It’s About Time

Unfilled double page spread from a 1918 diary

History is about time. I have been using old calendars like this to help me construct a WWI timeline. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

In my last post I wrote about Sue Castrique’s conception of history as drama and how it helped me with how I tackle the writing of my book. I am writing about how Australian soldiers reconciled their experience of World War I with their beliefs, whether they be agnostic, adherents to one of the large Christian denominations or held more unorthodox beliefs for the time. Over the last couple of weeks I have been doing a major review of my writing task with the goal of producing a book that you will find is a riveting read.

While I am writing about the inner lives of the soldiers, the context which led to their reflective thoughts is critical. I am mindful of the advice given by the historian of war the historian of war and gender, Karen Hagemann. “Violence needs to be at the centre of the history of war”, she said. The war intruded into every aspect of the soldier’s lives. I cannot ignore the horrific events that punctuated the tedium and discomfort of the lives of soldiers on active service. Some events, such as battles were significant for many soldiers and nations, other events were important only to the soldier writing his diary or letters. Both types of events are important for my book. Continue reading

History as a Cast of Characters

Over the last few weeks I have made great strides with my book and am now starting to write it. My book is about the beliefs of Australian men who fought in World War I. The book will focus on the interior lives of a number of men as recorded in diaries, letters and court martials. There will be mention of attendance of church services but I am more interested in the faith, the spiritual doubts and the religious exploration of men as they were exposed to lands, peoples and situations that they would never have experienced if they had remained in Australia.

I want to write more than a book that reveals things we did not know about the past. I want to write a book that is an engrossing read, that respects not only the men that wrote the sources I am relying on but those many men whose words have not travelled the temporal divide between us and the past. I want to write a book about World War I that the readers of this blog will be eager to read.

One of the problems I have been grappling with over the last two years is how to write the book. I have been dealing with this problem for a couple of years, but I have enough experience as a writer to be patient with myself. I have continued to research, to read, to write experimental chapter outlines and introductory paragraphs. One thing that has been important in this process is to attend conferences and listen to what other writers and researchers have to say.

Book cover

Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839–1869, by Sue Castrique (Anchor Books Australia, 2014)

There have been many aha! moments over the last couple of years. One of these was a talk given by historian, Sue Castrique last year at the fabulous Working History conference hosted by the Professional Historians Association of Victoria. Sue spoke about narrative history and how she tackled the writing of her award-winning book, Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and Convicts on Cockatoo Island 1839-1869. Continue reading

Searching Catalogues Effectively: National Archives of Australia

Rectangular building with horizontal stripes. In between the stripes are the windows.

State Library of Tasmania in Hobart. This photo is undated but it looks like it could have been taken when the building had just finished completion. Photo courtesy of State Library of Tasmania flickr collection.

While in Hobart I have been spending a lot of time in the ‘History Room’ at the State Library. This is where researchers can retrieve items from the state and national archives that are held in Hobart. In my book I want to include stories of soldiers from each state in Australia and also look at their pre-war experiences, hence my Tasmanian research.

As usual I am encountering the problem of records that were never kept at the time or are difficult to find through existing catalogues. I have needed to delve deeply and creatively into various catalogues. I thought that many of you would have encountered similar problems researching your family history, trying to complete assignments etcetera, so I thought I would share a little of what I have learned.

Each archive and library has its own way of organising their catalogues, filing their material and explaining how to find items. Sometimes items or collections may not even be mentioned in electronic catalogues or they may be on card catalogues which have not been transferred onto a computer yet. Other items in the collection may never have been catalogued in the first place because of shortage of staff.

The catalogue on the website of the National Archives of Australia only describes about twenty percent of the items they hold. So how can you find out about the thousands of boxes of archival material that are not mentioned in the electronic catalogue? Continue reading

War, Emotions and Beliefs

Melbourne Museum sign

It is hard to get a good photo of the aircraft hangar like building that contains the Melbourne Museum. While the outside of the building may look uninspiring, the exhibitions inside of the building are well worth a visit.

Over the last few months I have been dealing with life, the universe and the mundane. I had so much on my plate that I regretfully decided to reduce the pressure by taking a pause on my blog. But I am back! Over the next few weeks I will share some of what I have been doing. Today I thought I would give you an update on my book project.

When I was in Melbourne for the birth of our first grandchild I took the opportunity to attend the War and Emotions Symposium at Melbourne Museum. Over the last year there have been many war conferences, books, exhibitions, television series and other events hoping to catch the interest of people during the centenary of World War I. I couldn’t possibly give attention to all, and frankly, too many are superficial or cross the line by glorifying war but I’m so pleased I had the chance to attend the War and Emotions Symposium. Continue reading

Pause, Reflect and Share… and a note to publishers

Peter Stanley standing on the, left, holding his book. I am standing on the right.

Peter Stanley and I at his book launch earlier this month.

Tomorrow I am driving to Canberra and will be in Melbourne at the end of the week. I am looking forward to researching at the State Library of Victoria and the Public Records Office of Victoria as well as catching up with family and friends. I have identified some key soldiers for my book and will be doing further research into the lives of a couple of the Victorian soldiers.

While World War I will be the focus of my book, I want to write about some of the experiences of the soldiers in their families and schools before the war as well as looking at their lives after the War. Soldiers brought the culture and learning they had received as children to war with them. The War stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

As you can imagine I am reading a lot of books about World War I. Most are well written but the one I am reading at the moment is infuriating because of the lack of referencing. I have done a bit of my own research to try to substantiate some of the author’s claims but cannot find proof of major claim about a statistic of the War. Humph! If a history is not properly referenced unfounded claims can be passed as truths. For all we know these books can be a mix of fiction and history, a member of the ‘faction’ genre.  Poorly referenced histories are not good sources. I have found another book on the topic which I am hoping is properly referenced.

Publishers – if you want your history books to be taken seriously then allow your authors to publish their fully referenced work! Why should we believe unsubstantiated claims?

As my then seventeen-year old daughter observed several years ago, footnotes (or endnotes) are ‘sneakily important’. Read that post for more about the problems of lack of referencing and the rise of ‘faction’.

I will step off my soap box now. Continue reading

Australians and the Great War at the National Library

A collage of drawings, cartoons and text from wartime publications interspersed with statistics about the war covers one wall at the Exhibition.

A collage of wartime publications displayed at the National Library of Australia’s ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’ exhibition.

With two daughters now living in Canberra and research required for my book, I am frequently visiting our national capital. On the weekend I attended a seminar about writing during World War One at the National Library of Australia. In the lunch break we had the opportunity to join a curator’s tour of the Library’s World War One exhibition, ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’.

Like many cultural institutions in Australia, the National Library of Australia is holding an exhibition to showcase the material held in their collections about World War One. We often think that libraries only hold published material, and archives are the home of manuscripts, ephemera and other items. However, the delineation between libraries and archives is not so straight forward, for example the Public Records Office of Victoria holds a number of school readers from the nineteenth century. Libraries such as the State Library of New South Wales hold significant collections of handwritten World War I diaries.

One of the reasons that government libraries in Australia hold unpublished archival material is that in many cases government archives were established many years after government libraries. The National Library of Australia emerged from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library which was established in the early years of Federation whereas the National Archives of Australia traces its founding back to concerns expressed by Charles Bean in the 1940s about the need to preserve war records.

The Director of Exhibitions, Dr Guy Hansen, explained that the Keepsakes Exhibition was not about developing a particular narrative about the Great War but about highlighting the extent of the primary sources about the War held by the Library. The ‘Mementos of the War’ section shows autograph books, letters, photos and diaries of women and men who served in the War. Here visitors can see a memorial plaque or ‘dead man’s penny’ issued by the government to the next of kin of soldiers who died in the War. Continue reading

The Creative Mind

One gumtree profiled against a backdrop of a grassy park with mist rising off it. The sun is shining on the mist.

One morning I woke up, rubbed my eyes and ran for my camera. This is what I saw from my bedroom window.

Ever since I was a teenager I have believed in trying to learn something before going to sleep. The evening study period has always been a productive time for me, even if I have not succeeded in the learning I have set myself. I close my notes, read an enjoyable book and then go to sleep. On waking in the morning I consult my notes again and often found that I have remembered more than I thought I had or I have worked out the problem that was out of reach the night before.

Rest is very important for the mind. The subconscious does some magical things when the mind is given some rest. We are at our most unproductive when we try to work excessive hours. Our productivity diminishes as we try to push through our tiredness and ignore the need to socialise with family, go for a walk or have a leisurely meal. Worrying about a problem and obsessing over it can drive the solution away. People may boast of long working hours, but all they are declaring is how unproductive they are.

This time last year we were in the midst of purchasing a house, selling excess household stuff and moving to Singapore. I had one last significant commitment in Australia – to deliver a paper on my research to the annual Religious History Association conference. This was to be the finale of my work of the last couple of years. I had already done a lot of reading and found my primary sources. All I had to do was write it up.

Yet I found writing impossible. There was too much clutter in my mind. Continue reading