A Historian on tour: bookish delights

I have written a lot about unique historical collections within the NLA. As much of my past week has been spent with my face in book stacks, I discuss what it’s like to work in a research library like the National Library of Australia, and state my latest research findings.

As the leaves turn from summer green to autumn technicolour, my walk to the National Library of Austalia is perfect for day-dreaming.

From various conversations this week I became aware that there is a misconception that historians only work with archives. Analysing original texts- photographs, maps, letters, journals, sketches- is certainly a significant element of my research. But that is not the only place I work to produce new knowledge about the past. Researching the history of the AJCP at the NLA meant, at times, my desk held a lot of books. Everything from missionary books like Mission life in the island of the Pacific: being a narrative of the life and labours of the Rev. A Buzzacott (nd), The study of Pacific History: An inaugural lecture delivered at Canberra (1954), Reconstruction: notes from selected Australian and overseas journals (1944-1946), A History of the Modern Australian University (2021). At the NLA, I love my desk space. It is thematic chaos. The books cover various topics such as religion, education and wartime economics. When I am not reading these texts, I huff, glare, muse, and (if I am lucky) slowly realise the connections that exist between these diverse subjects.

This diverse range of books is on my desk thanks to the National Library Act (1960). As Australia’s national research library, the Act holds the NLA accountable. The Act decrees that the NLA must ‘maintain and develop a national collection of library material, including a comprehensive collection of library material relating to Australia and the Australian people.’ If examining the AJCP archives have taught me anything, it is that the phrase “relating to Australia and the Australian people” offers librarians a wonderfully broad definition. The flexibility in interpretation means there is a richness in the NLA collection, one that works beyond limited nationalistic tomes that some may expect to see.

Going to the NLA can seem like a non-event if you don’t browse the online catalogue before arrival.

Visiting the national library reading rooms does not convey a good sense of the NLA’s collection diversity and richness. When you walk into the main reading room, barely a book is seen on the ground floor. Spotlighted, in a short, recessed shelf just off to the right of the main reading room entrance are some collection items. This month, in coordination with the On Stage exhibition, the content features Australian stage, screen and music content. There are general reference collections available on this floor; these are but a minuscule element of the NLA collection.

It is online that shelf browsing has to occur. This can be done via the catalogue or through Trove. You see the books are hidden in a deep dark series of tunnels, like the French catacombs– no, I’m joking! The books are kept responsibly and with great care, in multiple locations, according to storage conventions that consider issues of humidity, spines and bindings. I have not seen the stacks on this trip, but I have imagined them. Little sighs of delight at the thought of shelves and shelves of Pacific history, just waiting for a geek like me to call them into the daylight. While I’m writing about where these books are held, I suggest library visitors pay attention to the location of their desired item, as this placement impacts the delivery time. Also, the NLA has an awe-inspiring collection of digitised records available for users off-site. however, because my time at NLA is short, I am concentrating on analysing books that are only available in physical format.

As a summer scholar, I have borrowing privileges that I have not experienced when visiting the NLA as a researcher previously. I am allowed to take books from the Main Reading Room back to my desk for research after hours. For the first couple of weeks, I worried security would tell me off for moving the books around the building. I am, after all, a rule-abiding patron (imagine me here, dear reader, with a big geeky grin as I type this). My fear quickly turned to pure, feet-skipping delight as I became accustomed to the notion it was okay to move books from one section of the library to the other.[1] I adored being able to take armfuls of books to my desk. I felt like this was one of those moments in life. All those years of hauling stacks of books from the public library or Deakin Library to my car, they were just training. This was the moment—peak geek. Yes, I could have got a trolley, but then I didn’t want to a) take more books out of circulation than I needed to and b) create such a pile I would never be able to process it all. An armful at a time was enough to content me and keep the research project moving forward.

Some books I just need to have on every desk I work at. This trio has proven particularly good to think with, over the course of this project.

This week, I examined books such as Reconstruction: Notes from selected Australian and Overseas Journals, January 1944 Number 1. As I have been considering the political position of AJCP librarians in the 1940s to the 1970s, it has become increasingly essential to understand Australia’s post-war reconstructionist movement. This book is one tangible outcome from that period. Produced by the Ministry of Post-War construction, this is not a narrative-based text but an informative, bibliographic text. Reconstruction was a limited publication with restricted circulation. It was mailed only to Australian officials. I examined the book’s contents: journal reference details with, if I was lucky, one or two sentences about the journal article, and no abstracts. And you could tell when the original reader had come across many of the same kinds of papers. Similar articles were grouped together and listed at the end of the issue with comments like- ‘additional rural development articles’. No description was provided.

Reconstruction provided insight into what mattered to official Australian post-war reconstruction institutions – immigration, rural development, agriculture, housing, demobilisation of armed forces, and increased university education. There was some mention of issues from the end of 1945, to the start of 1946, about support for Australia’s emerging university sector. To understand the impact of these policies, I read an array of well-researched publications, such as A history of the modern Australian university; Australia’s boldest experiment: war and reconstruction in the 1940s; Australian universities: a history of common cause. It was apparent Australia’s post-war reconstruction movement was complex. Hannah Forsyth’s book History of the Modern Australian University informed me of the significance of this moment- PhD studies only started in Australia in the 1940s, at limited locations.

When combined with my knowledge of the AJCP, and an awareness of how Pacific historians like Dorothy Shineberg made use of such material I realised without the research collections such as the AJCP, the rapidly expanding university sector would not have been able to produce modern scholarship. Australian students would have analysed the primary texts concerning their foundations in archives outside of Australia. Pacific history at Australian National University would not have grown in the manner that it did- grounded in documentary evidence and focused on Island-centric histories.

Without such research collections, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing about Pacific history like I do today- with access to primary and secondary sources.

Deborah Lee-Talbot

[1] Note this privilege is only permissible as a summer scholar. When I end my time here in a week I will, like most of you very definitely not be allowed to move books from the Main Reading Room space.