An exhibition of material from the Monash University Library, Rare Book Collection

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Australian Literature Exhibition

An exhibition of material from the Monash University Library,

Rare Book Collection


My Long March as a BALPER

In the early 1980s I started my second stint at the State Library of Victoria, this time as the Deputy La Trobe Librarian. Shortly afterwards in the lead up to Victoria’ sesqui-centenary, the then State Librarian, the late Warren Horton, asked staff for a list of major projects that could be submitted to the Victorian Ministry of Arts for possible funding to celebrate the Victoria’s 150th.

I recommended that the library – meaning me – could do an update of Miller and Macartney’s Australian Literature: a bibliography . . . to 1950 (1956). I suggested, rather naively, that it could be done for around $25,000, probably the equivalent then of the salary for one to one and half years’ of a base grade librarian. Horton said he liked the idea as a big picture one but it, like all the other projects suggested by Library staff, was not taken by the Ministry (presuming that they all forwarded on).

My own copy of Miller and Macartney had been bought new at Evans Bookshop in Swanston Street just down from the Library around 1972. It still had its 84s (= 4 guineas) price tag which Mr Evans simply converted to $8.40. I had actually met Frederick Macartney in my first period of working at the State Library. In 1977 I prepared – no-one curated then- an exhibition entitled ‘Celebrating Australian Books’. Pat Reynolds, the La Trobe Librarian, knew Macartney’s wife through the Lyceum Club, and arranged through her for Macartney to have a special viewing of the exhibition. He was then ninety and told me that he had used the Library as young boy in the previous century, a concept I found hard to fathom.

At the time of his visit I had been working on compiling a descriptive list of the Victor Kennedy Papers held in the Australian Manuscript Collection of the Library. The collection includes some papers of Kate Baker, the champion of Joseph Furphy. Amongst these was a 1916 letter from Macartney to Baker telling her that he had left her copy of Furphy’s Such is Life which she had lent him on a Melbourne tram. It was her only copy, so his forgetfulness was doubly embarrassing. Macartney remembered the mishap well when I reminded him of it.
I moved to Monash in 1989 to join the recently established National Centre for Research and Development in Australian Studies (NCAS). The successful bid to obtain this ARC Key Centre had been led by Professor John Hay when he was Dean of Arts at Monash. By the time the Centre opened, he had become the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) but continued to keep the Centre in his portfolio. The second edition of John’s co-edited Western Australian Literature: a bibliography was about to be published and, given our respective interests in Australian literary history plus the Centre’s brief to provide resources to support Australian Studies, an updated and revised version of Miller and Macartney was an obvious project for the new Centre.
It was formally announced as the ‘Cambridge Bibliography of Australian Literature’ by the Governor-General Bill Haydon in his opening speech when he formally opened NCAS in late 1989. The Cambridge connection announced by the Governor-General was somewhat of a shock to Robin Derricourt, the publisher at CUP, as it was the first he had heard of it.
The project, soon known as Bibliography of Australian Literature Project (BALP), really got off the ground with the appointment of Sally Batten as a research assistant in 1990. Having decided on the parameters of the project, including the surprisingly vexed question of who was Australian writer (see introduction to BAL, A-E), our first task was to compile a list of eligible writers. This was done before every office had a computer. Each eligible author was given their own short record with various information and sources listed by hand on it: some are on display in this exhibition. From these thousands of individual worksheets we produced the two-volume List of Australian Writers
This was published in 1995. By then Terry O’Neill and Kerry Kilner had joined the project and become Balpers courtesy of an ARC Research Infrastructure Grant, the first of many ARC grants which have made the project possible over so many years.
The Balpers worked diligently on preparing entries, using the In-Magic database program, on preparing entries for the planned first volume of BAL. We were committed to examining every item in our core-genres, an admirable but very labour intensive task that we relaxed a little for the later volumes.
While working towards the completion of the first volume we also issued several off-shoot bibliographies. These included Sue Murray’s Bibliography of Australian Poetry, 1935-1955 (1991), Debra Adelaide’s Bibliography of Australian Women’s Literature, 1795-1990 (1991), John Loder’s Australian Crime Fiction: a bibliography 1857-1993 (1994), all three published in conjunction with D W Thorpe, and Love Bought to Book: a bio-bibliography of 20th Australian romance novels (1995) compiled by Juliet Flesch
The first volume of BAL was finally published in November 2001 and launched by Professor Elizabeth Webby in the State Library of Victoria. The volume only covered authors A-E and, as it had taken us a decade to complete, it was clear that the project was going to have a longer life than its compilers or it needed a major fillip to speed up its progress. That fillip came from the ARC when it recommended that BAL and AustLIt, the Australian literature database compiled by the Australian Defence Force Academy at the University of New South Wales should consider joining forces. It was actually more of an ultimatum than a recommendation as the ARC indicated to both parties very strongly that it would not continue to fund two Australian literature data base projects.
The ultimate outcome of this was the formation of AustLit: the Australian Literature resource (www: a non-profit collaboration between twelve Australian Universities and the National Library of Australia based at the University of Queensland which aims to provide authoritative information on hundreds of thousands of creative and critical Australian literary works involving more than 100,000 Australian authors and organisations.
Under this new arrangement, BAL effectively became the retrospective monograph arm of the AustLit. With a team of researchers based around Australia rather than just Terry O'Neill, Chris and Graham Wood and myself at Monash, examination and data collection speeded up considerably and volume two of BAL covering F-J, authors was published in 2004 and volume three (K-O) in 2007. Now the final alphabetical volume is about to be published.
This exhibition is a celebration of the completion of the four alphabetical volumes of the Bibliography of Australian Literature. It is not necessarily the end of the BAL long march as we are considering doing a supplementary volume to cover new information that has come to hand over the last ten or so years, correct the inevitable errors that occur in a project this size and provide a consolidated index to all the four volumes.
In addition to commemorating the completion of the multi-volume Bibliography of Australian Literature, this exhibition also showcases the outstanding Australian literature holdings in the Rare Book Collection in the Matheson Library. It is also a reflection of the collaboration between the National Centre for Australian Studies and Richard Overell and the other staff of the Rare Books Collection over many years.
John Arnold

Co-general editor,

The Bibliography of Australian Literature

National Centre for Australian Studies

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