National Library of Australia Staff Papers, 1995

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White Australia has a Black History':
Sources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in the National Library of Australia

Written and presented by John Thompson at the Indigenous Research Ethics Conference, 27-29 September 1995, organised by the Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Participation, Research and Development, James Cook University of North Queensland.

I remember during the bicentennial year of 1988 seeing the slogan 'White Australia has a Black History' spray-painted in large letters onto the concrete walls which surround the base of the new Australian Parliament building in Canberra. It appealed to me greatly as one of the most effective protests by indigenous Australians during that flawed year of celebration, a year which most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, (and probably more European Australians than we might guess), viewed more accurately and appropriately as a year of loss and mourning, recognising the terrible damage done to Australia's indigenous peoples by the historic act of European settlement. In Judith Wright's powerful phrase, this slogan and the protest it represented was 'a cry for the dead'. Its neat ambiguity summed up two important issues central to any understanding of this country. In the first place, it was an affirmation by indigenous Australians that their long history in this country had primacy, legitimacy and a rich and positive integrity of its own. Secondly, it was an accusation, a reminder to those celebrating a mere two hundred years of European settlement, that this celebration was based on a false premise. The slogan was a reminder to the country that a dark pall of shame lay over the history of European settlement in Australia and that until this was recognised and acknowledged the prospects for reconciliation were bleak. It was an unpalatable message and it was one delivered with a kind of 'up your nose' assertiveness which expressed a new confidence and self-assurance by Australia's First Nation peoples.

That self-confidence has increased in huge leaps since 1988 and although clearly there remains a huge legacy of the past still to be dealt with and major reforms of the social structure of Australia still to be achieved before justice is delivered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their own country, there is abundant evidence of a significant shift in public awareness and understanding of the rightness of the indigenous cause and of the need for fundamental adjustments to the way we do business in this country if Australia's indigenous minority is to achieve due recognition and respect. Historically, there has been a long tradition in Australia of things being done to and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have often been depicted as the passive recipients of the largesse or the charity of the European majority. This has been both demeaning and enervating, eroding self-confidence and entrenching a victim mentality which seemed to impose a terrible paralysis of despair. So much has changed and finally there seems now to be a way forward. Eddie Mabo's great battle and his vindication in the courts with the sweeping aside of the European assertion of Australia as 'terra nullius' was a spectacular achievement. The highly visible role played by people like Lois O'Donoghue, Noel Pearson and others in the face-to-face negotiations with the Australian Government to negotiate the terms of the political settlement of the native title issue in the wake of the Mabo Judgement was the active proof that Australia had begun the long climb to maturity in its working relationship with its indigenous people.

If historians and writers on the European side have done major work in arguing and articulating the great injustice done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people- Henry Reynolds, Judith Wright and 'Nugget' Coombs are leading examples but there are many others- it is also true that on the indigenous side, natural leaders have emerged in politics, in literature, in the visual and performing arts, in administration and in academia, prepared and able to articulate with a powerful clarity and a strong sense of national purpose, the legitimate needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for justice, recognition and full equality with other Australians in every aspect of life in this country.

Some years ago, it will be remembered, the late Kevin Gilbert produced a book called Living Black dedicated to what he called 'the search for justice' in which he set out to show the actual condition of the Aboriginal people in Australia through their own testimony and from this to show how they think about themselves and their background. In his book, Gilbert argued that despite appalling odds, some indigenous Australians had found a sense of purpose and that this offered the hope that broad social change was possible. Gilbert argued that Aboriginal Australians must be reeducated and exposed to 'a barrage of intensive, positive propaganda about Aboriginal history, identity and culture to counteract the negative material...constantly raining in on them from the major society at present' (Living Black was researched and compiled during the 1970's ).

Gilbert's book, which broke important new ground, was conceived in a positive spirit, its purpose to assist in the building of a modern Aboriginal culture which could stand tall with pride and self-respect.

Twenty years later, and in part building on and reflecting the pioneering efforts of those like Kevin Gilbert, Oodgeroo Nannuccal and Mudrooroo Narogin whose writings were imbued with a strong sense of their Aboriginal culture and identity, Lois O'Donoghue in her capacity as Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) delivered earlier this year in Brisbane a major Cultural Policy Statement for and on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Reflecting in part the philosophical premise of the Prime Minister's Creative Nation statement that culture is central to national life and national decision-making, O'Donoghue argued that a sense of culture has for generations pervaded the life and outlook of the indigenous peoples of Australia. But she warned of the danger that without care and effort, this indigenous culture can be too easily marginalised, exploited and damaged. She stressed the importance of the indigenous peoples of Australia regaining control of their cultural values, heritage and products - on their own terms and in the mainstream. At the same time, she suggested that the development by ATSIC of a National Cultural Policy Framework has the broader objective to provide an essential component of the process of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures in Australia.

It is against this background both of history and of current policy and practice that I want in this paper to look at the role of libraries and in particular of the National Library of Australia as custodians of significant collections of materials which constitute an important part of the cultural memory and the cultural heritage of indigenous Australians. And yet it is a memory and a heritage which has in effect been closed off and withheld from those to whom it should have special value and meaning. It is a curious fact that libraries, notwithstanding their great tradition of public service and accessibility, have yet been closed off to minority groups and cultures. In Australia, this paradox as it has affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been highlighted with particular power by Mick Dodson, Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission:

For a long time I think that [the] relationship [between libraries and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people] was characterised by distance and ignorance; libraries didn't know a lot about Aboriginal people, and most Aboriginal people didn't know a lot about libraries. That's not to say that each side didn't have strong opinions or a lot of presumed knowledge about the other. But there wasn't much in the way of direct contact or first hand experience. Libraries and museums have by and large been intimidating and alienating places for most Aboriginal people who have seen them as places which displayed and catalogued non Aboriginal portrayals and 'knowledge' about us.

Dodson went on to say that librarians need to look carefully at the way Aboriginal people are portrayed in libraries, that they need to reach out to Aboriginal people and to show those people that they are welcome to participate in an area which has excluded them for so long. This is a strong challenge and it is one which encourages a fundamental reappraisal by libraries in this country of their relationship with the community of indigenous Australians.

Although there is still a long way to go, it must be acknowledged that many Australian libraries are now responding to the legitimate and constructive criticisms of the kind which Mick Dodson has articulated with such honesty and directness. Some libraries have so far achieved more than others - initiatives in the State Libraries sector, especially but not exclusively in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland are encouraging and have genuinely broken new ground. It is the case, as observed recently by one of my colleagues in Canberra, that during the last few years librarians and archivists have begun to question the relevance of their institutions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Issues now under review include 'the desirability of either strengthening or dispersing indigenous collections, the need to enhance access to collections through special bibliographies and indexes, the provision of information services to indigenous communities, the racist or offensive nature of some subject headings used in catalogues, access to secret and sacred materials, recruitment and training of Aboriginal staff, and representation of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders on library councils and boards.' These and other issues have been given formal expression in a set of National Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services, drafted and debated in 1994. These protocols are intended to guide libraries, archives and information services in appropriate ways to interact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the communities served and to handle materials with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content. It is recognised that they will need to be interpreted and applied in the context of each organisation's mission, collections and client community.

For the National Library of Australia which was a party to the discussions which led to the drafting of the protocols, there is recognition that for various reasons it has lagged in better defining and articulating its commitment to a clear program of services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. To some extent, the Library would say that it has been hampered by lack of experience and expertise. It would also say that to a considerable degree it has deferred to its neighbour institution in Canberra, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) as the body which has a specific national charter to collect and preserve those materials which document and record the history and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In post-Mabo Australia, it is recognised that more needs to be done if the National Library is to meet its national obligations to serve as a library for all Australians. Just what this means in the case of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is currently under review. While there is a strong recognition that the Library must take a more active role in preserving the documentation of indigenous peoples and in providing services to those peoples, it is a fact that other collecting bodies are bound to have a closer relationship with Aboriginal communities, most of whom live vast distances from Canberra. In the highly co-operative environment which now governs the provision of library services in Australia today, the National Library is a party to formal understandings which acknowledge that the national collection of library materials is in fact distributed with actual location the product of demographic and other factors.

But while the collecting of material is one responsibility of the National Library (and an important one) it also exercises a significant leadership and coordinating role. During the last two years the Library has participated in a number of forums which have specifically addressed the broad question of library services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - events such as the 'Gathering and Sharing' Workshop held at the National Library in 1993 - which have begun a process of focussed examination of precisely what is done, where it is done and how well it is done as a prerequisite to the implementation of better national practice. While working within the framework of national consultation, the National Library has also developed some initiatives of its own to examine critically its own performance and to achieve greater clarity in defining its service responsibilities to Australia's indigenous population.

To date, probably the most important of these was the decision taken to send a senior member of the Library's staff to visit some 22 libraries, archives and museums in New Zealand, Canada and the United States (including Hawaii) to examine and evaluate the policies and collection strategies in place in those countries concerning the documentation of their indigenous cultures. This important visit was made by Graeme Powell, the National Library's Manuscript Librarian and one of this country's most experienced and distinguished archivists. It is true that the relevance of overseas experience can always be questioned given the obvious differences which exist between countries but in the area of so-called First Nation communities, there are, as Powell has noted, some major commonalities between Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. In particular, in each of the countries in the last 20 years there has been agitation for the repossession of land and political self-determination, the protection of sacred sites and preservation of traditional chants, stories and artefacts, renewed interest in genealogy and tribal or community history, and a resurgence of indigenous art, music and creative writing. It is also the case that in certain significant ways, there is a better record of service to indigenous communities by libraries, archives and museums in some of these countries than is currently the case in Australia. Graeme Powell's extensive, sensitive and very detailed report is now providing the National Library with an informed and considered framework for a review of its own policies and the improvement of its own practice.

This will include reviews of the use of Library of Congress subject headings for the cataloguing of library materials relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and a similar review of the indexing terms in use for publications such as the National Library's APAIS service. Consideration is also being given to the employment of indigenous staff members, an area where it is acknowledged the Library must do better. A formal revision of the Library's Collection Development Policy to define a clearer set of understandings about the Library's responsibilities is also now in train. In the meantime, the National Library's acquisitions staff have commenced a review of the effectiveness of current practice in the collection of printed materials relating to the indigenous population. Similar reviews are taking place in the special collections areas of the Library - Pictorial, Manuscripts, Oral History and Maps where, although considerable national strengths exist, collecting practice has not always been systematic or sustained.

It is relation to this latter area that my own current project to compile and publish a comprehensive guide to the National Library's holdings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander materials is based. The National Library has recognised that an important and necessary prerequisite to improving its working relationship with the indigenous population of Australia is to make explicit just what it holds as a result of its collecting and acquisition programs which have been in place since the early 1900's and to communicate that information in published form. This task is not easy since relevant holdings are not necessarily highly visible and are usually dispersed throughout the collections. But the task is important and worth doing since not only will it make available to the indigenous population material which constitutes part of its own distinctive cultural heritage and memory but it will provide a more certain framework against which future collecting programs, developed in consultation with the indigenous community, may be developed and sustained. This project is currently in its formative stage and this paper is my first effort to give the project its context and rationale. It is planned to carry out the project taking into account the National Protocols referred to earlier in this paper. Community consultation is recognised as being an essential requirement particularly in relation to materials which will have a sensitivity on particular cultural grounds such as photographs of ritual and possibly secret ceremonies.

Australia's 'Black History' is an affirmation that the history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities exists in its own right as a positive and creative force. Some of this material will come to light in the National Library's guide to its holdings and will offer nourishment to a sense of worth and identity. Other material will however reflect the 'black' side of Australia's history, the sad and sometimes shocking story of the evolving relationship between the Europeans and the indigenous population. For the record and as part of a broader process of National Reconciliation, I believe it is important to recognise that these materials are also part of the cultural memory and must be acknowledged and accepted if Australians of whatever background are to understand their own story. Denial of uncomfortable truths will in the long run diminish our humanity and limit our capacity to assimilate the lessons of the past and to work together to construct a better future.

In conclusion, it is useful to look briefly at some of the materials which make up the National Library's research strength in the field of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies in order to give some feel for the cultural significance of these holdings as well as their range and quality. Symbolically, some of these materials may have negative connotations because they are a manifestation of what is now acknowledged to have been to have been a European invasion of an occupied country. In this context stands the Journal of Captain James Cook RN during his voyage of 1768-1771 which included the first systematic charting of the east coast of Australia. As the record of one of the great maritime journeys and because of its singular association with Australia. As this journal has assumed the status of a national icon though it also has a broader cultural significance internationally. But it has another and darker resonance as the symbol of what was to become one of the most comprehensive cultural dislocations in history. Symbolically, this journal marks 'the coming of the strangers' to Australia. It is also the tangible record of some of the earliest European contact with the indigenous people of Australia and for this reason it will have an essential place in the guide to the National Library's holdings of materials relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.


[Endeavour Journal extract] [Endeavour Journal extract]
Extracts from the Journal of the HMS Endeavour manuscript: Thursday 19 July 1770 and 19-22 July 1770

The National Library includes amongst its collections a rich body of pictorial material which documents many aspects of the history of Australia. As a source for understanding the historical interaction between the First Nation people of Australia and the European settlers, this collection of engravings, paintings, drawings and photographs is as indispensable as it is also a powerful and disturbing record of displacement and marginalisation. While many of these images have become well-known individually - Augustus Earle's Portrait of Bungaree c. 1826 is especially notable- there is an obvious value in consolidating a list of holdings which collectively form an important visual record both of the invasion of Aboriginal Australia and of the strength of the vigorous assertion of Aboriginality which has been one of the triumphs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the last years of the twentieth century.

Taken chronologically, the National Library's holdings of primary source materials - manuscripts and associated archival records, pictures, films and oral history interviews - constitute an important part of the national record of the difficult and at times painful history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the years since European settlement.


[Judith Wright]


Through these materials, it is possible to trace most of the major themes which define the history of Australia's indigenous people from the eighteenth century until the present day. While much of that history is disturbing, it is also a history of surprising resilience and, in our own day, one of affirmation and assertion. As a national collecting institution, the National Library has in recent years acquired an important body of materials which embody and represent key aspects of the Australian debate about issues of Aboriginal identity and sovereignty.

Judith Wright (pictured above), great Australian poet and in the latter half of her long life a committed and forceful campaigner to force 'White Australia' to face up to and acknowledge the extent of its crimes against the indigenous inhabitants of this country, has placed into the National Library her papers which document the campaign to secure a formal Treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as an essential prerequisite to a process of national reconciliation. Kevin Gilbert has been referred to earlier in this paper. His papers also reside in the National Library where they are part of a body of material which reflects both the anger of displacement and the energy of political activism which has since come to be embraced strongly as a force for change.

Reflecting a later and more confident assertion of indigenous rights, the National Library has recently become Reflecting a later and more confident assertion of indigenous rights, the National Library has recently become the repository of the personal papers of the late Eddie Mabo, a collection which offers some record of his life and career over almost thirty years and of his tireless campaigns for an on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Those papers include Mabo's personal diaries, the last of which, written just a month before his death, anticipates the outcome of the Land Rights case in the High Court of Australia:

'I thought of the struggles I've been through in the past years since 1963 to 1991 or to the beginning of 1992. While the rest of Australia awaits with me for the High Court decision to be brought down at any time, would it be in time for me to receive it?'

Mabo died four months before the Court delivered its judgement. The National Library's acquisition of the Mabo Papers is a powerful acknowledgment that the Library exists for all Australians as a 'keeping place' for those records which define our collective identity as Australians and which record the range and diversity of the national story. The responsibility to gather and preserve these materials confers another responsibility, that of providing access so that the historical record may be scrutinised and interrogated. Such materials are part of the collective memory and the precious heritage of all Australians. And for indigenous Australians, they have a particular importance in the process of keeping alive the memory of a people once threatened with extinction. The provision of a comprehensive guide or directory to these holdings, simple and pragmatic though it is as a service, is a belated recognition of the National Library's obligations to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.