For her PhD thesis, New Zealand based historian Catharine Coleborne, examined archival records from Asylums for the Insane at Yarra Bend Hospital in Melbourne. Colbourne’s focus was on the way gender was represented in patient records. She ‘focused on the ways in which textual representations of madness produced ideas about the illness, and specifically, how gender was used as a mode of asylum classification and organisation’.

Colborne’s interest in the discourse that emerges from within patient records has led her to expand her research. As she explains in her article published in the Public Records Office of Victoria’s refereed journal ‘Provenance’, this covers

four different mental hospitals in Australia and New Zealand between 1860 and 1914. These public institutions were the Yarra Bend Asylum/Hospital for the Insane (established 1848), Gladesville Hospital for the Insane (1869), Goodna Mental Hospital (1865) and Auckland Hospital for the Insane (1853). Asylum archives – in particular, patient case records and ancillary
materials – located at PROV, State Records New South Wales (Western Sydney Records
Centre), Queensland State Archives (Brisbane) and National Archives of New Zealand (Auckland

The NATURE of the archive is the primary matter for inquiry. Rather than being a source of ‘historical fact’, historical interrogation concerns the nature of the record itself.  What is included, left out, or considered a matter for comment is significant. Who was writing? What were their interests? Their agenda? The writer of any document is always making a choice about what to record and what to leave out – I think. As the French historian, Marc Bloch points out in his last book, The Historian’s Craft, written in 1944 when he was working for the Resistance, ( he was subsequently executed by the Nazis), it is the subjectivity of the record keeper that must be scrutinized. The historian works on the borders between anthropology, sociology and psychology. For Bloch, the nature of human consciousness is under scrutiny – individually, collectively and within the historian herself.

Part of the work of the historian is to find entry into the emotional culture of a time past… to find a way to apprehend and to interpret that past while  at the same time recognising one’s particular subjectivity as a member of the current culture.The emotional resonance of these records  for the historian  matters much. It is a type of ‘transference’  to use the psychoanalytic term. A historian responds according to the meanings, or the lenses she has developed as a member of her contemporary external and internal world. For Colborne, I suspect,  losing objectivity is contentious. At the very least it could be faulty history.  She writes of her struggle to maintain distance – to hold herself as a historian; to continue to theorise even as she reads others’ recordings of severe distress, if not suicide. This is important if we are to make sense of the historical milieu where her subjects move. But to remove the ‘I’ completely, to eschew discussion of the personal reaction and how this may prompt further interrogation risks diminshing exploration and recognition of the subjective world of past people.  It is a tricky business though. How do we try to understand what it means to be another person in another time?



Catharine Colborne, ‘Reading Insanity’s Archive: Reflections from Four Archival Sites’, in Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, September 2010, Number 9;

URL:// (accessed 5 October 2011).

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, Oxford University Press, 1944.