Golden Age of Humanities
Emeritus Professor Lesley Johnson explores the history of institutions that have shaped the humanities, and how complex forces continue to create uncertainty about their value today.
*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Lesley Johnson (L)
*Audience: (Au) – no microphone
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 30 November 2017
M: Okay so a hush is falling and the last few stragglers are coming in so we might get started this evening. Welcome to the National Library of Australia, I’m Marie-Louise Ayres and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to what is the penultimate fellowship presentation for 2017. I acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respect to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, past, present and to come.
Now earlier this year I described our National Library fellowships as an investment in curiosity and curiosity is a word that I think exemplifies our fellows. They come to the Library with a deep desire to learn about their topic, an inquisitiveness that may lead them and us in surprising directions.
I’m really very grateful to the many private donors who’ve been willing to invest in the curiosity of Australia’s research community, never quite knowing where the research will lead. We don’t ask for alignment to national research priorities, don’t really care what the outputs are, we just want people to have that experience of immersing themselves in the collections. In particular I’m grateful to a wonderful and generous group of past and present members of the National Library Council who supported our fellow, Emeritus Professor Lesley Johnson.
Now Lesley was awarded the 2016 National Library of Australia Fellowship supported by this consortium of past and present Council members for her research on the institutions of the humanities but had to postpone the commencement of her fellowship until the middle of September this year. A leading academic in cultural studies and in research strategy and policy in higher education Lesley held leadership appointments in universities for 14 years until her retirement from fulltime work in 2009. From 2012 until 2014 she was the President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities – and that’s lovely to see our friends from the Academy with us tonight – and was President of the Australian Council of Learned Academies.
During that period she drove the publication of The Power of The Humanities, Case Studies from Leading Australian Researchers, published in 2015 and which I have on my office shelf, and the collaborative project with the Academy of the Social Sciences, Mapping the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Australia, 2014.
Now Lesley’s passion for the humanities is at the heart of her fellowship. Over the past few months Lesley has examined the history of the humanities in Australia post second world war through the lens of the Library’s collections. She’s especially focused on the history of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, key humanities scholars and how the Library developed as a major centre for research in Australia.
Now I’ve enjoyed a number of conversations with Lesley about her research and our Council benefitted in October from a sneak preview on Lesley’s research and a kind of helicopter view of the state of research in Australia and I’m very much looking forward to hearing more about her work this evening so please join me in welcoming Professor Lesley Johnson.
L: Thank you very much, Marie-Louise. In some ways I was a bit sorry for us to start because it was such a nice party outside. So we can have more of that when we finish but – and one of the reasons why we should be having a party as I was reading today on Twitter is it’s the eighth birthday of Trove, I hear so – so that’s something important to be celebrating.
Before I start this talk I wanted to start by thanking the National Library for the wonderful privilege and pleasure of this fellowship. It’s been so good to be working in this magnificent building, it’s such a lovely environment to be working in. But it’s the staff that have made it a really special experience, I think the best experience that I’ve ever had as a researcher over 40 or so years of my career. So I really wanted to thank the Library for that and I wanted to pay special thanks to Robyn Holmes who’s here tonight and it’s great to be seeing her, she’s been away for a while. Robyn and I overlapped when I started my fellowship and the warmth and generosity of Robyn’s welcome, the value of everything that she was telling me, the interest that I found in her own work and then her putting me onto some things that she’d written, very relevant to my project, for example on Menzies and how come this building was so grand, it was all up to Menzies. So I really wanted to pay tribute to Robyn and to say how wonderful it is to see her tonight and to thank her very much.
Tomorrow is the actual day of her retirement so there should be more celebrating tomorrow.
And so I feel that I’ve really just started to scratch the surface in terms of looking at the materials in the Library relevant to my project and yet I’ve only got one more week to go on this fellowship but fortunately I have an Australian Research Council grant which will enable me to come back for the next few years to do more research. And so I’m very pleased about that and that meant that this talk tonight is very much a work in progress talk. But I rather like that, I suppose it’s because I feel that I can test out some ideas with you, get some feedback on that but also I’m sure that there’s many people here today who know much more about the Library and about the 1960s in the Library than I do and so I’m very happy to and really looking forward to learning from you either immediately after this in discussion or if you think about things subsequently. So I look forward to learning from you. Where am I going to put all this?
Okay. So this presentation is based on a broader project that I'm working on about the history of the institutions of the humanities in Australia since the second world war. My focus is on three institutions so that’s the universities, learned academies and major public research libraries, a huge project which I’m happy to narrow down as I go, of course. And my focus for the three key institutions in the Library’s project is on the Humanities Research Centre at ANU, the Academy of Humanities and the National Library itself so I’ve been accessing a wealth of material about those projects but I have to confess that one of the most exciting features of this fellowship for me has been actually starting to learn about the history of the Library itself so my talk has shifted a bit because obviously that was – what I was going to talk about was announced some time ago and really now what I’m going to be doing tonight is focusing on the National Library itself with some mention of the Humanities Research Centre and the Academy of Humanities. So I'm going to be concentrating and looking at how the National Library was functioning in the 1950s and ‘60s, particularly the ‘60s and then how it was shaping the humanities in the period and what that meant for the humanities at that time.
So I have a slide in case you're wondering what the humanities are, just there might be a question about that. You may not be able to read this but what I’ve really said is that in 1959 the humanities research company, Australian Humanities Research Council, which was the predecessor to the Academy of the Humanities, defined it in terms of seven fields, disciplines. Now we have a much longer list, not all that long, though, still that the Australian Academy of Humanities is using in terms of its sections so that just gives you a bit of a feel about what’s counted as the humanities in – at those particular - time. But obviously part of the issue and one of the things that I will be exploring in my project but not in what I'm talking about tonight is how the division is made between the humanities and the social sciences ‘cause when I talk about the institutions of the humanities being like libraries, obviously they are also institutions for the social sciences but what I'm interested in, how that division was made at particular points in time, what were the politics around that? What were the implications in terms of knowledge-making? But I'm not going to be particularly focusing on it tonight, I am going to be focusing on the humanities.
So in undertaking this research I wanted to use history to help me think about why we seem to constantly feel the need to assert the value of the humanities and why we oh so often feel on the back foot in doing so. It seemed to me that part of the reason at least is that the general public knows very little about what humanities research or scholarship is about, how it is actually done. In beginning to think about this issue I was struck by Isabel Stenger’s history published in the year 2000 on the invention of modern science and her comment that science often gives the impression of being an ahistorical enterprise, in other words that it’s not shaped by history. She asked the question, why is it that the situating of science in history does not go without saying?
So I started to read some of the now burgeoning literature on the history of science. I was fascinated by work being conducted on the history of the laboratory, field work and other physical spaces that have emerged to support, to shape and to give authority to the practices of science. It made me wonder why the same sorts of studies were not being conducted of the histories of the humanities. Is there an odd way in which humanities scholars have seen our work as ahistorical or timeless? Certainly some historical work has been conducted on the history of our disciplines, of the scholarship undertaken within them, internalist work as Stengers calls it. But what about externalist work? For science she says such research needs to look at the history of humanities – history of institutions, sorry, of scientists’ relations with their milieu, of the social and economic institutional constraints and opportunities that affect the scientific field in any given epoch. Surely we need this for the humanities too.
So my underlying claim for my wider project on the institutions of the humanities is that the humanities do not exist separately from their historical conditions and formations. We may want to protect them in their current form, recreate past forms or find new ways of doing the humanities but what we need to understand first and foremost is what institutional structures support and shape them and how these have changed over time if we are to be clear about what we want to achieve for the future. As Jennifer Summit notes, just as the history of science corrects the popular myth of scientific progress a rigorous history of the humanities could correct the myth of timelessness that persists in many defences of the humanities today.
So this is part of why I'm interested in the humanities institutions, why I want to document the practices of humanities research and the role of various institutions in shaping these. But there is another reason too why I became interested in doing a history specifically focusing on the institutions of the humanities. I was privileged in 2003 to be asked by Alex Byrne, who was then the Chief Librarian of the State Library of New South Wales, to undertake a review of the Mitchell Library. Shortly after I commenced my review a very public battle erupted about the Library’s planned changes to its famous main reading room of the Mitchell Library, changes that had been decided well before my review was organised.
I was very interested in but of course also deeply concerned about the strong emotions that were being articulated by people objecting to these changes. It made me start to think about how deeply attached people can be to the buildings of public libraries and how such spaces are so central to the research practices of humanities scholars and the sense of themselves as researchers. Yet I was puzzled too by why if this was the case I was finding in the course of my review that there seemed to have been little explicit or regular engagement by humanities researchers with the Library more generally in the last few decades at least. It seemed only when there was an apparent attack on an iconic building or a space of public research libraries that researchers sought to be involved. It made me realise how important it is for humanities researchers to reflect on what role institutions like research libraries play in the work of the humanities.
Just wanted to show here the Mitchell Library Reading Room which was the focus of this public outcry. This is actually taken in – before 2013 and what they were objecting to was that this room was going to be taken over completely by young people with their water bottles and computers and so on, this was the sort of image that was being portrayed and they wanted it to be retained for researchers to still work in this iconic and beautiful room. So what’s happened, and Margy would know all about this, what’s happened is that they’ve put a glass wall about two-thirds of the way down the Library where now researchers work and the rest is young people primarily working in the Library on their computers. So that was the battle at that time.
So this then is the background to my project as a whole and to why I’m so interested in libraries, it was amazing time to be there when this particular issue was being fought out. And for this fellowship obviously I’m focusing on the National Library itself but I needed to focus on a particular historical period for the fellowship as there is so much research to be done so I chose the 1960s because of a comment made by the distinguished scholar, Professor Ian Donaldson, in an interview for the National Library’s oral history collection in which he remarked that the ‘60s, and he was also talking about the ‘70s, were the golden years of the humanities. He included the building of the National Library at this time as one of the signs of the exceptional character of this era for the humanities in Australia, referring particularly to Canberra.
So I’m now going to look a little at that argument and the flourishings in Canberra. So looking down at the beautiful foreshores of Lake Burley Griffin from Mt Ainslie today we see a magnificent range of public buildings on its southern shores. A number of these can be said to represent a blossoming of the humanities in the 1960s. On one side is the parliamentary triangle, on this side of the lake is obviously the National Library of Australia with its building opened in 1968. On the other side is the National Gallery of Australia for which architects were announced in the same year although its buildings wasn’t completed until 1982 for various reasons. At the foot of the mountain is the War Memorial which is – which through its museum and historical records also supports humanities teaching and research. It was opened in 1941. And then not visible from the mountain – unfortunately I couldn’t get a photo that did this – not visible from the mountain but also important to my wider story over on the campus of the ANU is the Humanities Research Centre which is now housed in the Sir Roland Wilson Building which is on the northern edges of the campus. Such a centre began to be discussed at ANU in the late 1960s. From 1975 it was housed for some time in the lovely area which was purpose-built and designed for it in the A D Hope Building.
The Australian Academy of Humanities was initially housed in the Library’s new building in 1969 on the invitation of Harold White, later Sir Harold White, of course, the first National Librarian. It eventually moved onto the ANU campus and has been housed since around 2001 in a modest wooden house on [Vivisich] 18:16 Drive. But it’s quite a constellation of institutions of the humanities and all experienced key moments in their development in the 1960s.
So to understand these developments I found I quickly of course had to look back at the 1950s to identify the forces that prompted them. 1957 increasingly emerged as a pivotal year in all of – in all that I was looking at. Parallel developments in public policy emerged around this time, all to be important in terms of the growing significance of the institutions of the humanities. The report of the National Library Enquiry Committee, the Paton Report was published in this year leading to the National Library Act of 1960 and the commencement of plans for a monumental building of the Library. Similarly the report on the Australian universities called the Murray Report was published in 1957. The humanities community welcomed the report as recognising their value. It led to the establishment of the Australian Universities Commission which approved ANU’s plans for the Humanities Research Centre in 1972.
The Australian Humanities Research Council, the predecessor to the Australian Academy of Humanities, was established in 1957 and its first few years were preoccupied with producing a major report called the Humanities in Australia which was published in 1959. In the 1960s the Council began discussing its transformation into an academy and the Australian Academy of Humanities was established in 1969. All these developments seemed to give credence to Ian Donaldson’s suggestion that the humanities were indeed flourishing in Canberra in the 1960s and on to the ‘70s.
The National Library. I wanted to find a photo of it that made it look the most monumental, the most magisterial. I think that does it well.
Okay. But there is a slightly early report too that clearly played a decisive role. Eric Spark describes the 1955 report by the Senate Select Committee on the development of Canberra as a turning point for the city. The Committee envisaged Canberra as a city developed as a cultural, educational and tourist centre. It seems too that this vision of an intellectual and cultural capital was shared by many at the time. Harold White, as Librarian for what was then referred to as the Commonwealth National Library, described Canberra in 1954 as a centre of learning and the eventual collection and placing of buildings along the shores of the lake certainly seemed to give material form to this aspiration for Canberra.
There were many places in this talk where I could have used a photo of Harold White but I thought I’ll do this one, do it at this time because he comes in so often. What’s interesting about this photo – he’s on the right – is that Rex Nan Kivell is presenting his major collection on Australian material to Harold White, the photo was taken in 1963 and I will be talking about this whole development of collections in the ’60s and this particular one was one of the crucial ones in that process.
But back to the Senate Select Committee. Clearly the Senate Select Committee report was of key importance in giving substance to this aspiration even though the report was initially met with general approbation in the Senate and in the media, particularly outside Canberra. Thanks to the passion and skill of John [McCalman] 22:13, Liberal Senator for New South Wales, who initiated and chaired this committee, Sparks calculates that around more than 70% of its long list of recommendations were eventually implemented in some form. Most importantly this included the establishment of the National Capital Development Commission, the body that took on the oversight of the plans for the National Library and its being positioned on the shores of the lake in its current magisterial position.
This is a photo of Senator [McCalman]. I just thought it was interesting that you could find a photo of him and he was obviously very effective in this whole process of this committee and very much supported by Menzies as they developed their ideas about Canberra and he was a very passionate supporter of having a major national library building.
So what particularly shaped the National Library as an institution of the humanities in this clearly exciting time in the 1960s and how do I see it as playing a role in fashioning humanities at this time?
So I’m going to now turn to look at the significance of the building in the 1960s for the humanities. This is a photo that Robyn also uses in her wonderful paper on Menzies. Sir Robert Menzies is here at the laying of the foundation stone for the National Library of Australia in 1953.
So Robert Menzies as Prime Minister was intensely interested in issues concerned with the Library and initially planned an inquiry into what led to the Commonwealth National Library in 1953. But various issues caused this initiative to be stalled until 1956 when he appointed Sir George Paton, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne to undertake such an inquiry. The resulting Paton Report was a pragmatic document but also visionary in its own way. It was not a total surprise to some at least in the Library that the Committee recommended the separation of the national and parliamentary functions of the Library. It noted that developments in the financing of the Library, issues of Ministerial responsibility and so on had led them to the conclusion that while due weight should be given to the original intention to establish a library on the model of the Library of Congress in Washington, thereby combining national and legislative support functions, there had been such a radical departure in their view from this model that they were obliged to reject it.
The Committee also observed that extra parliamentary services were now far more extensive than the parliamentary services. They proposed a separation of these two functions and placing responsibility for the National Library so to be formed in the hands of a board of trustees, a well-tried system they noted used by libraries in many British communities. A picture of the Library of Congress, you would be interested to see it. Obviously got columns and certain sort of grandeur similar to this library, very much a building of the 1890s in Washington but this library will come back into my story as I go along.
So this proposal may seem to be signalling an abrupt end for the dream that had guided staff at all levels in the Library since 1907 when Sir Frederick Holder, the Speaker of the House and Chair of the Library Committee articulated what he regarded as a library’s proper ambition. The ideal of building up for the time when parliament should be established in the federal capital, a great public library on the lines of the world famous famed Library of Congress.
Well the Paton Committee was quite clear however that in recommending the separation of parliamentary and extra parliamentary functions, they were not abandoning belief in a noble future for the National Library. They rejected the criticism that still circulated that Canberra would never be important as a centre of population and of scholarship. We do not accept this view, they announced, we are satisfied that Canberra should be made an effective national capital and we are therefore in favour of the development there of a great national reference library, rendering effective service to government departments, local universities, students, research students from elsewhere in Australia and overseas, other libraries and residents of Commonwealth territories. Not quite as an inspiring statement as Holder’s 1907 statement about the Library of Congress model but nevertheless a clear expression of their belief in the Library’s future distinction.
This was further articulated in the Committee’s comments on the need for a new building although this was indicated in a rather backhand sort of way. The report had recommended that the newly developed archives function of the Library should also become a separate institution. They reasoned that only a fireproof modest building was needed for these purposes. I knew the librarians would laugh about – not one that would be necessarily expensive, they added. This, they said, was to be compared to the needs of the National Library. Few who advocate a new library building, they reasoned, would quarrel with a view that it should have dignity and solidity.
So the National Library Act of 1960 emerged out of this report, establishing it as an independent statutory body and a building appropriate to its national role began to be planned. Well the history of this wonderful building, the National Library, is well documented but two features of its planning particularly interest me here as important in shaping its role as an institution of the humanities. First, the aspirations articulated for the building itself and expressed in its Greco-Roman design and second, the attention paid to its internal design and I want to focus on these two features.
Although the Paton report had announced that it was no longer appropriate to base the ambitions for the National Library on the Library of Congress model the guiding role of this image of the Library as a grand institution did in fact persist. Indeed the iconic importance of the Library of Congress for the National Library has continued to be evoked in all sorts of ways, minor and major, into the present day.
It was important in the architectural brief for the building for the National Capital Development Commission. It specified, the National Library is a major reference and research institution with wide and varied functions. As it develops it may be expected to resemble in range and availability of its services the dynamic model typified by the Library of Congress rather than the more static form of some of the older European national libraries. This fact, said the specifications, will govern both its functions and its building requirements.
It’s a picture of the parliamentary triangle at this time and it shows the National Library and the Gallery there but it has Parliament House going to be on the edge of the lake so it was a view at that time that all of these monumental buildings would be alongside each other and on the lake.
The brief for the building described the importance of the site within the parliamentary triangle and the plans for the new Parliament House which at that stage was to be nearby on the lake. The character of the buildings in the triangle, it stated, is of great consequence and it is considered desirable that they be endowed with qualities appropriate to the centre of government. They should express a feeling of stability and permanence. The proximity to the Parliament House site meant that the library building should not seek to dominate its site but to be an integral part of the monumental group of buildings.
Walter Bunning was the architect for the Library. This is a picture taken in 1945 where he’s extremely young but one of the features about him that the National Development Commission liked was actually his youthfulness so he was still fairly youthful in 1960. So Walter Bunning, the architect who was to work fulltime on the building for almost seven years, was enthusiastic about his brief. He believed that a fine building for the Library was essential if it was to fulfil its role as a national building and for the national aspiration it would articulate.
He explained shortly after it had been opened that he’d tried to create a timeless building, not a with-it building, one that has to last for centuries. The artist he selected to work on the magnificent decorative features of the building shared this enthusiasm too. Tom Bass wrote in 1966, accepting invitation to work on Bass relief that looms over the entrance to the Library - this is him when the extra Bass relief being installed in 1968. He wrote all these letters to Bunning by hand in brown ink, fascinating and some of them difficult to read but fascinating.
So he wrote to Bunning in accepting the invitation to work on this particular piece of sculpture, conscious of the importance of this work and the boundless implications of a library such as this will be to the community it serves, I am eager to explore and develop the great themes evoked by thoughts of the Library as the place where the essences of our cultural and intellectual life will be gathered together.
So these aspirations were also to be articulated not just in its external design but in features such as the entrance foyer which Bunning saw as creating a spacious atmosphere of scale and dignity befitting a public building of national significance. It had to be appropriate for a major reference and research institution, he said. As you all know very well, you came through it tonight but I thought I should have a photo and again sensing – giving a sense of the scale and grandeur of that foyer.
Bunning was sensitive too to the experience of people working in the Library so that those who – quoting him – inside have a calm, serene outlook, ideal for working and studying. A number of Library staff also gave a great deal of attention to the working environment for users in their recommendations for its internal design. They were keen for the building to be innovative and modern inside, drawing on developments in libraries overseas. They were assisted in their planning by the appointment in 1964 of graphic designer, Arthur Robinson, as a consultant who worked particularly on the floor and furniture designs, and Keyes Metcalf in 1961 who was a retired Director of Libraries at Harvard and a highly respected expert on library design who had already been involved with the Library’s development in the 1950s.
So all of these people were very – paying a great deal of attention to all the features of the Library and the internal features and one of the things that interested me and they’re describing what should be modern about the building is that they wanted to try out but they weren’t quite sure whether compactuses might be something appropriate for the time so it’s interesting that that’s something that they’re talking about in the mid-1960s but very suspiciously by the sounds.
So the building was then planned down to the most minute detail, to have both the gravitas and the functionality to make it a space for concentrated work and reflection, a thought-producing environment conveying the feeling that those using its spaces were engaging in something that was bigger than themselves, part of a long history of thought and reflection but it was also to be modern and exciting, its monumental character gave expression to the inspiration for a nation, a liberal democratic culture based on reasoned public discourse and its beauty and quiet grandeur both in terms of the building and its internal spaces articulated a commitment to what a humanities scholar, [Rey Chow] 36:05, has referred to as the pleasures of mental labour.
My argument is that these features of the building not only reflected certain notions of knowledge-making in the humanities but they were also institutionalising these, giving them material form, the building and its spaces celebrated but were also contributing to a shaping of a particular culture of knowledge-making with its characteristic practices, ways of mind and understandings of the self as a researcher. It both authorised and rendered these possible.
At the same time the stature of the building was announcing the value of this culture to the national interest through its magisterial presence and internal grandeur. The solidity of the building would enable it to go on transmitting these ways of knowing and scholarly practices and the sense of their significance to new generations of scholars as well as enable those already schooled in its associated habits of mind to continue to practise them there and experience their pleasures.
So that’s my interest in the Library and how it’s shaping humanities in the 1960s. The next thing I wanted to concentrate then is on the knowledge-making processes of the Library, the way its actual day-to-day practices are shaping – and this is a picture of Graham Powell which many of you know. Unfortunately Graham couldn’t make it but here he is in his 1971 – 1970 at the opening of the John Ferguson Collections. I think the Library had already received some of the John Ferguson Collection but this was now a major passing over those materials because at that time Gorton had approved $300,000 to be able to get the final part of that collection into the Library so I felt this was very nice to have, Graham Powell, and I will be using him sort of in the talk.
So while the building was clearly significant to the way in which the National Library for the 1960s was to increasingly contribute to a particular set of practices for humanities research and scholarship, symbolically as well as practically, other initiatives were equally important. The apparently more quotidian or nitty-gritty practices of institutional building deployed by staff I want to argue were fundamental to its functioning but also how it played a major role in the shaping of knowledge-making of the humanities at this time.
These practices included in the 1960s, and I'm just going to give a very brief example in this very brief list of examples ‘cause there was so much going on but just to give you a bit of a feel of the range of things happening. There was the continuance of the Australian joint copying project in Britain which moved to microfilming immediately after the second world war. It was what Graham Powell describes as a remarkable escalation in manuscript collection building at this time. The Library was growing its Asian collection including increasingly in this period materials in Asian languages. It was playing a leading role in encouraging collaboration between major libraries in Australia, particularly in the 1960s in developing a coordinated approach to bibliographic work and collection-building. The Library was collaborating with university researchers in the development of the collection and at the end of the 1960s establishing an oral history unit just as it continued to build on its activities in the area of film. So there’s just an incredible amount of things going on but those are some of the things that I’ve been looking at, trying to document the practices of the Library around these sorts of processes.
So there’s a story to be told about each of these initiatives and documenting as I’ve been seeking to do during my fellowship certainly adds to the argument that the humanities were flourishing in this time. What they all involved too was a growing sense of confidence in the role for the Library in research, in knowledge-making and in playing a leading role in creating a library system in Australia that was linked to major changes in library practice internationally.
What we see beginning in the 1950s and continuing apace in the 1960s is a clear emergence of the National Library as a research institution, not just because staff often publish research papers themselves or researchers are increasingly using its collection but because the work of this major public research library in this period was clearly actively shaping how knowledge was made and authorised more generally in the humanities in Australia. The National Library participated in crucial ways in making the humanities in this period and it has gone on doing so in changing ways over time.
What I’m interested in here is how the everyday practices of developing and sustaining the Library’s operations are as important to this making of the humanities as are the researching of its collections and the writing of scholarly papers. I’m drawing here I have to say on the work of people like Bruno Latour who’ve made the same case about scientific knowledge in studying for example the day-to-day practices to be observed in the scientific library.
So I just want to take one example of collection-building in the National Library in the 1960s to develop this argument further. This is a photo of Clive Burmester on the right and many of you will know of his work, he’s with Colonel A Watt who was an official secretary at Australia House. The photo’s taken in 1963.
Okay. The Library’s oral history interviews and personal paper collections have provided particularly interesting material for me in learning about the practices of the Library in building up its collections in the 1960s. The stories for example of Clive Burmester who was eventually to become Chief Reference Officer and for the last few years of his career, Assistant National Librarian, and of Pauline Fanning who held a number of positions during her long career in the Library including briefly as Director, Australian National Humanities Library, reveal and draw attention to what at one level could be seen as the serendipitous nature of collection-building, particularly in the years immediately after the second world war and into the 1960s.
Graham Powell has also documented this carefully in the cases of for example Alfred Deakin and the Henry Richardson papers. He demonstrates the involvement of a large number of individuals and networks of relationships in the pursuit of and negotiations of gaining these collections, of course the role of serendipity.
I’ve got a photo of Pauline Fanning. Must be standing next to Malcolm Fraser, Sir Arthur Tang, on her right, and George Sandler who was at that time the Director of the National Library.
So to talk about serendipity in these processes does not mean that we were – that they were by any means simply ad hoc. There was a great skill, knowledge and judgment involved as was the case with the more routine practices such as carefully scanning published catalogues of collections on a regular basis. But I'm interested too in the way in which often the personal characteristics of librarians and their ability to get on or in some cases not with certain key donors of particular formed collections were important as was the case with the famed Petherick collection. Being in the right place at the right time played an important role in Clive Burmester gaining the trust of Leon [Cashnel] 44:39 to bring his collection of 17th and 18th century political and economic manuscripts from London to the Library as was his having a personal interest in economic and political history. And networks of relationships and the presence of the Library’s liaison office in London were crucial while negotiations went on for almost 40 years to build the now outstanding Henry Handel Richardson Collection.
So the Library was collecting a broad range of materials, particularly after the war but it had been developing an Australian collection ever since the early 1900s. It became more focused on this in the 1920s when it acquired the Cook’s Journal and other related manuscripts. This focus intensified after the second world war. So too the interest in Asia grew, sparked in part, according to Burmester at least, by the handover of Japanese materials to the Library confiscated when these - Japanese embassy was closed during the war. I really want to hear if anyone else knows more about that story. And more generally by the issues faced by Australia during that period.
From 1951 an exhaustive collection of Indonesian publications commenced and within two years the Library had committed to the development of major collections in Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages. Meantine serendipity still prevailed when as is probably well-known to many in this audience on several occasions Harold White as National Librarian in the 1950s and ‘60s appealed to the intellectual interests of Prime Ministers of the time, primarily Robert Menzies, to acquire special publications that had become available such as the Magna Carta and the Nichol Smith in 18th century collection. But obviously he’d also succeeded with Gorton about this particular John Ferguson collection.
Well up until approximately the 1950s the Library’s active and opportunistic collection-building processes put it in advance of local researchers according to Burmester. Increasingly from about 1956 however the growing strength of the research profile of the Australian National University began to test the research resources of the Library and indeed the interest in the Library of scholars outside the Canberra region, he says, was also on the increase.
Moves began to be made for a more systematic approach to acquisition policy in the early 1960s within the National Library itself and through encouraging more collaboration among the main research libraries. Harold White initiated a conference on source materials for Australian studies in Canberra in 1961 with 24 institutions represented and 44 attendees. It was a key moment for the National Library as it increasingly took a leadership role nationally but also as it – in its encouraging libraries to develop a more coordinated approach when competition for collection and particular texts and objects were starting to create significant challenges for them all.
It was not all sweet accord in this meeting, with disagreements in particular about whether it was best to limit the number of collecting bodies or whether the more the merrier was best but agreement was reached that institutions should inform each other about their current programs of collecting and current fields and that it was in the national interest of the work of location and collecting and reducing to proper custody Australian source material should be actively and energetically developed.
So I’ve sketched out here then in a very brief description of what I’ve been learning about in terms of just some of the key features of collection practices in the Library in the years leading up to and during the 1960s. I’ve drawn attention to the importance of an element of serendipity involved in collection-building during this period which of course still plays a role today as well as the more customary practices of collection-building. Both were about a set of judgements of value and intellectual interests that were being played out and exercised in a highly skilful manner by the Library staffs and in doing so they were creating and delivering on a knowledge-making role in the humanities, not just locally but nationally and internationally. They provided the resources but their judgement, skills, knowledge and patience contributed crucially too to the focus of and the way in which scholarly or advanced research could be conducted and to the sorts of stories that could be told through the materials collected.
The Library’s practices also contributed to and shaped humanities scholarship in several other fundamental ways at this particular historical moment. As the Library developed its connections it was strengthening a sense of itself as a research library. Harold White signalled the importance of this understanding of the Library as early as 1956 in his submission to the Paton Committee. The Library, he said, has become conscious of its responsibility as a centre of scholarly research.
This development coincided with humanities scholars in Australian universities starting to pay more attention to research themselves and to understand themselves as doing research rather than scholarship. They were increasingly to understand themselves as doing research projects and beginning to apply for research funds from the newly established Australian Research Grants Committee. Crucially too they began to see research as being something that you might do in Australia rather than overseas.
The very formation of the Australian Humanities Research Council signalled the shift in conceptualising knowledge-making and the humanities as research. Its reports, The Humanities in Australia, provided a detailed analysis of research in a wide range of fields documenting recent developments as well as some of the barriers to growth. The report noticed the major increase in research projects that had begun to be undertaken after the war and of course the establishment of the Australian National University in 1946 as a research even at university even if it did not have a research school focusing specifically on the humanities began as I noted earlier to increase interest in the library collections amongst humanities researchers.
Networks of – I’m going on a bit long, aren’t I? I’ve just got a couple more pages to – nearly finished. Networks of academics and librarians at this time often worked together on the development of and creating greater interest in collections such as through the joint biennial Nichol Smith Seminar of the Library and the ANU on 18th Century Studies that commenced in 1966. The Library also encouraged academics travelling overseas to keep their eyes open for potential collections to the Library. And in focusing on Australiana and increasingly on collections relating to the Asia-Pacific region the Library was not only making research in these areas possible but being at the forefront of this development as it had been the case with Australiana.
The emergence of a great national research library in the 1960s contributed centrally, I’m arguing then, to the growing profile and a new sense of authority for humanities research at this time and it was actively involved in determining the focus of that research. The networks of relationships and practices are forming as collections were as important as the activities of those involved in researching and writing about collections.
The sight of scholars working quietly in the Library provided too an arena in which humanities research could be seen to be performed much like the modern laboratory was increasingly to be used to signify what scientific research looked like. As I have indicated I’m interested in making these practices of humanities scholars more visible but I want to demonstrate too that the practices of a public research library which are often conducted behind closed doors of the Library’s work spaces should also be recognised clearly as essential to humanities research, that they are part of what humanities research looks like.
In conclusion then we need to acknowledge and indeed celebrate how the spaces and practices of the Library like this one have been crucial in retaining in recent years key elements of a particular cult of knowledge-making of the humanities, that it’s shaped and strengthened in exciting ways in the 1960s and then into the 1970s. I hope my very brief history has pointed to some of the ways in which it played this role in the knowledge produced and the authority attached to it as well as forming the habits of mind and sense of self associated with this culture.
It is this which helps me understand the depth of attachments that people including myself have to a building like this one. And the National Library in recent decades of course has been highly skilled in adapting to and leading once again new ways of thinking and making the humanities but that’s another story. Thank you.
M: Thank you very much for that, Lesley, and in fact I'm sure for many of my Library colleagues in the room I can feel my head nodding too much ‘cause one of the great joys of working in an institution like this is that you are so conscious all the time of the practices of those who went before you and they’re physically very present in our work spaces and in our records, in how we go about doing our work and the very furniture that we have around us so it’s lovely to feel that alignment with what you’ve been unearthing from our archives.
Now we do have some time for some questions tonight so I don’t think anybody minds that Lesley went a little bit over time, I just wanted more so any questions from the floor?
L: Or any corrections to my –
M: Any corrections? Any corrections? It’s always –
A: <inaudible> 55:17.
L: That comment was made by Keith Hancock who was talking particularly about PhD students and the way in which they just simply weren’t doing PhDs in Australia but he was talking more generally as well about researchers. But sort of connected in a sense to your point was one of the things that I didn’t realise until I was starting to listen to some of the oral history tapes and people were talking about the beginnings of ANU and in fact in this tape with Hancock where he’s actually talking about Mark Oliphant, he’s talking about how much the ANU were set up to stop the brain drain and I thought that was a sort of phrase that we used in the 1980s and ‘90s but sort of a – so a similar thing, that there was a sense in which you’re sort of turning Australia back to sort of be in Australia but then also still having a very global perspective. But I mean I think you’re right too that like there’s a way in which in this project I could just get totally stuck in the 1960s because there’s just so much going on if you think about all the sorts of key texts in the humanities that are coming at that time, sort of the key developments. I know the Music Library starts in the 1970s? ’68?
A: <inaudible> 57:52.
L: Yeah so there’s just so many things where – I mean it’s part of a particular sort of nation formation sort of building sort of set of activities and obviously have some sort of particular issues because of that but nevertheless yeah, it is very interesting for that reason and the way in which the – to me the National Library is giving voice to the idea of the humanities in the national interest but in a very different way than we now have to think about the national interest so it’s sort of about nation formation, not about sort of economic benefits and so on.
A: <inaudible> 58:37.
L: I mean I don’t know how much I’ll be going into detail about particular collections ‘cause there is so much there to do but I certainly want to continue on that sort of process of just trying to document the practices which I <inaudible> 59:37 in a sense know but I think it’s also – it’s the fact that people sort of outside the librarian community don’t know and don’t actually recognise that – sort of how central they are to the production of this knowledge so – but I mean I’m interested in you sort of talking about your PhD, sort of one of the things that struck me is that how much people won’t have realised when they were coming into the Library say in the 1980s how recent all of this has been in building up this just massive collection and one of the things that I was reading in the book edited by Peter Cochrane on the Library, Remarkable Occurrences, and David Walker was talking about the Asian collection and he talks about Bernard Smith and the use of the Asia-Pacific collection here and you realise just – like that was so new when he was working on that collection, I’d never thought – I know that book was very innovative in terms of its scholarship and its argument but I’d never thought that actually he was relying on something that had just come into the Library very recently so yeah.
A: <inaudible> 00:45.
L: Yeah, no, that’s a really interesting – ‘cause I was thinking about it when I was using the term serendipity because – and I know that’s very much the case in humanities research that you know the serendipity’s crucial but so is it in science you know sort of the scientists are always talking about the things that sort of they discovered by all sorts of weird and wonderful bases and yet everything about their current research system and the ARC sort of is trying to work against that serendipity but they never do. I mean I know with my ARC grant you know sort of the more I get into the project the more I’m going to have to focus it and – but I think that’s fine you know they also do sort of really rely on the experience of the researcher to be able to produce something which is good. So yes, I think the combination of the serendipity is fascinating and the extent to which people understand the way in which the Library collections have been built, I'm not so sure – there are certain famed collections where there's sort of almost myths around them but other than that people might not necessarily understand why they’re there, yeah.
A: <inaudible> 2:22.
L: That’s a crucial – and in fact sort of just in what I’ve been doing so far the crossovers between all the institutions is just extraordinary so Grenville Price is hugely important in the development of the Australian Humanities Research Council and then on into the Academy of Humanities, all his positions so – but he’s also the Chair of the Library Council. I don’t know whether he has any role in the Humanities Research Centre but you never know. So - and people like [Trendor] 3:51 who was obviously the – at the head of the University House, is central in the Library, is central in Academy of Humanities. Grenville Price and [Trendor] both have very strong relationships with the Prime Minister, Menzies, and that’s crucial in terms of what happens and so on so I think yeah, networks are absolutely fundamental and I’m sort of starting to track them as much as I can, yeah.
I mean the oral history interviews with the librarians are actually fascinating about the beginnings of Canberra too because the ones that I’ve been listening to particularly come to Canberra in the 1930s, they’re young people, they’re trying to find a way to live and it’s sort of quite interesting them talking about what their life was like in the 1930s so I’ve been listening to my – thanks to Shelley – I’ve been listening to these oral history interviews on a little iPod Shuffle as I walk to the Library each morning and because you’re doing that you can actually sort of take the time to listen to the whole interview and you get all this detail that’s not actually relevant in some ways to my project but still gives you a sense of Canberra so yeah, I should talk to you about Canberra.
M: We will have an opportunity for more chat afterwards so just before we finish off though there’s actually three things I’d like to do before we thank Lesley again. One is to make a plug for our very last fellowship lecture of the year which will be Dr Frances Steel next Tuesday night revealing her research which is actually on the history of refrigeration in the Pacific, moving things around in refrigerated ships etc under the banner, Tropical Cool so I think that’s one that – I can’t be here, I’m just not sure that where I will be next Tuesday evening will be tropical cool so – but – so do come along next Tuesday. The second thing is – Lesley slightly stole my thunder which is to say that Robyn is retiring formally tomorrow and of course Robyn’s been at the helm of the fellowships program for the last several – yeah, six – yeah, that’s right so I know that she'll be a very familiar face to our audience and will be much missed by our fellows and you who attend so thank you to Robyn for that and we know that she’s going to turn up as an audience member but there’s actually another group of people whose work you don’t see.
When you see the end product of our fellows coming and talking here they often of course acknowledge the assistance of Library staff which is very real and extensive and in fact Library staff do a lot of research to assess applications to see whether they actually match up with our collections but there’s another group of people that you never hear about and that is our selection panels. So we have 16 individuals who sit on our selection panels for our Fellowships Advisory Committee which also selects our summer scholars for our creative fellowships, for our folk fellowship and for our Asian study grants. One of those people is in the room with us right now so Ingrid, take a bow and in fact four of those 16 individuals actually operate in two of our panels and if you could see the piles, the huge folders of applications that go to our panels who are almost all very senior researchers and understand the care with which they kind of look at all of these wonderful applications and make the terrible decision to choose 10 from a possible 45 fantastic applicants, I think you’d also thank me because they’re also part of this story about bringing this scholarship into this Library where we can put those collections and the scholars together in a really unique way.
So on behalf of all those panel members I’d like to thank Ingrid and everybody else so – but most importantly tonight we really want to thank Lesley for a fantastic insight into where we’ve come from and it’s about time that somebody started really interrogating the practices of collection-building. I’ve long said how come you never ask any questions about how we do our work? Do you trust us that much? Anyway thank you very much, Lesley. I’ll ask you to join me in thanking Lesley and come and continue to have a chat afterwards so –
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