Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Special Collections Fossickings 38: Keeping a balance - the Delta Ironworks ledgers

A ledger to be reckoned with from the Delta Iron Works Archive.  This one is constructed from wood, metal and paper and features a plush fabric cover.
An early Dutch word legger  (meaning “one who lies down”) or leggen (meaning “lay”) has given us the English word “ledger”. Today we probably only recognize this word as an old-fashioned term for “a book of accounts” or “a record of business transactions”. Or we might have heard the phrase “on the other side of the ledger” when someone is trying to present a balanced argument. Ledger also once described both a horizontal piece of timber, secured to bear the weight of scaffolding, stairs and floor timbers, and a large flat stone laid over a grave or tomb. However used, the word seems to carry with it a sense of weight, solemnity and importance.
The biggest ledger of all in the Delta Iron Works Archive, weighing in at over 10 kg.
Certainly the ledgers which Special Collections volunteers, Jean and Alan Dartnall, have uncovered in their work on the Delta Ironworks archive live up to this impression of weightiness and gravitas. Indeed  two or three together would be almost large enough, and heavy enough, to cover a small tomb. Their contents document over 60 years of the firm’s financial dealing from 1909 to the 1970s when pen and paper yielded to electronics. One page (see below) graphically records the leap from sterling to decimal currency in February 1966. But it is the physical appearance, character and dimensions of these ledgers which grab our attention.
The two most massive are early examples of the loose-leaf binder, manufactured by Kalamazoo Australia. Far removed from the easily portable binders of today, one measures 59x43cm and weighs  over 10kg. The second, a comparative lightweight at only 5kg and 44cm square, has heavy-duty plastic covers.  Both had complex opening mechanisms to allow leaves to be inserted or removed. The “Clarion thong binder” required a special key to wind and unwind it and cautioned the operator against over-winding.
T. Willmett & Sons' premises, Townsville, Dan Gleeson Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 2600.
Some ledger books were produced locally by former Flinders Street printers, T. Willmett and Sons, and by the still thriving business, Hastings. A few of these contain attractive marbled endpapers, in some cases with patterning also applied to the book’s fore-edge. One wonders at the purpose of such decoration in books used solely for office purposes. Could the patterned fore-edge have been a security device, making the removal of any page instantly apparent? Some of Willmett’s binders kept their contents in place by means of metal screws and rods, and one has a wooden cover clad with a corduroy-like fabric.
Beautiful marbled end papers inside a ledger produced by D. W. Hastings & Co.
Label inside a ledger produced by T. Willett & Sons.
While the problems of storing and preserving such voluminous records must have created headaches for the company,  one has to question whether today’s electronic systems can ever convey the same sense of history and importance as these venerable, if decaying, volumes?

No comments: