An archivist’s job, like many other jobs, involves a lot of mundane tasks: going to meetings, writing reports and sending emails. However, my favourite part of being an archivist is the research I get to do.
Researching the history of an object can be like digging for treasure. The process of unearthing information and piecing it together and understanding an object’s origins, its meaning or its place in history can be intensely rewarding.
Some objects contain a multitude of stories. The Johnny O’Keefe scrapbooks are such objects. Lovingly compiled by Johnny’s mother Thelma over 12 years (1954-1965), their 578 pages are a rich resource for fans and researchers alike.
Dipping into their pages, I found newspaper advertisements with Johnny modelling and promoting the latest chunky knit cardigans from Clan Murray Knitwear. There was an angry letter from Mascot Council complaining that the Dee Jay’s pianist had put his foot onto their piano during their performance. There was the Christmas card that Johnny sent to people that had showed him support in the first year of his career.
I found the newspaper articles intriguing. Through them, you could see all the highs and lows in Johnny’s career but also bigger social stories such as the emergence of the teenager and how confronting this strange new music – rock ‘n’ roll – was at the time. Was it a cause of teenage delinquency; was it the cause of violence or promiscuity in our young people?
In the newspaper clippings which Johnny’s mother pasted in the scrapbook, I found the vitriol and negativity surprising. I thought trolling was a modern phenomenon but within these clippings from the 1960s there are plenty of people writing into newspapers, things which I imagine it was hard for Johnny’s mother to read. It is interesting to see in these pages how one person can be simultaneously idolised and reviled at the same time.
To see the way journalists talked about mental illness during that period was confronting too. Johnny O’Keefe was open about his mental illness, possibly because in his life as a public figure it was impossible to hide his struggles. The mocking tones in which it was discussed, made me again think of Thelma and how it would have felt to see her son discussed in that way.