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One of the reasons that government libraries in Australia hold unpublished archival material is that in many cases government archives were established many years after government libraries.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

Write it Down!

Western side of the library building with two large banners advertising the Treasures Gallery. Small deciduous trees with no leaves are in the foreground.

National Library of Australia at sunset. I took this as I dragged myself away from interesting research to have dinner one night this week.

At times research is like pulling teeth but then there are the wonderful times when you race through the work, doors open one after another revealing hints that suggest that you might be close to a big break through. Over the last few months my research has been humming along. In the couple of weeks it has been particularly fruitful. This week I have been pursuing some fascinating stories in Canberra at the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia.

I am immersed in the thoughts of some of the most reflective men in the Australian Army during World War I through their diaries. While these soldiers are among the most forthcoming soldiers to wield a pen in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), they often stop writing when I find the subject most interesting. Over the last few months I have been working with other sources to reveal more about those tantalising stories.

The beliefs of the soldiers of the AIF were cloaked by the larrikinism of some soldiers and derisive comments about army chaplains. Their letters and diaries are dominated by accounts of the work of war but every now and then there will be a sentence or two which sheds light on the complex beliefs of the soldier. Surrounded by death every day and charged with the task of killing others, some Australian soldiers pondered the great spiritual questions of life and death as well as the moral questions which a war inevitably brings. I am now searching in other archival sources to find out more about the comments soldiers made in their diaries. In particular I am researching the stories of soldiers who may not have left any writing for us to research today.

Continue reading

Reflection: Europeans in Australia – Vol III

Book Cover of Atkinson's book.

The Europeans in Australia. Volume Three: Nation by Alan Atkinson (UNSW Press, 2014).

The last volume in Alan Atkinson’s trilogy, The Europeans in Australia has finally been published.  Volume Three: Nation caps a wide-ranging and unique view on the history of Europeans in the land that is now known as Australia.

For more reasons than one, this book is the reason why I am writing and researching history today. I have been extremely fortunate that Alan Atkinson has been a mentor to me for several years and gave me the opportunity to do some work as a research assistant for this book. My current work on the beliefs of Australian soldiers on the front line in World War I stems from discussions Alan Atkinson and I had about this period of history while he was writing the book.

For these reasons what follows is not a book review. This is not an independent critique. Instead I want to share with you why reading the final version of this book has inspired me. Continue reading

Canberra Research Week

Conference room showing back of crowd, Tim Sherratt at front with a projector screen and ceiling of lights above.

People, laptops and Manager of Trove, Tim Sherratt – the essential ingredients for a great THATCamp in Canberra. Photo by Geoff Hinchcliffe.

When I made the decision to write a book about Australian World War One history in the midst of our move to Singapore I knew I would have to come back to Australia on various research trips. While much of my research centres on digitised historical records, most historical records are not digitised and t is only recently that publishers have offered e-book versions of histories they publish. These physical records which are held in Australia provide the context and additional depth which provide richer meaning to the digitised diaries I am working with.

One day I flicked through my Twitter stream and was reminded of a digital humanities event to be held in Canberra at the end of October. Digital humanities is the emerging discipline which seeks to develop rigorous research in the humanities using technology. I stumbled upon it through twitter and blogs back in 2010. Through social media I started learning how to program in Python and how to analyse the language used in digitised historical texts. Continue reading