‘An Interest in Australian Literature’

My husband used to tell people I got paid to read newspapers. While that is true, it’s not the whole truth. This is the story of my AustLit career which began – and ended – with newspapers.

In April 1994, an advertisement appeared in the employment pages of The Canberra Times announcing two vacancies for part-time database indexers. (The ad actually said the positions were for ‘indexes’, but I overlooked that typo.) Applicants needed ‘an interest in Australian literature’ and ‘a general education to Year 12’. Applications had to be handwritten.

Advertisement, The Canberra Times, 16 April 1994

My background was in teaching and librarianship, not indexing, but I was an avid reader, and I certainly met the educational requirements. I decided to give it a shot. Happily, I was successful.

Colonial mindsets vs contemporary understandings

Cover of the first issue of The Lone Hand, illustrated by Norman Lindsay

In my early days with AustLit (then known as AUSTLIT), I was based at the National Library of Australia, charged with indexing the Australian literary content of late 19th and early 20th century newspapers such as The Lone Hand.

Slowly, the names of poets, short story writers and book reviewers became familiar – Roderic Quinn, Mabel Forrest, Hugh McCrae and Edward Dyson joined those I already knew (Henry Lawson, Norman Lindsay, Mary Gilmore and Dorothea Mackellar).

My ‘interest in Australian literature’ was expanding and I welcomed it. What was less welcome was immersing myself in the mindset shared by many authors from Australia’s colonial past.

I found it unsettling to read and index essays extolling the virtues of the White Australia policy. Here is Mary Gilmore, for example, writing in 1914: ‘If the white races are to stay white there must be no blacklegs among them. There must be one solid, single nation, for if a breach is once made nothing can ever close it, or stay the tide that in time will replace every white man by a half-caste … It is to-day that the white peoples have it in their power to say whether they will keep out Asia till she is more civilised in the white way’ (‘A World’s Union’ by Mary Gilmore, The Lone Hand, 1 June 1914, p.37).

And how to respond to a story that makes casual reference to violence against women? Try teasing out the complex layers in ‘Challabilloo’s Suffragette’ in which news of the suffragette movement is shared around an all-male campfire. The ‘outrages’ of Emmeline Pankhurst’s ‘violent sisterhood’ are detailed along with the claim: ‘Those women in England stop at nothing short of murder … Strong measures have to be taken to deal with them’. An Aboriginal station hand, Challabilloo, who has listened to the story, later discovers his wife has broken a custom at corrobboree. In response, he gives her ‘one big fella beenya (violent beating)’, determined she won’t become a suffragette. (The word used to signify Challabilloo’s identity as an indigenous person would not be printed in any 21st century newspaper.) (‘Challabilloo’s Suffragette’ by Arthur Nash, The Lone Hand, 1 August 1914, p.226)

Part of my task as an indexer was to encapsulate the essence of these essays and stories without imposing my own views or judgements. At the same time, I needed to provide subject access to the writings for today’s researchers. I had a dual responsibility: to the original authors and to contemporary and future readers.

Squirrelled away in the National Library’s basement

In addition to grappling with intellectual and moral dilemmas, I was also wrestling with late 20th century technology.

In the 1990s, old newspapers were mostly accessible via microfilm reels. The spools whirred constantly in the gloomy and airless environment of the National Library of Australia’s lower ground floor; their constant movement even caused travel sickness in some readers.

My work tools at the time comprised a pen, a hard copy of the AUSTLIT thesaurus, and a stack of AUSTLIT worksheets. The information on the completed worksheets was entered into AUSTLIT by data clerks based at UNSW Canberra. (Hence the need for the handwritten job application – my writing had to be easily decipherable.)

AUSTLIT storage box used by indexers at the National Library of Australia during the 1990s
Image from the 2013 AustLit Exhibition, marking 25 years of AUSTLIT/AustLit at UNSW Canberra, curated by Jane Rankine

If I were indexing a newspaper like The Lone Hand today, I could access it via any internet-connected device. Along with many other publications, it has now been digitised and made available through the National Library’s digital storehouse, Trove. And instead of completing worksheets to be handed on to data clerks, I could have input the details straight into AustLit along with a URL linking the AustLit record directly to the newspaper’s full text.

How had this change occurred?

From card file to OPAC to CD-ROM

I arrived at AUSTLIT nearly six years after its inauguration. Former prime minister Gough Whitlam had launched the database in August 1988 with The Canberra Times declaring it ‘a giant technological leap forward’ (‘Literary Study Plugs into Computer Age’, 10 August 1988). The data that formed the basis of AUSTLIT had been housed in card files before being converted to a machine-readable format.

A drawer with some of the original cards that formed the basis of AustLit

Initially, the database was accessible via the Online Public Access Catalogues (OPACs) that had become common in large libraries; it was later published on CD-ROMs. But life in the IT world was changing rapidly and further developments were soon afoot.

A shrinking world inspires collaborative change

While I was beavering away in the basement of the National Library, the internet and the World Wide Web were evolving in dungeons inhabited by computer boffins. In 1993 the source code for the web was made freely available. New horizons beckoned.

In the mid-1990s, AUSTLIT began the move towards a web-based product. Coinciding with this, the Australian Research Council (source of regular grant funding for AUSTLIT) was favouring applications from collaborative projects. AUSTLIT joined with other literary projects across Australia and this new consortium formed AustLit: The Australian Literature Resource.

Promotional flyer for the original web version of AustLit, known ‘in house’ as ‘Big Red’

In August 2002, then Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Brendan Nelson, formally launched the newly named AustLit at the National Library of Australia. At the time, the database comprised around 390,000 works. (In March 2023, AustLit reached the 1,000,000 works milestone.) It was rightly described by AustLit Executive Manager Kerry Kilner as ‘one of the world’s most comprehensive, efficient and user-friendly online research tools in what was one of the largest humanities projects ever funded in Australia’. (‘Revolutionary Electronic Literature Database To Be Launched’, UQ News, 26 August 2002).

It’s a wrap

I began my life at AustLit with late 19th and early 20th century newspapers; after indexing the Australian literary content of thousands of contemporary newspapers, together with tens of thousands of other works in various literary forms and genres, I finished my nearly 21-year-run back in the 19th century. In my final two years, I worked on The Colonial Newspapers and Magazines Project.

Colonial Newspapers and Magazines Project logo, designed by Andrew Rankine, Atypica

This project focused on specific years from Australia’s colonial era – 1838, 1868 and 1888. What could the newspapers reveal? We aimed to capture a snapshot of the reading habits and broader literary interests of colonial (largely white) Australians. Which international and local theatrical troupes toured the colonies? Whose plays were performed in the newly built theatres? Which books and journals were imported?

The 19th century newspapers did reveal answers to those questions but they also threw up a raft of curiosities. There was the Sydney butcher Philip McCarroll who preceded his weekly advertisement of meat prices with a poem, usually reflecting a political or social issue of the day. His versifying for 17 March 1868, for instance, highlighted the attempted assassination of ‘that beloved royal one’ Prince Alfred, ‘our own Victoria’s son’. (Empire, 17 March 1868, p.4, column 5)

Opening lines of Philip McCarroll’s poem, 17 March 1868

And then there was the ‘experiment’ of employing women as compositors in printing workshops which did not meet with the approval of the editor of The Australasian. The colonial newspaper quotes the London Press News about the retirement of a female compositor. The London paper said: ‘let all those philanthropic and disinterested individuals who would elevate women find some better way of doing it than by putting them into a workshop, and thrusting their fathers, brothers, and husbands out of it’. The writer for The Australasian concurs: ‘In spite … of much oral humbug, the female compositor idea is yet another proof that whatever may be a woman’s mission, or whatever her proper place may be, it is not in the workshop’, especially when she does not wish to remain at work after eight o’clock but would prefer to ‘slope off in a mysterious manner’ in order to enjoy a social life. (‘Employing Women as Compositors’, The Australasian, 8 February 1868, p.168, column 4).

Under my skin

That advertised ‘interest in Australian literature’ back in 1994 certainly got under my skin. When my time at AustLit finally ended, I went back to some of the notes I’d kept on newspaper columns that had piqued my interest. One such was a mention in the pages of Empire of a reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Derwent Moultrie Coleridge, grandson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, at the Woollahra and Paddington Library Society. (17 January 1868, p.2). How had Coleridge’s grandson come to be in Sydney? I spent many happy hours back at the National Library, where my AustLit journey had begun, finding the answer to that question. (You can read the results of my research in three articles titled ‘On Being Ruined by a Fondness for Beer’.)

Links and sources


Parts of this blog post are adapted from ‘How a Nine-Month Contract Turned into a 21-Year Career’, published as part of AustLit’s 20th anniversary celebrations in 2021.

AUSTLIT’s original ‘Green Tree’ logo, designed by UNSW Canberra staff member Lyn Christie

Idling along the Thames – Part III: London’s Inner Boroughs

In my mind, once the Thames leaves leafy Kew it enters urban London. The river has already passed through the London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond (see Idling along the Thames – Part II: Entering Greater London), but they sit within the Outer Boroughs and offer a sense of being outside the bounds of the city.

From Kew Bridge to Putney Bridge, the river curves like a sine wave, bottoming out just after Barnes Bridge and peaking near Hammersmith Bridge. Now the Thames moves into the Inner Boroughs – first, Hammersmith & Fulham on the north bank; then, 3km later, the Borough of Wandsworth borders the river to the south. Twenty-two bridges cross the river as it makes its way through nine of London’s 12 Inner Boroughs.

Five bridges across the Thames – London Bridge, Canon Street Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Millennium Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, view from Sky Garden

Putney Bridge

The first ‘true’ Inner Borough bridge for me is Putney Bridge because both north and south banks of the river intersect with an Inner Borough.

Putney Bridge is a ‘memory holder’ for me.

Putney Bridge

A few metres from the bridge, I once ate a leisurely, al fresco meal with my son at a now closed Carluccio’s restaurant on the final day of a UK holiday. My son’s home was only a few kilometres’ walking distance from the restaurant but, to accommodate a less mobile member of our party, we took a bus for the 3km journey. For some reason now lost to me, we caught the 39 bus – surely the longest possible transport option. The route did, however, have the advantage of passing by the All England Tennis and Croquet Club on a day when the Wimbledon Championships were in full swing. Patrons queued with typical English resignation awaiting admittance to the courts.

Battersea Bridge

On a subsequent visit, my London base was not far from Clapham Junction. On summer evenings, I would cross under the railway line near Wandsworth Station, weave through the always hectic Wandsworth Roundabout, and make my way to the Thames’s southern bank. With Wandsworth Bridge behind me and the heart of London ahead, I would meander past Plantation Wharf Pier and Oyster Pier, and head towards Battersea Bridge, enjoying the balm of a lengthy twilight en route.

Evening view towards Battersea Bridge

Albert Bridge

After Battersea Bridge comes Albert Bridge, possibly my favourite of all London’s bridges.

Why the favourite? I fell in love with London on my first visit. I generally avoid big cities and crowded places but London felt different. I loved the Tube (even on a rare sweltering day when descending underground felt like entering a blast furnace). I loved the beds of brightly coloured annuals threaded through the orderly royal parks. I loved the backstage tours of theatres in the afternoons, returning at night to see the stage light up.

Albert Bridge

When I returned home, I missed London. But I discovered a 24-hour web cam positioned on the roof of a building on Chelsea Embankment. It meant that, at any time of the day or night, I could watch live images of Albert Bridge and imagine myself there – following the morning traffic stalled on the bridge, enjoying the changing colours of the seasons, ensuring a cyclist avoided being crushed by the urgent advance of a double-decker bus.

Sadly, that web cam no longer operates. I’m holding out for a future visit when I can return to Albert Bridge in person and see it lit up at night – the first of the 14 bridges comprising the Illuminated River project.

Albert Bridge to Chelsea Bridge

Between Albert Bridge and Chelsea Bridge, the 80-hectare Battersea Park occupies the river’s entire southern bank. The park features a children’s zoo, a boating lake, a sub-tropical garden and a Peace Pagoda. The park is expansive and open to the river.

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park

But on the Thames’s northern bank, nestled discreetly behind brick walls and wrought iron fences, is the Chelsea Physic Garden. Founded in 1673 by The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London to enable its apprentices ‘to study medicinal plants and their uses’, the garden boasts an extraordinary array of plants. Some have healing properties, some are known for domestic uses, some (like deadly nightshade, monkshood and mandrake) taught the apothecaries’ apprentices about poisons.

Equisetum hyemale var. robustum, commonly known as horsetail, caught my attention. Once employed for polishing pots and pans, the stems can also be used to make reeds for clarinets and saxophones. And apparently it’s possible to ‘produce a drink used as a diuretic and to treat venereal disease’ (Wikipedia). I have no personal knowledge of the veracity of any of these claims.

Horsetail, useful for polishing pots and pans, and for treating venereal disease

Westminster Bridge

As the Thames draws closer to the heart of London, significant public buildings and structures crowd its banks. From the 11th century Tower of London and the 19th century Palace of Westminster (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) to the more recent Millennium Wheel, many are internationally recognisable.

The Tower of London and the London Eye (aka Millennium Wheel)

Westminster Bridge, which abuts the House of Commons end of the Palace of Westminster, was painted green in 1970. The bridge now matches the colour of the seats in the Commons. Further upstream, Lambeth Bridge is painted red to match the seats in the House of Lords. (Lambeth Bridge sits alongside Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop is a member of the House of Lords, one of 26 Church of England bishops who together form the ‘Lords Spiritual’.)

Palace of Westminster

I’ve spent many days investigating this stretch of the Thames, taking London Walks around the riverbank or heading indoors to explore the buildings that line the riverbank – the National Theatre, the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum on the south bank; Somerset House, Temple Gardens and the Brunel Museum to the north. But sometimes it’s the accidental discoveries that are the most captivating.

London Bridge and Borough Market

Take, for instance, Borough Market.

Borough Market with the Shard behind

Adjacent to the current London Bridge (the 1st century bridge being long since gone and the 19th century one sold to a misguided American), sits Southwark Cathedral. The cathedral is just visible from the river, although probably missed by many tourists whose eyes are drawn to the more imposing Shard behind it. Tucked between these two structures, and shadowed at street level by overhead rail lines, lies Borough Market.

There has been a fresh food market on the south bank of the Thames for centuries but the market that stands there now was established in 1756.

Paella making, Borough Market

Today, much like yesteryear, vendors and buyers shout for attention, people jostle in the aisles between stalls, and the air is filled with the heady smells of fish, fruit, cheese, breads and pastries.

The market is big and lively and noisy. Until a local told me about it, I’d never heard of it. Left to my own devices, I may have missed this delight for the senses.

Waterloo Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge

Sometimes it’s worth ignoring the public buildings and grand designs and leaving the hustle and bustle behind.

One Sunday morning, I left my Lambeth accommodation and made my way through Waterloo to the Thames’s bank. Unlike a weekday, when it is estimated that about one million people travel into London (Department for Transport), the streets and the embankment were quiet. I was fortunate to strike the river when the tide was low. (The Thames is tidal from Teddington Lock to the North Sea. The Port of London Authority provides tide times.)

Between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Railway Bridge, I descended a set of stairs and stepped blithely across silt and sludge and stones to the water’s edge. At the time, I hadn’t heard the term ‘mudlarking’ in connection with the Thames and I certainly didn’t know about the Port of London Authority (PLA) requirement that foragers must obtain a foreshore permit. The PLA’s website warns allcomers of the foreshore’s ‘potentially hazardous environment’ and the ‘dangers that may not always be immediately apparent’ – the rapid rise and fall of the tide, ‘raw sewage, broken glass, hypodermic needles and wash from vessels’.

River Thames, towards Blackfriars Bridge, low tide

Fortunately, I exercised care and did not remove anything from the foreshore during my wanderings. That said, I’ll know better if there’s a next time.

Despite not spying anything of archaeological significance (just as well given my lack of a permit), I liked being close to the lapping edge of the river. Not travelling across its surface by boat, not crossing it via a bridge, not surveying it from the lofty heights of the Sky Garden, not even walking under it as I had done at Greenwich. Simply being alongside it, in that liminal space between solid and liquid.

Beyond Greenwich

Thames Barrier

I have not yet ventured beyond the Thames Barrier. But the river continues on, past Erith and Greenhithe to Tilbury Docks, before flowing into the North Sea between the Isle of Sheppey (in Kent) to the south and Southend-on-Sea (in Essex) to the north.

The water that occasionally surfaces in a nondescript Gloucestershire field descends a mere 110m to sea level while travelling through nine English counties and one of the world’s major cities. During its 340km journey, it is joined by dozens of tributaries, passes through 45 locks, is crossed more than 200 times by bridges, ferries, tunnels and a cable car, and morphs from freshwater to tidal.

There is still much to discover as I idle along the Thames.

Links and sources

View from Sky Garden, looking towards Tower Bridge

Photo credits

All photos by the author. This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.