Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Problems with Australian historiography

I had no intention of posting again today, but I want to share a gripe.

For some time I have been complaining about what I see as bias in the publication of Australian history and especially the bias that appears in the selection of books by bookshops. I accept that part of this reflects my interest topics that are no longer fashionable, but it is more than this.

Today I went with youngest to a major bookshop at Sydney's Bondi Junction. I had a simple objective. I wanted to buy a book on Aboriginal history, prehistory really, in the period up to 1788. I was driven to this because very little good material is available on-line.

After going past the many shelves devoted to Australians at war, I found the two book cases dealing with Australian history. Within this, there were two rows on Aboriginal history almost totally dominated by Aboriginal-European relations. There was not one book dealing with the Aborigines prior to 1788.

I went to the information desk and we did some searches. There was one copy of John Mulvaney's classic study at the city store. That was it. I was advised to go to a university book store.

I complained about this to youngest as we left. She said that this was why she disliked Australian history. I wasn't sure what she meant and asked why. Apparently, and from her perspective, the dominant theme in the Australian history she did at school all centred on the evils of our treatment of the Aborigines, the question of Aboriginal-European relations.

I won't go on, except to say that I think that we (Australia) have a problem.


Neil wrote in a comment on his Google Reader Shared Items:

"Jim has been busy. I did go to the Gleebooks site and found some things I would find quite fascinating myself, but not much on pre-1788 -- which technically is prehistory in this area. Guess there is stuff in journals. As for the "problem" -- I don't see this as necessarily a problem; much depends on the way the topic is presented. No doubt we are still getting used to telling stories that certainly weren't told when I went to school, or in the first 15-20 years of my career as a History teacher either. That had to be redressed; I guess the balance is still evolving, but I would assert that the Apology in February 2008 will eventually lead to a more sharing tone than we have sometimes seen... It ought to, anyway. I am not sure bookshops are biased; Gleebooks for one probably carries most of what is currently in print -- or can get it. That's what publishers have been offering.”

Thanks, Neil, for the link. There is some interesting material there.

My post was written as a gripe. Standing back from the post itself, there are a number of issues involved.

What appears in the bookshops at any one time depends upon past decisions.

Authors have to select topics and then find a publisher. Publishers accept only a proportion of material offered to them. Publishers then have to get their books into the book stores. Book store economics means that even big book stores now carry a smaller range of material than in past years.

Research and writing takes time. If you look at this chain, the original research and research topics reflects popular issues especially in universities ten to fifteen years previously. This process can be short circuited where a topic is perceived to be hot. Then publishers may commission works to try to get them into the marketplace quickly.

Interest in topics changes.

Many of the historical topics that I am most interested in such as the history of the country movements are no longer of popular interest. With rare exceptions, broader regional analysis has been squeezed out between the purely local on one side, the state, metro or national on the other. Most of the published works date from the 1960s and 1970s and in turn are based on research work that began accelerating in the 1950s, especially within the University of New England.

More broadly, my impression is that overall interest in Australian history peaked in the 1980s and then went into decline. Part of the reasons for this lay in fragmentation within the history discipline - to some degree a gap opened up between the interests of researchers and more popular interests.

By the early 2000s, the range of Australian history books carried in local book stores had greatly diminished. I used to buy Australian history books all the time. I stopped buying because there was nothing I really wanted to read.

In recent years, this has begun to reverse itself to some degree. There is actually greater interest in history in general, as well as greater interest in Australian history. However, as is always the case, material is skewed.

Without being too scientific about it, I was expressing a perception rather than a detailed analysis, there were some four bookcases dealing in some way with Australia or Australians at war. Then there were two bookcases dedicated to Australian history as such. Within that, there were just under two shelves entitled Aboriginal history.

This is quite a big bookshop. If the stock composition is any guide to current reader interests, we can roughly say that twice as many Australians are interested in Australia at war compared to broader Australian history, perhaps sixteen times as many Australians are interested in Australia at war than the entire scope of Aboriginal history.

My particular interest this time lay in the history of human occupation of this continent prior to 1788, a vast span of perhaps 100,000 years.

I found that I could buy, for example, histories of the Dutch or Jewish people in Australia, yet could not get a single title in my area of interest. Indeed, there was very little general Aboriginal history as such, although there was a fair bit dealing with recent disputes about Aboriginal historiography

The best book on Australian pre-history remains John Mulvaney's Prehistory of Australia. This book was first published in 1971. While updated since with Johan Kamminga, it still dates back to earlier times and is an outcome of the great flowering of interest in the Aboriginal past of the late 1950s and 1960s. This was the time I did my own thesis. The other outstanding work that I am aware of, Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads, was first published in 1982.

I am out of touch with recent writing, hence my visit to the book store. It may well be that there have been books published that I am not aware of. Still, I thought that there was a problem or problems.

This postscript has become quite long, really a post in itself.

There are two quite distinct sets of issues.

The first is just what Australian history Australians are presently researching, writing, publishing and buying, and how this has changed over time. I have not seen this analysed, so I am working from impressions.

The second is what it all means.

Australian perceptions of their past are formed by their exposure to that history through school and university, the media, their own reading. The effects here are quite profound. To a degree, the history that I am most interested in has largely vanished, lost from popular sight. Its place has been taken by other interests.

We cannot analyse the second without understanding the first. One of the problems with Australia's so-called history wars is that, to a degree, they took place independent of analysis of the actual pattern of research, writing and publishing.


Anonymous said...


May I recommend, in case you or your readers are not familiar with his work, the late Noel Butlin whose economic histories of aboriginal Australia, including before the advent of white colonisation, are a really fascinating read. It was my privilege to do a unit with Butlin and i found him to be wise and deeply thoughtful.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Bob. Noted. I will do a search to see what is still around of NB's stuff.