ACADEMIC, PUBLIC AND FAMILY HISTORY

by David Carment.

I recently returned from the excellent conference in Canberra honouring the eminent and influential Australian historian Alan Atkinson. His most substantial publication is The Europeans in Australia, the third volume of which appears this year. Other important books include Camden, The Commonwealth of Speech and his co-edited Australians 1838. Conference speakers addressed a range of themes that emerge from Atkinson’s work. Among these is his commitment to family history. Camden, for instance, has a strong focus on the Macarthur family while Atkinson’s own family is mentioned in the second volume of The Europeans in Australia and features to a greater extent in the third. As Stephen Foster argued at the conference, unlike Atkinson many Australian academic and public historians have tended to stay away from family history, particularly when the family was their own. Foster believed that this was regrettable and urged historians to embrace the genre, including the histories of their own families. The explosion of digital resources in family history made that much more possible than it had once been.

I support Foster’s views. Although I sporadically collected information on my own Scottish-Australian family for many years, I only felt able to write about it after I retired from paid employment as an academic historian. Before then, I was concerned that my university and other academic and professional historians would not regard such a project as appropriate or scholarly. After completing a history of my family last year, I am researching the life of a great grandmother not included in that history. I now regret not doing such work earlier.

As with many family histories, the research and writing of my own commenced as a personal response to long-standing and possibly self-indulgent curiosity. I found, as Atkinson writes, that ancestors ‘are strange reflections of the present – an early shadow of yourself’. There are, however, other reasons for recording and understanding my ancestors. Their lives illuminate various aspects of class, education, gender, economic changes, identity, religion, war and work from the late seventeenth century onwards. They allow an exploration of periods, places, individual personalities and personal relationships. Through their journeys, many of my ancestors led what are often described in historical scholarship as transnational lives. Their experiences and mobility strongly reflect the fact that during much of the period I covered Britain and Australia did not exist in isolation from events elsewhere. Finally, researching members of my family disrupted some assumptions that I had about them. Along with the historian Tanya Evans, I found that the techniques and outcomes of family history often uncover ‘secrets and lies’. Illegitimacy, mental illness, violence and divorce are all part of my family’s past, as they are of many other families, but were often omitted from the earlier accounts that I encountered.

Tom Griffiths eloquently spoke at the Atkinson conference of the relationships between popular historical consciousness and scholarly history as practised in both the academic and public spheres, applauding Atkinson for his interest in the connections between historians and their audiences. His work on family history, as Griffiths showed, is a powerful demonstration of this. Like Foster, I think there are sound reasons why more historians ought to follow Atkinson’s example here.

What’s happening to the Mitchell Library?

by Joy Hughes

At the beginning of December 2013, Dr Alex Byrne, the State Librarian, announced an appeal for funds for the ‘revitalisation’ of the Mitchell Library. The appeal’s ritzy brochure outlines exciting plans on a grand scale for a large below ground auditorium and for current office spaces on the first floor to become galleries.

Not so exciting are the spaces and services proposed for historians and researchers of all things Australian. Dr Byrne gave a Power Point presentation earlier the same day to regular users of the Mitchell Library. He announced that the grand Mitchell Reading Room would be turned over to students to work on their laptops. They would be allowed to keep their bags and water bottles with them. This would necessitate removal of the entire Mitchell Library reference collection from the shelves; all Mitchell books were to be integrated with the State Reference Library (SRL) collection. In future, books would be issued only on the lower ground floor in SRL. As many considered the merging of the printed books collections would contravene the terms of David Scott Mitchell’s will, there were requests for a copy of the will to be put online.

When funds permit, the special collections section (original materials such as manuscripts and pictures) is to be relegated to a back room. In the meantime it remains at the rear of the Mitchell Reading Room. With the reference collection now removed to another building, this means that historians and researchers can no longer use reference and original materials in conjunction with each other — which can be critical for some research. The trek back and forth between buildings makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to function effectively (that is earn our living!). And with the microform reference collection now moved to the State Reference Library it’s a matter of competing for the use of microfilm readers.

There seems to be a lack of understanding how professionals use the library and its collections. Unlike similar institutions, the library has not had a users’ advisory committee. At least it has now established a consultative group, which has met once. The Professional Historians Association [ed. represented by Joy Hughes] will lobby for the retention of the group as a permanent channel of communication.

Once the special collections section goes to its back room, any sight of readers poring over manuscripts and pictures will also be gone. Visitors and tourists will see only a sea of laptops. In the grand Mitchell Reading Room there will be no hint of the world-renowned Australiana and Oceania collections. The sight of this once vital, now desolate, space is incredibly depressing and probably more so for the dedicated library staff. For historians and researchers of all things Australian, the Mitchell Library’s current ‘revitalisation’ is looking more like ‘devitalisation’.