Ruminations on a Thing

Long grey plastic box with words "Special Spectroscopic Electrodes" on the lid

It was a container for knitting needles to me.

It is a Thing.

It just is.

You might have a Thing at your place. You have grown up with it. It is always there, part of your everyday life. So seen, so used that is has become invisible to you.

It is difficult to find a Thing if you don’t know you have it. A few months ago I discovered that my family had a Thing. It revealed an interesting aspect of family history. I’ll tell you the story of it because it may help you to find out if you have a Thing.

A few months ago I asked my mother about her life before having children for a post I wrote last year: ‘Glimpses of a Young Women in Laboratories 1959-1963‘. She was telling me about her work as a technical assistant in a laboratory working with spectroscopy.

“Do you remember the containers that I kept the knitting needles in,” she asked. I recalled the long pale grey containers with blue writing on them. “That is what the carbon rods we used for spectroscopy came in,” she said.

I was astonished. I had never really looked at the pale grey boxes containing the knitting needles. I was a keen knitter as a teenager and frequently used the knitting needles in these containers, but I had not once read the writing on the containers. I was surprised at this failing, yet I shouldn’t have been. It is well-known that the ordinary, everyday things or activities are so ubiquitous that they go unnoticed and unremarked. Continue reading

Family History – the Kernel of All History

My mother as a child with her family in a handmade boat -  country Victoria at the end of WWII.

My mother as a child with her family in the boat her father made – country Victoria at the end of WWII.

“The kernel of all history is family history.” I wrote that comment this morning in response to a thought-provoking post by Emeritus Professor David Carment about the importance of historians exploring and writing about their own family histories. The post picks up on a theme from a conference held in honour of highly regarded historian, Alan Atkinson.

Every one of us is part of a family. Hence all history in its essence is family history. Stumbling Through the Past is a history blog. It is also a family history blog. The blog header which I created when I started this blog back in August 2010 includes pictures of members of my family from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It reflects the fact that it was the way my family retold and researched our own history which attracted me to further study of history. Continue reading

New WWI Website from State Library NSW

Screenshot of SLNSW WWI website home pageThe State Library of New South Wales holds the diaries and letters of over five hundred people who served in World War I. Today they launched a new section of their website to make these more accessible to the public and to seek more information about the diarists from family members.

A few months ago I wrote some posts about this collection and added a page on this blog to help people find the transcriptions of the diaries on the State Library website. As I said at the time volunteers are still transcribing diaries. Currently the diaries of 238 people have been transcribed but this will increase until the transcription process is completed in the middle of 2014.

Today I have taken down the page on this site where I listed the diaries that had been transcribed as at the beginning of September. The State Library now has an easily searchable list which will be continually updated. This will be a more reliable source than my page.

I encourage you to explore the Library’s WWI commemoration pages. There is a wealth of material there. Here are some of what I think are the highlights of the website: Continue reading

My Mother the Computer Programmer

My mother did the traditional thing when she married in 1963. She left work to raise children. She did housework and in her spare time enjoyed embroidering. She even exhibited her embroidery. But underneath this conventional exterior my mother did things differently.

Mum decided to complete year twelve when I was a baby. Her mother-in-law approved of her studying.  “She was pleased to have a daughter in law that had a mind above housework”, recalled my mother. My grandmother had gone to university herself and worked in London and Paris in the 1920s. My mother appreciates the fact that her mother-in-law encouraged her and looked after me while my mother did her year twelve exams.

My father got a new job so we moved away from our family in Melbourne and settled in Hobart. I remember at dinner my father would invariably ask what my mother had done that day. As a seven or eight year old I disliked the question because I knew the dreary response that would come from my mother. “I washed the clothes and hung them out, then I vacuumed the stairs and upstairs….” Zzzzzz. As a child I recognised how deadly dull my mother’s life was and felt sorry for her.

Of course I didn’t say anything to her about that at the time but years later Mum told me how much she dreaded that habitual question from my father. However, my father was listening. “He saw I was bored”, she said. An advertisement in the newspaper attracted my father’s attention. It was about studying at university. He encouraged my mother to apply.  This would have been 1972 or 1973. Continue reading

Search For WWI Soldier Diaries Held by State Library NSW

One of the many postcards soldiers sent their families from northern France during WWI.

One of the many postcards soldiers sent their families from northern France during WWI.

11/11/2013: I have taken down the page referred to in this post because the State Library of NSW has launched a new portal to their WWI collection and now have one page on their website which lists all the transcribed diaries. See my post ‘New WWI Website from State Library NSW‘ for an overview and links to the Library’s WWI pages.

Are the World War I diaries or letters of the person you are researching available on the website of the State Library of New South Wales?

The Library has a collection of over two hundred diaries written by people serving in WWI which they are transcribing and making available on their website.  Yesterday I gave a brief talk about my research using the LIbrary’s European War Collecting Project to professional historians from around Australia who were meeting in Sydney.  As I mentioned in my last post about Archie Barwick’s diaries, the State Library of NSW collected these diaries in the aftermath of WWI and volunteers are spending many hours transcribing them. This is an ongoing project, there are many more to transcribe.

After my talk yesterday some historians expressed interest in accessing this collection.  In order to assist professional historians and family historians access the collection I have created a spreadsheet listing the names of those who wrote the diaries which are held in the collection together with links to the pages on the State Library of NSW website where you will hopefully find the transcriptions and images of the pages of the diary you are interested in.

The spreadsheet is available on a new page on this blog, ‘Search WWI Diaries at State Library of NSW’.

Please let me know whether you find this spreadsheet useful in the comments below.

Happy searching!

Addendum 2/9/2013

The State Library has many plans for the centenary of WWI and is eager for people who are researching any of the authors of these diaries to contact them directly.  Please contact:

if you have any information about these diarists to share.

The Diaries of a WWI Soldier

Soldiers Diaries AdvCThere were many advertisements just like the one above, placed in newspapers around Australia after the end of World War I. The soldiers of Australia’s citizen army had finally returned and some of them brought with them intimate historical records of the war – the diaries they had composed on the battlefronts. The principal librarian of the State Library of New South Wales, supported by the Library’s trustees, recognised the value of these records and set about collecting them through these advertisements.

The European War Collecting Project is a significant collection held by the State Library of NSW. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been immersed in these soldier diaries. The volunteers at the State Library have done a tremendous amount of work transcribing them which is enabling me to examine the diaries digitally.

I am still in the midst of working with these diaries but I realised early on that the diaries of Archie Barwick are a significant part of this collection. The day after I had quickly glanced at one of his diaries I received an invitation to a book launch at the State Library of New South Wales. Harper Collins has recognised the significance of his diaries and has now released these diaries in book form.

four people gathered around a table looking at the original diaries.

Looking at Archie Barwick’s diaries at the launch: Elise Edmonds (State Library NSW), David Hassall, Judy Hassall and Alex Byrne (State Librarian, State Library NSW). Photographer: Joy Lai, State Library of NSW.

Continue reading

Glimpses of a Young Woman Working in Laboratories 1959-1963

Log tables: an essential tool for scientists in the era before cheap calculators and computers.

Log tables: an essential tool for scientists in the era before cheap calculators and computers.

It was Robyn Arianrhod’s book, Seduced by Logic, that prompted me to write this series of posts about my mother’s working life and her education in maths and science.  Arianrhod’s book is about two female mathematicians, one from the eighteenth century and the other who lived in the nineteenth century.  These women made significant contributions to the scientific revolution that swept Europe (read my review here).

I had given my father a biography of Newton for the last birthday he had before he died so I was thinking of him while reading the book. I had not expected this book to trigger thoughts about my mother, yet there it was – a discussion of spectroscopy on pages 181-2.

Through spectroscopy scientists can understand more about an object by analysing the light it emits or absorbs.  My mother worked as a technical assistant in a spectroscopy laboratory while she was studying maths and physics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Continue reading