‘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

Gleanings from #HNSA2021

Another conference shifts from the physical to the virtual. More dodgy internet connections, more barking dogs and chattering children, more partners crouching in screen backdrops, more collective groans.

Hang on. Just back up a minute.

Not everyone feels that way. Let’s be honest: a virtual conference is an introvert’s dream. I know many people are chafing at the bit, desperate to return to in-person gatherings, but I’m not one of them. For introverts like me, a virtual conference is, as Mary Poppins would say, ‘practically perfect in every way’.

Not only do I avoid travel and accommodation costs, I also avoid actual people. No more standing in solitary isolation at break times admonishing myself for my anti-social preferences, no more repeat visits to the conference bookshop to avoid conversations with strangers, no more disappearing outdoors on the pretext of needing some fresh air.

For me, virtual has much to recommend it. And the 2021 Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) conference, held online for the first time, did not disappoint.

The conference theme was Recovery: Restoring, Reconciling and Re-imagining Lost Histories. My conference gleanings fall into two further ‘Re-’ categories: Research and Realism.

Research: Resources for Writers

How do historical fiction writers discover what Sydney’s Liverpool St looked like in 1909 when Foy’s department store moved there from Oxford St?

How do they know what food was served on the SS Great Britain when she sailed away from Liverpool in 1871, bound for Hobson’s Bay, and with Anthony Trollope on board?

How do they find out whether buttons were used in everyday clothing in 13th century England?

Authors at the HNSA conference proffered their favourite tips and resources and, because they were speaking from their own homes, they could readily pluck items in hard copy from their shelves for ‘show and tell’. Here are some of the resources recommended at the conference:

Dictionaries and Thesauri

Geraldine Brooks held aloft her weighty, two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the OED. The thesaurus ‘works as a taxonomic index of language history … it is not just for looking up synonyms – instead, it can be used to explore the different words used for a particular meaning over time’. You can take a 15-minute virtual tour of the thesaurus to learn more.

While the first edition of the thesaurus was published in print format, the second edition is available here. Perhaps your protagonist is strolling through the English countryside in 1150 admiring the Spring blossom on a crab apple tree but, wait, was it called a crab apple back then? The answer, according to the historical thesaurus? It was a wergulu or a wuduaeppel or a wudusuræppel. (I do love a thesaurus.)

Screenshot from the Historical Thesaurus of the OED


Kelly Rimmer recommends looking at photos to understand an era. I would add that, (pre- and post-photography), paintings and newspaper illustrations are another way of getting a feel for a setting and a society.

Tom Roberts (1885). Bourke Street, Melbourne

Think of the 16th century games depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games or the activity in late 19th century Melbourne in Tom Roberts’ Bourke Street.


Catherine Jinks calls Trove ‘a miracle’.

Trove combines the collections of Australian libraries, universities, museums, galleries and archives. Many of its resources are digitised including newspapers (mostly up to the early 1950s), Government Gazettes, maps, pictures, photographs, music, letters and interviews.

Reference Works

Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth likes to ‘deep dive’ into the social history of the eras she writes about. How do you know where/how people went to the toilet in a particular historical period? Kate uses reference books like Sally Magnusson’s Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere.

Experts and Scholars

Alli Sinclair lauds the knowledge of experts and scholars. Her experience in writing The Codebreakers was that experts want to share their knowledge. Professional associations and university departments are a good place to start when tracking down specialists.

Alli Sinclair

Aggregated Data Sets

Jock Serong recommends the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Enter a word or phrase into the viewer to see its occurrence in a corpus of books over a period of time.

For example, if your characters are meeting for a sexual liaison in World War I Sydney, it’s unlikely to have taken place in a motel room – the word ‘motel’ does not start appearing in books until the mid- to late 1940s.

You Tube

Kate Kruimink suggests YouTube as a way to hear the music of a particular historical period.

For her novel A Treacherous Country, in which her young protagonist sails from England to Van Diemen’s Land, she listened to recordings of sea shanties via YouTube. (Captain Halyard has multiple compilations of sea shanties and folk songs on YouTube. You can get a taste of them here.)

Jock Serong and Kate Kruimink


Mirandi Riwoe suggests cartoons as a source for discovering what people were really thinking.

An example highlighted by Riwoe is The Bulletin’s 1886 depiction Chinese people. Phil May’s cartoon (complete with a recognisable Henry Lawson smoking opium) is titled ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’ and it encapsulates The Bulletin’s and the wider community’s attitude in the late 19th century.

Phil May. ‘The Mongolian Octopus: His Grip on Australia’. The Bulletin, 21 August 1886, pp.12-13.


Despite the extraordinary array of resources available today – both online and in hard copy – nothing beats research ‘on the ground’.

In yet another impact of COVID19, more than one HNSA conference panellist revealed cancelled plans for research trips to overseas destinations during 2020 and 2021. Expect 2022s international flights to be crammed with historical novelists.

Realism: Historical Authenticity and Accuracy

How do historical novelists balance detailed research with captivating fiction? Because, as Sue Williams succinctly puts it, ‘readers don’t want to read the research’.

Perhaps writing historical fiction is a bit like being on a seesaw. The author begins with the seesaw weighted down on the side of research but finishes with the story solidly on the ground and the research sitting lightly in the air.

The Seesaw. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

And it needs to be remembered that the historical record is both incomplete and subjective. It can only take the novelist so far.

An incomplete record ‘recovered by the imagination’

During her conference workshop Research and Fieldwork, Mirandi Riwoe referenced Hilary Mantel’s take on historical fiction: 99.9% of human activity never makes it onto the record and ‘can only be recovered by the imagination’ (History Extra, 28 July 2020).

The fiction writer, says Steven Carroll, needs to ‘take history by the hand and lead it into the land of supposition’.

Steven Carroll

The subjectivity of history

Travelling into the land of supposition offers the novelist scope to remove some of the filters entrenched in the written record.

Pip Williams

Pip Williams reminds us that ‘it’s wrong to think that history is true and fiction is not’.

Non-fiction writing is subjective; historians and eyewitnesses write from (often unacknowledged or unrecognised) perspectives.

Historical fiction is important, says Williams, because the ‘official’ record is often inadequate to answer the questions we’ve got about history. It doesn’t necessarily tell us the ‘why’; the novelist can posit a thesis. As Carroll puts it, we need to ‘invent a doorway’ to do the things that history cannot.

Here’s an example.

In the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the words of women are largely missing. Where are the words of the scullery and the birthing room, asks Williams?

If those words were not found in a written source, they were omitted from the dictionary. Even the words that are included are generally sourced from the writings of male authors, and then filtered through the minds and morals of male editors and male lexicographers.

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Williams invented a doorway. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, she breathes life into the words that fell through history’s cracks.


On a sombre note, Kelly Gardiner reminded conference participants of the deaths in 2020 of esteemed authors Jesse Blackadder and Liz Corbett.

The HNSA has established a mentorship in Corbett’s name. The mentorship, ‘for a previously unpublished author from Australia or New Zealand’, will help an author develop an unpublished historical fiction manuscript for young adults.

Julie Janson – Keynote Address

It would be remiss of me not to mention Julie Janson’s keynote conference address. (It was the only session where I missed being physically present in the conference room with other people. I’m sure I wasn’t the only virtual attendee who clapped at the end of the address.)

Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug people, and a playwright, novelist and poet, took as her theme ‘the role and responsibility of historical novelists in recovering lost, overlooked or deliberately erased histories’. She asked whether the genre could ‘play a part in achieving truth in reconciliation’.

Janson concluded her address by suggesting three specific measures to aid reconciliation: change the Australian flag, change the national anthem and change the date of Australia Day.

Links and Sources

If you were unable to attend the conference but would like to know more, the online recordings will be made accessible, for a fee, for a limited time. Check the HNSA website for details.

Conference sessions

The following sessions from the 2021 HNSA conference are referenced in this post:

Other Authors and Books