“Genealogists are becoming the new social historians” says professional historian

three women and one man standing in front of a table with flowers and two copies of Fractured Families standing up.

Lisa Murray (City of Sydney Historian), Jo Toohey (CEO of the Benevolent Society), Tanya Evans (author of Fractured Families) and Max Carrick (family historian mentioned in Fractured Families). Photo courtesy of the Benevolent Society.

“Australian history has been transformed by the contributions of family historians”, says Dr Tanya Evans, historian at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Her new book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, is the result of collaboration between Tanya Evans and some of the many family historians who have worked with the archives of Sydney’s oldest non-religious charity, The Benevolent Society.

“… genealogists are becoming the new social historians…”, remarks Evans in the prologue. She points to the painstaking research conducted by family historians which has revealed the lives of those of their forebears who were numbered among the poor and the outcast.  Fractured Families  is about those forgotten people of history and their descendants who cared enough to learn more about the difficult lives of their forebears.

The interest Evans has about the lives of poor people bubbles through the book as does her admiration of the work done by family historians. She sees great value in the work of family historians noting that, “… the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.”

Cover of book

Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, by Tanya Evans (UNSW Press, 2015).

Fractured Families is an easy book to pick up and put down. Each chapter has a new set of stories about the lives of those who sought assistance from The Benevolent Society during the long nineteenth century and the wealthier people who contributed to the care of the impoverished. The narrative meanders around the events of an eclectic group of lives. It is effectively a series of cameos. Sometimes the reader can engage with the people of the past, at other times the information conveyed is too fragmentary for the reader to feel moved by their stories.

The impact of these stories may have been greater if the photos that are bunched onto photo pages in the middle of the book had instead been inserted at the relevant places in the text. When dealing with fragmentary history, photos are a rich historical source which convey the story more powerfully if there are not enough words in the archives. Fractured Families includes two disturbing photos of emaciated babies which would have made the telling of the cold statistics of starvation and infant mortality in Sydney more potent if they had accompanied the relevant text. Unfortunately the high cost of producing books with photos scattered through the text is a serious limit in the effective use of photographs in the telling of histories such as this one.

This book does not have literary pretensions – there are too many “as described in chapter X” or “these are explored in chapter X” for that. The language used is very accessible with the occasional use of words such as ‘gendered’ or ‘power relations’ and a political earnestness which reflect the author’s academic roots. As befitting someone with Tanya Evans experience as a historical consultant for popular television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? Evans has written a book that any general reader will find easy to read.

Continue reading

Wisps of Change in Global Business?

Cover of the Six Capitals book

Six Capitals by Jane Gleeson-White, (Allen & Unwin, 2014).

I was delighted earlier this week when my first book review of the year was published on the Newtown Review of Books. This website does a great service to Australia’s book industry and it is a pleasure to be edited by the founders of the website, Jean Bedford and Linda Funnell

I reviewed Jane Gleeson-White’s latest book, Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism had to have – or can accountants save the planet?  This is the follow up book to Double Entry which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago.

I enjoy reading Gleeson-White’s books about accounting. They are much more interesting than the deadly dull books I had to read when I was doing my accounting degree. Thank goodness for economics I say! Without economics to provide interesting content I would have struggled to finish my degree.

I started my working career working as an accountant in the mid-1980s working in audit at one of what was then known as the big eight international accounting firms. After a couple of years I moved to small business work at a middle tier firm in Melbourne.

This was an eventful period in the economy. I started work during the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era and never forget the ‘recession we had to have’ which was so devastating in Melbourne. Who can forget that morning when we woke to the announcement that the State Bank of Victoria had become insolvent and been taken over by the Commonwealth Bank over night? It was devastating news for Victorians.

(On a side note, it was lovely to find the State Bank of Victoria Social Networking Site while writing this post. It shows the staff of the bank still have regular reunions and other social activities. They are also scanning all the Bank’s staff magazines from 1958 onwards and have uploaded various ephemera. Maybe an historian reading this might find them a good resource?)

Working in a chartered accounting firm during that era was certainly not dull. I worked with some good people and we had an enjoyable social life, particularly at the second firm. I was the first woman on the factory floor at a car parts manufacturer and unwittingly managed to avert a threatened union black ban on a stock take. I was a novelty and my happy accident of saying ‘scusi’ to one of the many Italian workers went down well, as did treating them with respect. Continue reading

The History Manifesto and Big Data

Book cover of The History Manifesto

The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

In my last post I reviewed the provocative book, The History Manifesto. Written by history academics Jo Guldi (Brown University) and David Armitage (Harvard), it is a call to historians to turn their work towards investigating long periods of history (the longue-durée) in order to address the big issues affecting humanity such as inequality and climate change. I set aside one chapter in that review for special attention. In this post I consider chapter four, ‘Big questions, big data’.

There are many ways that technology can be used by the historian The ‘Big Data’ chapter in The History Manifesto discusses the use of topic modelling tools to highlight the type of language most often used and the topics most widely discussed in the past. Guldi and Armitage also recognise the potential for digital tools to uncover the ‘invisible archives’ which include records that some person or institution in the past wanted to remain hidden. They give the example of The Declassification Engine, developed by a history professor and a professor in the field of statistics. This website explores the world of classified, redacted and declassified government documents and is a good demonstration of the potential of the use of technology in history.

“Digitally structured reading means giving more time to counterfactuals and suppressed voices, realigning the archive to the intentions of history from below”, they observe (p. 93).  This type of historical research has the potential to reveal serious injustices and even lead to steps being taken to rectify a historic wrong. It is exciting to see the potential of digital research techniques to reveal invisible or hidden archives. However, the authors do not draw attention to the fact that most of the world’s archives are not digitised. Historians always need to be mindful of this.

I’m researching the beliefs of Australian soldiers as expressed in their diaries during World War I. In his book, The Broken Years, Bill Gammage has already noted that Australian soldiers didn’t discuss their beliefs much in their diaries. Information technology has assisted me enormously to find the scant comments and their context. Digital tools are fundamental to my research methods but close reading of the work of other historians and primary sources is an indispensable first step in identifying the research questions and issues that the digital tools can then help me explore. I still have to spend hours reading old handwriting as most of the primary sources are still not in machine readable format. Continue reading

Review: The History Manifesto

Book cover of The History Manifesto

The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Historians, turn to the longue durée and focus your minds on the needs of our age. Your insights are needed to address intractable global issues such as climate change, inequality and governance. Dig deep into long time to assist policy makers to steer humanity into a better place.

This is the siren call of The History Manifesto. Written by historians, Jo Guldi of Brown University and David Armitage of Harvard, The History Manifesto seeks to change the direction of the discipline, to make it not only relevant to the world at large but an active contributor of solutions that speaks to the yearning of today.

In my previous post about the Annales school of historians I explained the term longue durée as it was conceived in the middle of the twentieth century. Guldi and Armitage explain how this approach to history fell out of favour in the latter decades of that century and was replaced by interest in micro-history. Micro-histories shone the light on histories that had been obscured in the old-style nationalist political histories, such as the lives of the working class and the subalterns who were marginalised by colonial powers.

Now historians need to embrace the ‘new longue durée’ in their work, say Guldi and Armitage. The new longue durée draws on its Annales heritage but it focusses on the future and its connection to the past as well as responding to the current intellectual environment and modern research tools.

Using the issues of climate change, inequality and governance, the authors explain the value that historians can give by plumbing long periods of the past to explore alternative ways of thinking about current problems. Guldi and Armitage explain that historians can do this by highlighting the evidence that humanity has free will to decide its future, the importance of ‘counter-factual thinking’ and the exploration of alternative ways of doing things that could bring about a better future. Continue reading

Reflection: Europeans in Australia – Vol III

Book Cover of Atkinson's book.

The Europeans in Australia. Volume Three: Nation by Alan Atkinson (UNSW Press, 2014).

The last volume in Alan Atkinson’s trilogy, The Europeans in Australia has finally been published.  Volume Three: Nation caps a wide-ranging and unique view on the history of Europeans in the land that is now known as Australia.

For more reasons than one, this book is the reason why I am writing and researching history today. I have been extremely fortunate that Alan Atkinson has been a mentor to me for several years and gave me the opportunity to do some work as a research assistant for this book. My current work on the beliefs of Australian soldiers on the front line in World War I stems from discussions Alan Atkinson and I had about this period of history while he was writing the book.

For these reasons what follows is not a book review. This is not an independent critique. Instead I want to share with you why reading the final version of this book has inspired me. Continue reading

Birthday of Literary Luminaries – Miles Franklin, Katherine Mansfield, Hannah Arendt,

Drawing of a woman in early 19thC dress carrying a suitcase approaching a home with extensive verandahs.

Google Doodle in honour of Miles Franklin, 14/10/2014.

Today, 14th October, marks the birth dates of three literary luminaries of the twentieth century – Miles Franklin, Katherine Mansfield and Hannah Arendt. These three women have made a big impact on western cultural life and thought and continue to do so.

Miles Franklin’s, novel, My Brilliant Career, has a secure place in Australia’s literary canon. This is extraordinary for a book written by a woman, first published in 1901 and coming from the pen of a twenty-one year old. Miles Franklin threw herself into life and writing, taking herself off to live in the United States before World War I, moving to England, nursing soldiers in dangerous circumstances in Macedonia before moving back to Australia. In the words of her biographer, “Miles was no wimp”. She did not make her fortune but through frugal living she conceived and endowed Australia’s premier literary award through her will. Continue reading

Review: A Doctor’s Dream

Book cover of A Doctor's Dream

A Doctor’s Dream: A story of hope from the Top End by Dr Buddhi Lokuge and Tanya Burke, (Allen & Unwin, 2014).

A Doctor’s Dream is about a microscopic mite, a huge health issue and the fraught nature of ongoing injustices towards Aboriginal people in Australia. It is a very Australian story. Both white and Aboriginal people are tired of the same intractable problems and tired of announcements of quick fixes that never work. In this book Dr Buddhi Lokuge and Tanya Burke offer a way through this mire, but only through hard, time-consuming commitment and respect.

Scabies is a mite that is a scourge in some outback Aboriginal communities. It causes itching which leads to skin infections in the tropical environment of northern Australia. Some people do not have any natural resistance to the mite which leads to huge colonies living on their skin causing the disfiguring and serious health condition known as crusted scabies.

The chronic skin infections caused by recurrent outbreaks of scabies can lead to abscesses and in some cases, amputations. It is the underlying cause that has led to remote Aboriginal communities in Australia having some of the highest rates of kidney and rheumatic heart disease in the world. The constant sores on a child can give the appearance that the child is suffering from neglect at home. Lokuge and Burke explain that this health condition can be horribly misunderstood by the authorities and lead to the removal of the child from their family. Despite what we have learned from the Stolen Generations, removal of children from Aboriginal families is still occurring.

Dr Lokuge drew on his experience working for international medical humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières to design and deliver a program to eliminate scabies in Arnhem Land. The not for profit organisation Lokuge worked for, One Disease, offered him the freedom and support to devise and implement a solution that enabled Aboriginal people to tackle the issue. Their overall management and support of Lokuge’s work is a crucial element in the success of the program. Continue reading