Peter Read (b. 1945) was born in Sydney and educated at Knox Grammar School, the Australian National University, the University of Toronto and the University of Bristol. He was a schoolteacher in Canberra and London and in 1976-78 he was a curriculum research officer in the Northern Territory Department of Education. After gaining his doctorate in 1984, he held a number of teaching and research positions in the Faculties and the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. He gained a professorship in 2002 and in 2005-6 he was Deputy Director at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies. He is currently Research Professor in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. In 2003 he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Read is the author of:

A hundred years war: the Wiradjuri people and the state (1988)

Charles Perkins; a biography (1990)

Long time, olden time: Aboriginal accounts of Northern Territory history (with Jay Read, 1991)

Returning to nothing; the meaning of lost places (1996)

A rape of the soul so profound; the return of the stolen generations (1999)

Belonging; Australians, place and Aboriginal ownership (2000)

Haunted earth (2003)

He was the editor of the journal Aboriginal History in 1989-90.

In 1980 Read and Coral Edwards founded Link-Up, an organisation which sought to re-unite Aborigines who had been separated from their families by State wardship and adoption. He was the first historian to use the term ‘Stolen Generations’, in an occasional paper entitled The stolen generations; the removal of Aboriginal children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969 (1982). Much of his historical research was carried out in government archives, but he considered it equally important to go out into the country and meet the people who were in the records. He has been using oral sources since 1977, when he and his wife Jay Read collected Aboriginal accounts of Northern Territory history. In an interview in 2000 he said ‘I’ve always been a historian who carries a tape recorder wherever I go. And I think if we all carried a tape recorder we’d all be much more passionate than we are because we just don’t know what’s going on in a community until you talk to its people’.


In 1989 Peter Read donated to the Library his oral history collection relating to Charles Perkins. It was followed by the small ‘Mental Maps’ collection in 1991. The ‘Seven Years On’ project began in 1995, with financial and technical support by the Library, and recordings have been received from Read every year up to the present. Read presented his manuscripts and papers to the Library under the Taxation Incentives for the Arts Scheme in 1991, 1994 and 1998.


Oral History

In 1988-89, while writing his biography of the Aboriginal activist and public servant Charles Perkins (1936-2000), Read recorded 42 interviews (111 reels). The interviewees recalled his childhood, his prowess as a soccer player, the ‘freedom ride’ into western New South Wales in 1965, and his work as Chair of the Aboriginal Development Commission (1981-84) and Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (1984-88). As well as interviews with Perkins himself, the collection includes interviews with Shirley Andrews, Gordon Briscoe, Jean Blackburn, Bob Collins, Manfred Cross, Don Dunstan, Clyde Holding, Fred Hollows, Lois O’Donoghue, Don O’Rourke, Neville Perkins, Grant Tambling and Colin Tatz.

In 1989 Perkins proposed a ‘Mental Maps’ project to record how people form mental maps, the effects of migration on their lives, the consequences of destruction of important sites associated with their lives, and the interaction between events and significant country. It did not progress beyond a pilot project, consisting of 12 interviews (69 reels) with individuals who lived in or near Canberra.

The ‘Seven Years On’ project, which commenced in 1995, has focussed on emerging Aboriginal leaders. The interviews have mostly been undertaken jointly by Read and Jackie Huggins. The intention was that after seven years each participant would record a second interview, discussing changes in their lives and their attitudes. The 77 interviewees have included archaeologists, a broadcaster, a dancer, a footballer, film makers, historians, lawyers, lecturers, liaison officers, a museum curator, a park ranger, photographers, public servants, social workers, students, teachers, writers and youth workers. Since 2002, 50 of the interviewees who were first recorded between 1995 and 2001 have done second interviews. Larissa Behrendt, Anita Heiss, Jackie Huggins, Ricky Maynard, Darryl Pearce, Aden Ridgeway and Sonia Smallacombe are a few examples.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation project, which began in 2005, has also been carried out by Read and Jackie Huggins. So far they have recorded interviews with ten former members of the Council, which was set up in 1991. They have included Rick Farley, Mary Graham, Bill Lowah, Sir Gustav Nossall and Ian Viner.


The papers of Peter Read, which date from 1973-98, mostly relate to three of his books: Charles Perkins; a biography, Long time, olden time and Returning to nothing; the meaning of lost places. They include early and final drafts, readers’ comments, photographs, correspondence, reviews and newspaper cuttings.


The Peter Read oral histories are held in the Oral History Collection. The Charles Perkins recordings are kept together at ORAL TRC 2303 and the ‘Mental Maps’ recordings at ORAL TRC 2673; the reminder are at various locations. They have been catalogued individually. Many of the recordings are held under restricted access.

The papers of Peter Read are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 8430. They occupy ten boxes. A nine page finding-aid is available online at Parts of the collection are restricted.

Related collections

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies holds a very substantial collection of oral history interviews of Peter Read. They were recorded in the Northern Territory and New South Wales between 1975 and 1988. The AIATSIS Library also holds photographs collected by Read.


Nicholls, Ruth, The potentialities of oral history: the ‘Seven Years On’ project’, National Library of Australia News, vol. 13 (9), June 2003, pp. 12-14

Warden, Ian, Pain of losing places, people, Canberra Times, 16 April 2000, p. 11

First posted 2008 (revised 2019)