For the first two years, work on the Prime Ministerial Library was undertaken almost solely by University Librarian Vicki Williamson and a Project Officer, initially Maggie Exon (on secondment from the Curtin School of Information and Library Studies) then Lesley Carman-Brown (a librarian in the University Library).
In 1996, in an inspired choice, Kandy Jane Henderson, from the State Library of Western Australia, was appointed JCPML Archivist, a role in which she would continue for 10 years.
While it was originally envisaged that the Prime Ministerial Library would be managed by an Archives Division within the Curtin University Library, in practice they ran in tandem, with Williamson taking the joint titles University Librarian and Director of the Prime Ministerial Library.
Pending building of the John Curtin Centre, work was undertaken from an office in the University Library’s main building, the TL Robertson Library.
At Williamson’s request, an advisory committee was appointed, with members internal and external to the University, including early proponents of the Library John Cowdell and David Black.
Key developments in 1994 were the passage of business plans for the John Curtin Centre through University Council, commencement of detailed design plans and construction of the buildings which would house the Centre, and the finalisation of a Library Program Statement.
University Council’s approval of the 1994 Business Plan for the John Curtin Centre provided security of funding for at least the next few years. While it was anticipated that the operating costs for the combined Prime Ministerial Library and Gallery would be met by further fundraising, in the event of a shortfall the University agreed to cover staff, exhibition and acquisitions costs.
Prior to 1994, building plans for the John Curtin Centre had been conceptual only and varied depending on the amount of funding proponents thought would be available. They had not involved consultation with librarians or archivists. With funding clarified, 1994 saw the development of detailed plans into which the Library and its advisory committee could have some input, and at the end of the year, commencement of construction. There was considerable jostling over the distribution of space between the Library and the Gallery, with the administrative relationship between the two areas also a focus of attention. The matter was finally resolved only in 1995, with the Library and the Gallery administratively separated under different directors. Thereafter the Library would be consistently known as the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library (JCPML).
The 1994 JCPML Program Statement set out what the Library planned to do and how this would be achieved. It was consistent with the vision statements developed in the lead up to the establishment of the JCPML, with the aims of the Library being to:
- honour the contribution of John Curtin to Australia;
- highlight the role of the prime ministership in the political life of the country; and
- commemorate the Australian-American Alliance which John Curtin initiated.
- build a collection of archival materials and memorabilia connected to John Curtin;
- provide high quality facilities and services to researchers (including easier access to original archives held by other institutions); and
- provide an enjoyable and educational experience for visitors to WA and the local community, through exhibitions and activities based on the collections.
Throughout, the vision was for a blending of professional practice from librarianship, education, archives and museums into an integrated service model.
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JCPML Director Vicki Williamson with JCPML Archivist Kandy-Jane Henderson
Long-time JCPML supporter and later Historical Consultant David Black
While collection statements expressed it more formally, foundation JCPML Archivist Kandy-Jane Henderson put it most succinctly: the aim was to build “a one-stop shop for anything related to John Curtin”; a total archives holding all kinds of things (e.g. books and artefacts) not only archival records, with multiple opportunities for use by researchers, exhibitions and education programs.
Early activity focussed on organising and listing what the JCPML had inherited rather than actively soliciting additional material. However unexpected opportunities could occur and had to be acted on quickly. For example, through a casual conversation with the State Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, JCPML advisory committee member John Cowdell heard that the Union was looking for a new home for 50 years of original issues of the Westralian Worker newspaper (of which John Curtin had been editor), some annotated by Curtin himself – the Union was moving premises and didn’t want to store them. Cowdell himself quickly loaded the material into his own car and transported it to the JCPML office. Similarly, during separate visits to the home of Curtin’s daughter Elsie Macleod by University Librarian Vicki Williamson and another the JCPML advisory committee member, David Black, Elsie suddenly brought out a knitting yarn box of John Curtin’s personal letters and a huge pile of books, scrapbooks and other things, and asked for them to be looked after. Black, who by his own admission was not good at safekeeping, raced across and gave them to the JCPML.
Early donations of memorabilia about John Curtin, rather than owned by him, included a set of framed stamps, a first day cover, and a postcard commemorating the prime ministers of Australia who held office during World War II, particularly Curtin.
1994 also saw the commencement of the Library’s oral history interview program. This was considered an urgent “fight against time”, to capture the memories of John Curtin from those aging members of the public who had known him personally.
By 1995, media appeals and promotional activities targeted at private donors could ramp up, yielding excellent responses. Substantial donations included further material from the Curtin family, the research papers of journalist/economist Tom Fitzgerald amassed for his intended biography of John Curtin, and the papers of Alex McCallum, WA State Labor parliamentarian and key associate of Curtin. John Dawkins, former federal member for Fremantle (John Curtin’s seat), also donated a large amount of material from his time in Parliament.
Items by or about John Curtin in archival institutions were considered in safer hands, compared with those held privately, but they were far from accessible in Perth. The answer was never seen as permanently transferring them to or acquiring them for the JCPML - taking on physical collections would bring with it conflicts with other institutions and enormous costs in terms of description, care and preservation. The answer instead was seen in digitisation: digitising material and/or providing JCPML researchers with electronic access to it. “If someone else had it, we were more interested in seeing how we could get access to it [electronically]", noted foundation JCPML Archivist Kandy-Jane Henderson.
Like other libraries and archives at the time, the JCPML started by acquiring and scanning photocopies or microfilm copies of material. Three projects were undertaken during 1995 to test the ability of the current digital technology to provide the kinds of services the Library wanted:
- scanning the selected letters to and from the Prime Minister which were held at the Canberra premises of the National Archives of Australia (NAA);
- using OCR software to convert the Labor Party’s John Curtin Memorial Lectures transcripts into digital format for easier access and searching; and
- developing an interactive CD-ROM on John Curtin by bringing together a range of media from the JCPML collection (photos, textual documents, oral history and video recordings). 
Through 1996 and 1997, the Library conceptualised what came to be called their Electronic Research Archive. They would digitise the JCPML’s collection to give researchers around the world full access to it, as well as digitising John Curtin-related material held in other institutions, to eventually allow them to pull together dispersed records whilst maintaining the context in which those records were created. All material would be fully searchable: every word, anywhere. All they needed to do was to find an available system with the functionality they required – which they did with the fuzzy-logic based, EFS records software commercially available from Excalibur Technologies in the US. In the words of foundation JCPML Archivist Kandy-Jane Henderson: “That was the start of something pretty good”.
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JCPML staff scan documents at National Archives of Australia office
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Mr and Mrs Whitlam with JCPML staff during their private visit to JCPML under construction
University Librarian Vicki Williamson with Director of National Archives of Australia George Nichols inspect joint exhibition
- Maggie Exon was the initial incumbent of the Project Officer role, on a two-days per week secondment from the University’s School of Information and Library Studies. From the end of 1994, when Exon returned to her substantive academic role, she was replaced by Lesley Carman-Brown, a librarian with additional qualifications in journalism, who had worked for the University Library previously and who would continue in one capacity or another for many years. Carman-Brown developed early JCPML promotions and wrote text for media, speeches, articles and newsletters. She later assisted with the curation of JCPML exhibitions and wrote the text for most of them.
- JCPML Information Update, April 2007.
- Later known as Curtin University Library and Information Service.
- JCPML Consultative Group, Report on Progress to September 1994, Agenda paper for the Meeting of 18 November 1994, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records file COM3/2.
- JCPML Consultative Group, Minutes of the Meeting 23 March 1994, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records file COM3/2.
- John Curtin Centre Business Plan as submitted to University Council by Finance and Staffing Committee 19 September 1994 (unpublished internal Curtin University paper), typescript.
- John Curtin Centre News, September 1995.
- Working Party on the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library & Archive, Minutes, Report and Vice Chancellor’s Response, 1992, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records files COM3/1 and STR3 Vol 1.;
John Maloney, Notes on presentation to the Library and Information Staff (unpublished manuscript 15 July 1993), John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA.
- JCPML Program Statement (Perth, WA: Curtin University, 1994).
- JCPML Program Statement (Perth, WA: Curtin University, 1997).
- Vicki Williamson and Kandy-Jane Henderson, “The Electronic Research Archive at the JCPML” (unpublished presentation, , typescript, 2;
Vicki Williamson, “New Ways of Working: Australia’s First Prime Ministerial Library,” in Someone Special (Proceedings of a national conference presented by The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Library, 18-20 October 2001), 10.
- Kandy-Jane Henderson, interview by Heather Campbell, 4 April 2011, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML01295/1, 3.
- Largely books and memorabilia belonging to John Curtin which had been presented to the Australian Labor Party and subsequently donated by them to the JCPML. John Curtin Centre News, October 1994.;
JCPML Program Statement 1994, 11.
- John Cowdell, interview by John Ferrell, 21 February – 7 March 2006, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML0977/1/6, 46.
- The letters Williamson was given would later be published as David Black, Friendship is a Sheltering Tree (Perth, WA: John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, 2001);
David Black, interview by Heather Campbell, 10 October 2010, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML01305/1, 11.;
Vicki Williamson, interview by Lesley Carman-Brown, 9-17 October 2001, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00676/1, 15.
- John Curtin Centre News, October 1994.
- Lesley Carman-Brown, Kandy-Jane Henderson and Lesley Wallace, “Australia’s First Prime Ministerial Library: Past and Future,” AARL 36, no. 1 (2005): 6.;
JCPML Information Update, 1, no.1.
- Carman-Brown, Henderson, and Wallace, “Australia’s First Prime Ministerial Library,” 6.
- JCPML donor files.
- Henderson, interview, 12.
- Henderson, interview, 12.
- Carman-Brown, Henderson, and Wallace, “Australia’s First Prime Ministerial Library,” 6.;
Henderson, interview, 12.
- These were later published on the JCPML website as John Curtin: A Man and His People;
JCPML Consultative Group, Quarterly Report to the Group for 3rd Quarter 1997, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records file COM3/2.;
John Curtin Centre News, December 1997.
- Vicki Williamson and Kandy-Jane Henderson, “John Curtin Records Open to the World: How Australia’s First Electronic Research Archive was Developed,” LASIE (March 1999): 16-18.
- Williamson and Henderson, “John Curtin Records Open,” 18, 21.
- Henderson, interview, 11.
- Williamson and Henderson, “John Curtin Records Open,” 19-20.;
Henderson, interview, 10-11.
- Henderson, interview, 10-11.
- JCPML Program Statement 1994.
- Williamson, interview, 16-17.;
John Curtin Centre News, September 1995.
- Henderson, interview, 15.;
John Curtin Centre News, September 1995.
- Henderson, interview, 13.
- Henderson, interview, 13.;
JCPML Consultative Group, Quarterly Report, 3rd Quarter 1997.
- John Curtin Centre News, September 1998.
- Williamson, interview, 18-19.;
Henderson, interview, 23.
- JCPML Program Statement, 1994.
- JCPML Consultative Group, Quarterly reports to members for 3rd and 4th quarters, 1997, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records file COM3/2.