Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Loss of the past

Just finished Literature, locale and license on my personal blog reporting on one aspect of my Armidale trip. I will later bring up a full trip report here. For the moment I just wanted to make a few brief comments.

I came back from Armidale with three new books plus a thesis on Aboriginal languages. I also came back quite enthused, if with a greater understanding of the difficulty of the task I have set myself in trying to preserve and present the New England past.

Literature, locale and license looks at one aspect of this, writing. I was so impressed by John's work that I enthused to my daughters. This actually brought me up short, because the names that I was mentioning like Rolf Boldrewood, Dymphna Cusack or Darcy Niland rang no bells. These are not minor Australian writers. We are dealing with not just a loss of New England memory, but with a broader Australian loss.

My girls aren't dumb. They have done okay at school and at university. They are both intelligent and, by Australian standards at least, well educated young women. It's just that in a crowded modern world, they know new things. Other things have dropped off.

In Armidale, I called into two bookshops looking for local or regional material. There was almost none. Yet the Armidale bookshops used to have sections for local material. One bookshop owner commented that material was simply out of print.

This problem is not unique to Armidale. A few years ago in Newcastle, I prowled around looking for local historical material. I could find just one book.

It's not all bad, of course. In Armidale I called in to see Bill Oats at the Archives and Heritage Centre. This is a wonderful facility. Bill kept bringing me new material: I need months there just to touch the surface. Yet it remains true that New England's past is simply not accessible to New England people.

One thing, mind you, that really pleased me in talking to Bill is that the folks from State Archives really liked the companion pieces that I wrote in response to Bill's pieces on Archives Outside. I liked Bill's pieces because they made the past available in another small way. The Archives' people liked my responses because they saw it as part of web 2.0; I was responding to their site. I really think that Archives Outside is a great site, so expect more from me on it.

Walking across to the Archaeology Department with Wendy Beck, I confirmed that no general New England prehistory had been published since Isabel McBryde's 1974 book. This made me quite sad, because it is part of the overall pattern, the loss of our past.

The effects in Australian prehistory are, to my mind, quite pernicious. There is now very little general prehistory. Most digs are commissioned digs, carried out as part of heritage studies of one type or another. By their nature, these digs are less structured, while their results are less available. They are also concentrated in particular areas such as the Sydney basin where development is taking place.

I don't see a solution. I guess that we just have to do what we can individually to strike a balance.                  

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