BRUCE SCATES: From the mid-19th century, the State Library of Victoria was one of Australia’s great collecting institutions. In fact, it competed fiercely with its rivals, the State Library of New South Wales and the Australian War Memorial, to gather up personal testimony, letters, diaries, reminiscences, all of which were relevant to the Great War. At the very centre of our state library, Septimus Power painted this magnificent mural. It was intended as our library’s war memorial. And alongside it there’s another mural, this time by Napier Waller, and it’s called “The Offerings of Peace.” Both these men were eyewitnesses to the fighting. Power was one of Australia’s official war artists. Napier Waller was a frontline soldier.
He lost his right arm at Bullecourt, and this was painted with his left hand. These are two very different styles of paintings, and they have different topics as well. And maybe that makes an important point about the records held by libraries like this one. There is nothing uniform about how the war was remembered– not even by the men who fought there. Autobiographical narratives, be they diaries, or letters, or even if you like paintings like this one, are deeply subjective. They’re sometimes contradictory, and they’re often very, very far from the factual memory of the war. To mark the centenary of the Great War, Australia’s great libraries have digitised much of their collections.
And now Bec and Laura are going to walk you through those remarkable holdings.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: The State Library of New South Wales houses one of the richest collections of Australian letters and diaries of the First World War– some 11,000 volumes. It’s no surprise really, because following the end of the war the State Library of New South Wales was one of the most dedicated collectors of the war’s written relics. Now these incredible pieces are available online through both digitisation of the item, and often the transcription of its contents. Let’s go to the website and we can begin to look through this amazing collection. Let’s go to www.ww1.sl.nsw.gov.au. There are three search criteria we can work with in order to explore the collection– key word, format and theme.
You can use the keyword criteria if you have a particular item in mind or a specific topic. For example, if I was researching the horses of the Great War, I can search for that term. And as you can see, some beautiful photographs and artwork of horses at war will come up on the screen. Or we could use the theme criteria. As you can see, the library has worked to identify pieces that sit in some very interesting and a diverse range of themes. Let’s take a look at “love and friendship.” Here you can see the variety of pieces in the collection. There are albums, letters, diaries, sketches, and personal items, amongst other things.
You can select any item to see its story, and learn more about how it fits into the history of the war. You can also browse the collection according to formats. Let’s take a closer look at the diaries. If I scroll down, we can see that the library holds Anne Donnell’s diary. She was a nurse who enlisted when she was nearly 40 years old. A South Australian, she departed for the front in May 1915. Throughout the war, she served in the Middle East, Lemnos, England and France. So we select ‘View in Catalogue’. And then we can choose to look through the item in two different ways– View Images, or View Album Transcript.
Let’s begin by looking at some of the pages of the diary. Reading the words that Anne scribed really gives us a closeness to her testimony. There is a special authenticity from reading her diary. On this page Anne writes, beginning a new year in 1918. “Goodbye to 1917.
Was awakened at 2:30 AM to the sound of close shelling and quickly detected a faint, sweeter scent like pineapple when immediately followed a loud knock outside and Owen saying, Sister Donnell, they’re sending over gas shells. 10:00 PM– will this restless life never end? As I write, the shelling is going on again– heavier, too. It’s a terrible life, this.” Anne’s handwriting is really quite readable. But if you are wanting to work more quickly through more sources, you can take advantage of the work of hundreds of volunteers who tirelessly transcribed so many of these items.
Return to the item in the catalogue and select View Item Transcript.
As you can see, the pages of that beautifully written relic are neatly set out in type. It has all the detail, and we can read more of Anne’s reflections from the front, her frustration at the conditions, and her despair at the futility of war. Another benefit of the transcription is that you’re able to search for words. Let’s give that a go. On this computer, and many others, I can press Control and the F button. On others, it might be the Command button and the F button. That allows me to search for the word “Australia,” and throughout the diaries there are dozens of different entries. The Anzac legend is often seen as privileging white male identity, and it did.
But Anne, too, came to see herself as an Australian in the course of her war service. She wasn’t just a dutiful daughter of the Empire anymore. Beyond the content of the diary, there’s the medium itself. Anne’s diary is what historians call “autobiographical narrative.” And these narratives, like all primary sources, can’t be taken at face value.
You might think that because this is a private account, Anne wrote for herself alone. But all diaries have an imagined audience, and Anne was no doubt very conscious that this manuscript would eventually be read by friends and family back home. So as she writes this diary, she also projects a certain image of herself. She composes her own life story. And Anne’s diary is also in evolving document. When Anne returns home, she carefully edits this diary and other reminiscence, and she has her memoirs published. That memoir takes a very different form to lines jotted down in the fear and the chaos of war. Hundreds of these diaries are now available online in Australia.
As all our state libraries and our National Library as well embark on ambitious centenary programmes. Most were written by and for Australians, but they often speak for all the Great War generation and they speak to us today.