her name to Nellie Melba and embarked on her stellar career.

Other smaller scrapbooks give an incredible overview of theatrical life in Australia, such as performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, various periods of ballet and opera performances, popular J.C. Williamson attractions, and the Suzuki method of violin teaching.

One scrapbook is devoted to the career of Bessie Campbell - a virtuoso banjo player between 1889 and 1918. This is probably the only substantial documentation of her career.

In 2018, the National Library conducted an annual appeal to preserve and digitise the content for future generations. Had it not been for the generosity of patrons in this appeal, these beautiful images of Lily, Oscar and many others would have otherwise remained hidden in fragile scrapbooks.

Preparing a scrapbook of theatre memorabilia for digitisation. Picture: The National Library of Australia

Preparing a scrapbook of theatre memorabilia for digitisation. Picture: The National Library of Australia

Physically, the scrapbooks are a variety of sizes. Many pages within the scrapbooks have multiple inserts such as flyers, invitations, menus, letters and envelopes, and some even have 3D objects attached.

Some scrapbooks have original photographs, large folded newspaper articles and posters that, when opened, extend off the edges of the pages.

The pages are brittle and torn, the spines are cracked and some of the scrapbooks are water damaged; these albums were much-loved and well-used.

Most of the scrapbooks needed conservation treatment work to prepare them for digitisation. The work focused on stabilisation to ensure that they were not damaged or, where some damage already existed, not further damaged in the process of digitisation.

During the work to preserve and digitise the scrapbooks, library staff were touched by the obvious care and love that went into creating them. There were items layered in complex patterns on single pages, and flaps and folds were attached intuitively to enable access to items underneath.

The digitisation and preservation work was complex because some of the scrapbooks were tightly bound and rigid, making photographic capture difficult. In many of the scrapbooks, the inserted material was placed so that page turning would not tear or crease the material, and the material was oriented sensibly for ease of reading.

A page from one of the National Library of Australia's scrapbook collections. Picture: National Library of Australia

A page from one of the National Library of Australia's scrapbook collections. Picture: National Library of Australia

The online versions have been captured so that they can be displayed for the viewer like a book. The images were captured using a Hasselblad H5D camera with a 120-millimetre lens. We also used an aperture of f11 to make certain that the depth of focus was optimal-even for books that were warped and curvy.

Finally, a Sinar Camera System was useful for the scrapbooks where the text and other information was so far into the bound edge of the book that the Hasselblad was unable to capture it due to technical limitations.

Thanks to the generosity of donors during the National Library of Australia's 2018 appeal, digitisation work has transformed this extraordinary collection of theatre scrapbooks and made them available online for the whole world to enjoy.

Conor McCarthy, Director of Philanthropy said : "Philanthropy has played a substantial role in helping us to share the treasures of our collection digitally. Now, more than ever, that support is having a real impact. Our building may be closed, but we are still open online."

The National Library of Australia may be physically closed to the public, but we're still doing many things behind the scenes, including actively collecting ephemera and capturing websites relating to Australia's national response to COVID-19.

The library is no longer actively collecting scrapbooks.

This story National Library's fascinating collection of scrapbooks now available online first appeared on The Canberra Times.