State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 38 Spring 1986


The Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union Archive as a Source for The History of Science and The History of The Environment

“There is often a gap in our descriptive account of the sciences. Historians of science rarely come within fifty years of the present, whilst scientists themselves generally regard any paper that is more than five years old as of historic interest only.”
George Seddon1
Seddon's point is that the day before yesterday is the least regarded and least understood of historical periods. It might be added that in the history of science the area of overlap between professional and amateur is the least studied zone. Most sciences advance by progressive detachment from casual observation and speculation. To progress they deny much of their past. But the field sciences are not in practice so antiseptic. They operate in a context originally described by amateurs and continue to use and even solicit the help of amateurs in assembling data. A significant fraction of their professional labour goes into organising survey teams of spare-time observers and processing results which would be too labour-intensive for professionals to think of collecting themselves. Ornithology is a prime example. Its history is a compound of bird-watching and science with much of its active phase falling within the ‘Seddon Gap’. In addition it is willy-nilly a political science, unavoidably involved in conservation in the sense of trying constantly to rescue its subject matter from the ravages of economic change.
The chief administrative organ for ornithology in this country is the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union (RAOU). This was founded in 1901, commendably early for a national body, with the aims of promoting the study of ornithology, advancing its popularisation and taking the initiative in protecting the birds of the Australasian region.2 The RAOU was conceived as both a scientific society and a conservation organisation. In our present day climate of environmental awareness such a blend of interests may seem highly compatible, but at the time of founding it was an ambitious attempt to reconcile a post-Darwinian thirst for taxonomic knowledge in a scientifically-challenging continent with the increasingly urgent need to protect vulnerable elements of the avifauna.
Recognizing the significance of its history, the Council of the RAOU in 1971 responded favourably to a proposal to establish an Archive put forward by its Librarian, Tess Kloot. The Council recognized that “an organisation which has been in existence for over seventy years acquires a degree of historical perspective.”3 It had also acquired a not inconsiderable, though patchy, bulk of administrative papers. The value of archival material had become apparent to Mrs. Kloot soon after launching a project of her own to compile bio-bibliographies of recent Australian ornithologists in order to up-date the massive work by Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds.4 She needed to locate records held by individuals and institutions and inserted a request for material in the RAOU Newsletter.
The response was such that Mrs. Kloot felt moved to give up her post as Librarian and take up the specially-created post of Archivist. Her own historical work thereupon split into two separate, although related, projects. The bio-bibliographical research continued in the effort to extend (and emend) Whittell's work, which had covered the period from the earliest discoverers to 1950, for the years 1950–1975. The general archival search became a full ‘Ornithological Archives in Australia” project under the auspices of the RAOU.5 Arrangements were made for the material to be lodged with the La Trobe Library within the State Library of Victoria. Details of each deposit have thereafter been listed in a “Catalogue of Australian Ornithological Archive Material” which is in effect an accessions register. A note of recent deposits is published from time to time in the RAOU Newsletter.6 These arrangements continue, although Mrs. Kloot retired as Archivist in 1984, being succeeded by one of us (ELJ).
At the time of writing [July 1986], holdings for sixty individuals or groups of individuals, besides the RAOU's own very extensive papers, have been accessioned under name of donor. Most of the material was originally collected by donors still living, but some relates to ornithologists and bird-watchers now dead. Many are key figures in past and present Australian ornithology and the archive is thus an important research resource.
From the outset it was apparent that the term ‘archival’ would be interpreted by donors in the widest sense. The holdings now exhibit the full range of manuscript material: diaries, journals, notebooks, correspondence, essays, bibliographies, reference lists, lecture notes, unpublished papers, drafts of published papers, and manuscript poems; scrapbooks containing pamphlets, leaflets, cuttings, reviews, reprints and ephemeral printed material such as notices and membership cards; field data such as expedition reports, distribution maps and species lists; artwork and graphics such as coloured plates, drawings, maps and diagrams; photographic material in the form of films, slides and photographs in numbers; and sound recordings on gramophone records, tapes and cassettes. There are even some physical artefacts in the form of a nest of specially-designed leather boxes for birds’ eggs, real period pieces now that (we hope) oology is no longer an active hobby or pseudo-science.
Some of the documentary holdings are single items; it should not be implied that every topic is covered exhaustively. But many themes and episodes are treated thoroughly, occurring as they do amidst the accumulated paperwork of a lifetime, running sometimes to scores of folders or several large library storage boxes. Lists of the major contents of each deposit are given in the catalogue, copies of which are held at the State Library, in the RAOU Library at the Union's headquarters, 21 Gladstone Street, Moonee Ponds, and by the current RAOU Archivist. It should be stressed that there is seldom a detailed listing since the material is so various and extensive that this could only be carried out by a full-time professional archivist.
There are also holdings from six institutions which form individual collections: the Bird Observers Club; the State Fisheries and Game Department (under various names); the International Ornithological Congress, Canberra, 1974; the McCoy Society (University of Melbourne); the South Australia Museum; and the RAOU itself. Of these the Union's own archive is the most extensive. It comprises committee, working party and editorial papers and minutes, correspondence, accounts, articles of constitution, trust papers, notices, circulars, scientific day and excursion details, membership lists and photographs, together making up an extensive record of many of the RAOU's activities. The International Ornithological Congress archive is substantial, being the most complete source relating to any of these congresses. The Canberra congress files cover the rôle of the RAOU as host organisation, its advisory committees, the preliminary arrangements, congress accommodation, budgeting and finance, the scientific programme, excursions, exhibits and displays, patronage, social functions, press releases and the editing of the proceedings.
As with the private deposits, which sometimes contain nineteenth-century material, the period covered by the institutional archives in general is a long one. Obviously there is a weighting towards the past two or three decades, when in any case there have been more birdwatchers and ornithologists and the concerns of the RAOU and other bodies have become more varied, but the material is here for a surprisingly full history since at least the Great War. There is, incidentally, a little British material included, since so many of the active people in this field have been immigrants. The most important papers of this kind are those among the many letter files of Dominic Serventy relating to international figures such as the late W. B. Alexander, who returned to the Edward Grey Institute for Field Ornithology at Oxford, and the late David Lack, a subsequent Director of that Institute. New Zealand and Papua New Guinea are scarcely represented and the RAOU would not now normally seek to draw their documents to Melbourne. Among the Australian states Victoria is disproportionately represented because the RAOU is based here, but Queensland and Western Australia are particularly well represented too.
The research potential of the whole assemblage can be categorised under four headings: the history of science and natural history, or more properly the borderland between them; systematics; conservation; and ecological history. For the first of these, in particular for developments relating to the development of the science of ecology, the collection is a rich source of illustrative ornithological examples or case studies.
The vastness of Australia, its late settlement, and its small, highly urban and very unevenly distributed population have conspired to elevate and sustain the role of the amateur and this is well displayed in the records. So little had been done by way of inventorying Australian birdlife until the last few decades, and so much remains to be done, that spare-time observation was and remains indispensable. The pure hobbyist aspect of birdwatching is also well exemplified, although individuals who kept records are bound to have been at the more serious end of the spectrum. The growth of the professional organisation of ornithology, the wielding of armies of amateur watchers, as in the massive
RAOU Atlas of Australian Birds project, and the whole sociology of a middle class club are all recoverable in some detail from the documents.
An important use of archives as a source for the history of natural history relates to charting the evolution of “research” methodologies. This has been demonstrated by one of us [PJD] from an examination of similar holdings in the United Kingdom.7 Different historical phases, lasting in the present case for perhaps only a couple of decades, are characterized by different styles of approach. It is usually a simple matter to detect the flavour of each period because this is evident in the major printed works. The research strategy, the concerns of the time and precisely how they were tackled, may however be harder to establish, since published work generally represents only a fraction of the working documentation. The selection and editing of material for publication notoriously tends to eliminate or mask methodological detail. This can only be reconstructed after the event by reference to what Price has called the “total manuscript background,” i.e. the surviving unpublished documents.8 There are several examples in the RAOU collection of extensive working documentation that formed the basis of key publications. Some of these sets of papers have immediate historical value; others, relating to more recent publications, are the raw materials for future historical interpretation.
Most documentation relating to the systematics of the Australian flora and fauna is held in state and national museums both here and overseas. The importance of this material has recently been highlighted by Kohlstedt.9 She noted that inaccessibility and inadequate cataloguing make it an underused resource. The systematist has two main sources of information — the specimens and the literature relating to them. The interplay between the two may be crucial. In future examinations of museum holdings for data relating to important taxonomic issues in ornithology, where the Australian avifauna has a strategic place, researchers ought to be aware that the RAOU collection may contain additional information. This is particularly so in the case of rare, critical and type specimens for which, it has been declared, “the missing of a single, obscure reference can have severe consequences for nomenclature and lead to endless misunderstandings.”10 Nowhere is this more pertinent than in Australasia, where early systematists attempted to fit their findings into pre-conceived northern hemisphere models. Although the most eccentric manifestations of this had largely been overcome by the twentieth century, the collection does contain correspondence relating to certain contentious specimens.
The collection also represents a finely-calibrated barometer which marks changes in the pressure of opinion about conservation. The RAOU has always been concerned with conservational issues, long before the present mass public backing for the conservation movement, and documents survive on both the shifting and the enduring problems in this area. The decline of egg collecting and the rise of field photography — the inversion of their positions — is clearly evidenced. Valuable collections of early bird photographs, many with technical details appended, provide in addition an index of technological change in natural history photography.
Ecological history is concerned with the human modification of ecosystems and the economic implications of the changes. Australia is a prime arena for this subject, with so many land-use changes and other interventions crowded into the very short period since white settlement. There have been several major studies of these processes, but mainly by historical geographers who have not paid detailed attention to the impact of settlement on the biological component of the environment nor the feedbacks on human settlement and the economy. These feedbacks are twofold: (i) increased agricultural productivity through a general “taming” of the environment, e.g. in the present case the reduction of the numbers of certain groups of birds (grain eaters or birds of prey) competitive with man's interests; and (ii) disruptions of production owing to eruptions of particular species as pests in the monocultural habitats created.
In Australia, as Wynn has observed, “no recent work has considered the details of man's impact upon the soils, vegetation, terrain and ecology of a small area.”11 Long-term patterns are usually apparent only from a synthesis of different types of data. While it would not be correct to say that the RAOU collection is of major importance for ecological history, it does contain some pertinent material and is an unexploited source for the deciphering of changes in the birdlife of a number of areas whose local watchers have deposited their records.
Historical ecology is concerned with changes in the status and distribution of organisms without regard for the implications for human society. As field-based studies of breeding biology, population density and avian ecology as a whole are relatively recent developments, long-term changes in status and distribution can be assessed only from reconstructions
using the primary historical record. Work of this kind is not easy because the data relating to individual species are often scattered and only a portion will find their way into any archive.
Care must be taken in extrapolating the previous, historical status of a species from a present-day baseline, since some species have a greater ability than others to adapt to change and this may not be fully reflected in a partial documentary record.12 Nevertheless the research is often worth undertaking because the information obtained, when coupled with historically-based knowledge of past habitats, may have an important bearing on conservation policy and the management of endangered species.
As with all archival material there are practical problems here of use, historical interpretation and confidentiality. These have only been touched on in a few instances in this article and in no case have we attempted to discuss them at length. Our aims have been to bring the RAOU collection to the notice of a wider range of users and to point out its potential for research into aspects of the history of science, the environment and conservation. The RAOU welcomes users who would like to explore the resources of its collection.




G. Seddon, ‘Xerophytes, xeromorphs and sclerophylls: the history of some concepts in ecology.’ Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 6 (1974): 65–87.


For a detailed account of the events leading to the foundation of the RAOU and its early history see D. J. Dickison, ‘The first fifty years of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union 1901–1951'. Emu 51: 185–284. For an outline history of the Union see the four part series in RAOU Newsletter 47 (1981): 6–7; 48 (1981): 6–7; 49 (1981): 6–7 and 50 (1981): 6–7.


RAOU Newsletter 7 (1971): 2.


H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds: A History and a Bibliography of Australian Ornithology, Perth: Paterson Brokensha Pty. Ltd. 1954.


T. Kloot, ‘The establishment of ornithological archives in Australia’, The Australian Birdwatcher 7 (1978): 216–221.


RAOU Newsletter 5 (1970): 4; 7 (1971): 2; 10 (1972): 1; 18 (1974): 7–8; 29 (1976): 1; 31 (1977): 4; 45 (1980): 4; 49 (1981): 12; 58 (1983): 10–11; 60 (1984), et seq.


P. J. Dillon, ‘Natural History manuscripts in Devizes Museum’, Wilts. Arch. & Nat. Hist. Mag. 78 (1984): 105–113.


J. H. Price, ‘The un-natural selection of manuscripts or better late than never’, Archives of Natural History 10 (1981): 365–75.


History of Australian Science Newsletter 2 (1983): 1–2.


P. J. P. Whitehead, ‘Storage and retrieval of information in systematic zoology’, Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 3 (1971): 211–20.


G. Wynn, ‘Discovering the antipodes. A review of historical geography in Australia and New Zealand, 1969–1975 with a bibliography’, J. Hist. Geog. 3 (1977): 251–265.


E. L. Jones, ‘Reconstructing former bird communities’, Forth Naturalist and Historian 6 (1981): 101–106.


The work of one of us [PJD] was supported by a British Academy Research Award. We would like to thank Tess Kloot and Michael Tarrant for commenting on early drafts of this paper.