Getting the most out of the State Library of NSW catalogue


… by Lisa Murray, Continuing Professional Development officer at the PHA NSW & ACT

Want to get more out of the State Library of NSW’s single search catalogue? Our members certainly do! Seventeen PHA members attended a two-hour workshop convened especially for professional historians on Thursday 22 February at the State Library of New South Wales.

Over the last 12 months or so, the State Library has been upgrading its catalogue so that you can search across all its collections. Data clean-up and migration is still occurring, so at times it can be tricky to find resources in the new one search catalogue. In addition, the catalogue’s functionality is still being improved (indeed another new feature appeared just last week!). In these times of change, professional historians need to update their skills to understand the catalogue’s search features and functionality so that they can efficiently find resources to support their research and businesses.

The workshop was held in the computer training room in the Marie Bashir Reading Room. Members were ably led through a series of exercises by librarians Andy Carr and Bronwyn Leslie. Handouts were provided to all participants explaining search techniques and new catalogue functionality, as well as step-by-step exercises that can be repeated at home to explore how the catalogue works.

The workshop booked out in a flash and many members missed out. Those who attended said they found the workshop useful, and everyone learned a new tip or two to make the most of their searching, as well as a few work-arounds while the catalogue is still being improved. The PHA and the library have agreed to hold a repeat of the workshop on Thursday 22 March. PHA members will shortly receive an invitation to register for this repeat workshop.

But in the meantime, here are a few tips to make the most of the catalogue.

  • The State Library’s website is now more interactive and can accept comments etc. A separate login is needed for this. Don’t be fooled – you need to login to the catalogue (not the website) to order books.
  • The manuscripts, oral history and picture collections have not yet been fully absorbed into the one search catalogue – that’s why you drill down from the blue one search catalogue into the green catalogue for manuscript, oral history and picture collections.
  • You can now search by archival digital – this only searches the manuscript, oral history and picture collections that have digital or digitised images.
  • Applying articles in your search scope identifies individual articles in newspapers, journals and magazines, many of which you can access full-text online through the library’s e-resources – no more searching separate databases!
  • Login to the catalogue to search and collate items by pinning – you can then go back and decide which ones you want to order at the end of your searching.
  • The old card catalogue from the GRL is no long available from the State Library website but is still published online. A google search for SLNSW scanned card catalogue will bring it up:
  • Remember the old card index in the manuscripts area? This has now been added to the manuscripts, oral history and pictures catalogue (green catalogue) – tick Manuscript index to include this in your search.
  • Use the filters on the right-hand side to quickly understand the different formats available and drill down to the results you are interested in.
  • The one search catalogue is now the best way to find small picture file items (rather than the green manuscript, oral history and picture collections catalogue).
  • You can keep up to date with issues and improvements to the catalogue on the state library website:

PHA NSW & ACT Public History Prize: enter now. It’s worth it!


… by Francesca Beddie and Minna Muhlen-Schulte, Public History Prize officer, who can be contacted at <>.

Last year ABC Radio National did a program about art prizes. Are they worth the effort? As the introduction to the discussion answered:

They might prove welcome cash to impoverished artists but they dash the hopes of thousands more, who often spend a great deal of time and money taking part.

Listen here to Archibald Prize curator, Anne Ryan, artist Richard Lewer and arts journalist Fiona Gruber talk about the pros and cons of prize culture.

And if you are a student engaged with public history, also consider the pros and cons of entering the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT ‘s own prize. The winner will receive a certificate and $500. But hurry, entries close this week! The competition is open to undergraduate, graduate diploma and master students in NSW and the ACT whose work engages with the field and practice of professional and public history (both Australian and international). The nomination form can be found here and you can read the essays of past winners here.

What is public history?

The US National Council on Public History defines it as a form of historical practice that is applied to ‘real world issues’ and covers areas such as museum curatorship, oral history, cultural heritage management, history websites, film and television historical documentaries etc.

Why have a prize?

While our prize is not (yet) on the scale of the Royal Historical Society’s in the United Kingdom, we offer it in the same spirit, as explained by Alix Green, one of the jurors of the society’s public history prize:

There is excellent work being done across the country to engage people with the past in innovative and exciting ways, everything from museum exhibitions to historical film and theatre, from community heritage projects to digital resources.  But this work can often be unknown outside the area in which it’s done… [The RHS] set up a prize to bring the kind of recognition to the best of these activities that awards in literature and the arts have achieved.  We hope not only to entice new audiences to history in all its forms, but also to help the field of public history develop by connecting people and celebrating success.

I’ll leave the last word to Nathan Stormont, who won the 2013 PHA NSW & ACT prize:

The Public History Prize is an excellent means of showcasing individual research and a wonderful opportunity for exploring a historical topic that you find personally interesting. Winning the Public History Prize was the perfect capstone to my undergraduate studies, and my prize-winning essay, which examined the human rights movement in Soviet Ukraine, made me a competitive candidate for achieving my dream career. I now live in New York and work for a democracy watchdog that monitors human rights and civil liberties in post-communist Europe and the former Soviet Union.


Refashioning history: my uncomfortable embrace of imagination


… by Peter Hobbins

One of the great joys in writing history lies in making myself perennially uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more true than when employing that vexed verb ‘imagine’.

I was trained as an empiricist. I have an honours degree in science, earned by killing multitudes of small creatures. It explains why I wrote a book about snakebite and the historical horrors of vivisection. But I also gained an arts degree, majoring in literature. I didn’t study undergraduate history at all. As a result I negotiate an enduring tension between the overweening fidelities of footnoting and the verities that authors render through the pleasures of their prose.

Imagination, however, bothers me. This discomfort emerged in one form as I sought to write animals into my telling of the past. While I signalled their presence, their gestures and even their voices, I balked at imagining history as they may have perceived it. ‘If a lion could speak’, remarked Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘we could not understand him’.

Nevertheless, I believe that the presence and actions of animals did alter the path of the colonial world. Another way that I sought to foreground their agency was by selecting period illustrations to complement my words. Although serving as a form of visual footnoting, as Ludmilla Jordanova elaborates, images also frame unique period perspectives.

More recently, I’ve embraced another imaginative challenge. As the 2016 Merewether Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales, my research subject proved an elusive character. I proposed a project on James Samuel Bray, an amateur naturalist who stalked late nineteenth-century Sydney. What inspired me was the discovery of his illustrations of snakes and their venom in the Mitchell Library collection. Bray’s extant albums are just a fragment of his original oeuvre, complemented by a smattering of diaries, cuttings and correspondence. They allude to, rather than elaborate, the world of Bray’s Museum of Curios, an establishment he fitfully operated from 1884 until 1900.

Unlike many natural history endeavours, what enraptured me about Bray’s artworks was their artlessness. Viewing his sketches, paintings, observations and doodles, it was clear that his ambitions far exceeded Bray’s talents. The works weren’t awful; neither were they elegant. Lacking the poise of the earlier Port Jackson Painter (the unknown artist(s) of the First Fleet) they were markedly inferior to works by Bray’s talented contemporaries such as Harriet and Helena Scott. Yet they conveyed a certain fidelity: a questing to capture the essence of what Bray saw, hoping to communicate it with – well, with whom?

And so it began. To learn more about Bray, his museum and its visitors, I pursued the usual paths. I transcribed his letters in the Mitchell Library and at the Australian Museum, detailing the range and reach of his correspondents. I hunted his hundreds of newspaper articles through Trove, his extended family through Ancestry, his abodes through Sands’s Directories and City of Sydney assessment books, his legacies and bankruptcies through State Archives and Records NSW, his copyright claims at the National Archives of Australia, and his blank plot at Rookwood necropolis. By ‘blank’, I mean exactly that: site 1295 is simply a verdant grass tableau, identifiable only by pacing out appropriate distances between adorned graves in zone C, section H. It proved prescient.

The further I sought Bray, the more he seemed to recede. Initially located at 84 Forbes Street, Woolloomooloo, Bray’s Museum of Curios finally ceased trading at 100 Forbes Street. In a long concatenation of poky Victorian terraces, both buildings have long since been obliterated. Yet the museum’s primary location was at 12 Queen’s Place in Sydney, a terse laneway behind Circular Quay, connecting George and Pitt Streets. It also no longer exists. Rather, it became Dalley Street, where the Canada Buildings that once housed the museum were demolished in 1923. Maps, sketches and photographs survive, but none yet found illustrate Bray’s Museum in situ between 1886 and its abrupt closure in 1892.

Likewise, Bray’s bankruptcy papers detail the contents of each room in his home, but not the seized goods sold at auction from the museum’s stock. The few artefacts Bray hawked or donated to the Australian Museum have been deaccessioned; a hopeful family lead suggesting that a collection of his ‘native curios’ were lodged there in the 1960s also proved fruitless. Glad I’m not a conspiracy theorist …

Even more curiously, given that he was such an entrepreneurial self-promoter, I have yet to locate a confirmed image of James Samuel Bray. His arrest gazettal for desertion in 1876 was accompanied by a physical description, while surviving sibling photographs suggest a sense of his visage. The closest I have come – thanks to Dictionary of Sydney Editor, Linda Brainwood – is what seems to be an 1891 watercolour of a bearded man in a beret, cutting down a redgum to secure a sea-eagle’s nest. Other, uncaptioned sketches in his travel notes may well be Bray’s self-portrait. So may be the awkward hands that manipulate snakes and sundry inventions amongst the plethora of his preserved illustrations.

These absences at the edges of evidence bring me back to imagination. I have deliberately discomfited myself, pasting together such fragments to summon up a projected protagonist. The very nature of the missing evidence means that I’ve had to extend my search by analogy, and through secondary sources, to visualise the façade and cluttered contents of Bray’s Museum of Curios. I can actually feel myself entering his dingy premises, watching Bray uncoil from his stool to greet me, suggesting nothing so much as his venomous serpentine companions. He slides forward, exuding an admixture of hesitant self-confidence and servile unctuousness.

‘No one is asked or pressed to buy’, his museum’s flyer emphasised in italics. This is precisely why I don’t believe it. I’ve read Bray’s beseeching letters, pored over his autographed sketches, perused his proud copyright applications. Bray’s Museum was first and foremost a business, but what he most desperately purveyed was his reputation – a lifelong quest for credibility and posterity. Both ultimately eluded him. Indeed, Bray’s unsavoury side likely led to so many of his traces being quietly but insistently effaced.

The history wars are over.  Now, we should take the lead from Greg Dening and weave ourselves into our history. For my part, I feel I can best serve the elusive memory of James Bray by imaginatively refashioning his world from the erratic remnants that remain.

Peter Hobbins’ article on James Bray can be found in the State Library’s spring 2017 magazine for members.

Image: Cutting down sea eagle’s nest (possible self-portrait of James Bray) SLNSW PXA188