State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989

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Introduction

This special issue of the La Trobe Library Journal surveys recent developments in the telling of Aboriginal history, and focuses on some of the sources of these new perspectives of the past. The last twenty years in Australia have witnessed a revolution in Aboriginal studies. The antiquity of Aboriginal occupation of Australia has been pushed back tens of thousands of years, and a new understanding of the post-European resilience of Aboriginal culture has emerged. ‘Kooris', as southeastern Australian Aborigines prefer to be called, are now publicly claiming, and generating, their own history. Many of the things once suppressed or explained away — such as cross-cultural warfare, or the survival of Aboriginal identity in urban society — have now become subjects of intense study. It is a demonstration of how changed sensitivities and new scholarly purposes can unearth strange facts from familiar records — and can lead to the discovery and creation of new historical sources. This volume draws attention to that process, as it is reflected in the collections of a major library.
The State Library of Victoria, as a repository of our documentary record, both charts these changes and responds to them. There is a social purpose behind the creation and preservation of any individual record, oral or written. The collection of contemporary and historical sources, in which the State Library of Victoria is energetically involved, is not a value-free activity. The prevailing concerns of scholarship and the patterns of popular historical understanding powerfully determine the nature of the documents sought by the Library as well as those donated to it. Researchers are amongst the Library's greatest benefactors: what they are studying dictates what is preserved. What the wider public regards as significant is what is donated. Many valuable sources are lost through neglect or ignorance. Others are deliberately destroyed. One alarming response to the new perspectives in Aboriginal studies is the whisper that in parts of Australia today, historical records of frontier life are being destroyed out of wariness and fear. Perhaps they are pastoral diaries which have been culled or scribbled over, perhaps they are letters burnt, or log-books slipped into bins. The threat is seen to come from a new wave of history which, some people believe, seeks to cast a condemnatory shadow over the white pioneers. The history of the shaping of the historical record is a revealing part of history itself. The articles in this volume begin to tell that neglected story and make the sources their focus — how and why were they preserved, and by whom? What are the peculiarities of the source, and how might researchers use it?
It is an appropriate time for the State Library to reflect upon its role in recording Koori history. In April/May 1989, the Library is the venue for a visiting exhibition on Aboriginal involvement in the Australian Army, entitled Too Dark for the Light Horse and compiled by David Huggonson of the Aboriginal Development Commission.
There is another, more fundamental, reason for the timing of this issue. Since 1987 the State Library of Victoria has been the host institution for the Koori Oral History Program, an initiative of Aborigines and funded by the Ministry for Planning and Environment. Some details of the project are provided here, together with a transcript of one of its recordings, constituting the first publication of the Program. Throughout, we have adopted the spelling of ‘Koori’ (often spelt ‘Koorie') preferred by organisers of the Program because of its simpler, phonetic representation of the Aboriginal word. Richard Broome's article, ‘Why Use Koori?', explains the word's origins and emergence.
This volume, then, begins with a contemporary Aboriginal voice. It is some small balance to what follows: a series of brief studies of sources created and preserved by whites. It is by no means a comprehensive survey of the Library's sources in this field. Many significant collections are not mentioned. The articles represent the range of material held by the Library: interviews and recordings, manuscripts, photographs, paintings, newspapers, journals, books and ephemera. They are organised into three very broadly defined chronological sections. The first gathers together some sources of the squatting age in Victoria, up to the discovery of gold, and covering the years of the Aboriginal Protectorate. The second looks at some mid to late nineteenth century sources, created when European dominance had become unquestioned, and the Aborigines were widely regarded as a dying race. The third addresses twentieth century sources, with particular attention to European interest in Aboriginal art, and the emerging political voice of Kooris.
Some of the sources tell us much more about European attitudes to Aborigines, than about the culture they were observing, but that is part of the story. Some offer valued glimpses of the Aboriginal experience of white occupation. Some of the sources have just been acquired by the Library. Other are well-known. In a few cases, the originals are held by other institutions. We hope that this volume will lead to further acquisitions by the Library of sources for Aboriginal studies, particularly in areas of existing weakness in the collection. These include twentieth century images of Aborigines, and the historical and contemporary testimony of Kooris themselves. The Library would like to hear from readers with assistance and advice about possible sources, as well as those with a response to the ideas presented here.