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Features & profiles


Preserving Australia's literary manuscripts

27 September 1988

Published in The Age

Australian authors need no longer throw their early drafts, letters and notes into the incinerator, or allow them to molder in the garage.

Writers' manuscripts - surely one our most neglected heritage areas - have been given a safe and permanent home, with the establishment of the Australian Literary Manuscripts Program.

The Program is run by the Defence Force Academy in Canberra - a joint effort between their Library and English Department. It actively buys up papers of Australia's published writers, and conserves them in acid-free folders and boxes. The Academy Library then allows access to post-graduate and other researchers - though writers can place restrictions on this.

Most writers have had no quibbles in taking money from a military institution. As one put it, 'At least the money goes to us, instead of being spent on more guns and bombs.'

The Program buys early through to final drafts of novels, plays, poetry, and other literary works - and supporting material such as research notes, and correspondence with publishers and other writers.

To date it has acquired papers from around sixty leading writers - including Paul Radley, Kate Llewellyn, Robert Gray, Graham Rowlands, Dorothy Green, Nancy Cato, Brian Matthews, James McQueen, Barry Dickins and Peter Goldsworthy.

An immediate benefit of the Program is the cash it puts in authors' pockets. Payments are by no means nominal. Geoff Goodfellow, Australia's best-known performance poet, put his money toward an international reading tour. (He's currently in Oregon, staying on Ken Kesey's ranch, before heading off through America and Europe.) Other writers have used the money to buy books, word processor equipment - or just time.

As an inducement to those worried about losing control of their manuscripts, the Library will, after making a purchase, send free photocopies of needed material to its author, upon request. They'll even store papers free of charge until an author feels their value has appreciated - and then buy them.

A third option is the 'tax incentive scheme': authors donate their material, and deduct its value from their taxable income.

The Program's collection was co-founded in late 1986 by Professor Harry Heseltine - head of the University College English Department at the University of NSW, which is the academic half of the Academy. The other founder was Lynn Hard, the Academy's Librarian.

Professor Heseltine is well-known for his ground-breaking work in the study of Australian literature, and no English Department in the country is better-regarded in this field. (It recently produced both The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature and The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia.) The Manuscripts Program is administered on a day-to-day basis by Lynn Hard - a cheerful, 50-year-old Californian, who 'grew up under the Hollywood sign'. He says of the Program's inception:

'I was amazed - and Harry was too - that the majority of the authors we talked to had thrown most of their manuscripts out. They just weren't aware that anyone was interested. Also writers, not being the wealthiest people on earth, tended to move around a bit, to wherever they could make a crust - live in small places, and so on. Things just got lost.

'After we'd  heard this tale three or four times I suggested to Harry that if the English Department could tell me which authors to write to, I'd be happy to produce a letter. So we did this. Harry's name was on top of the letter, because he's certainly more important than I am in the collecting of these materials - at least as far as prestige goes. It's Harry's name that opens the doors. Then I go ahead and do all the donkey work.'

One of the Library's biggest collections comes from Sydney man for all seasons, Bob Ellis, and his wife Ann Brooksbank.

'It includes their collected correspondence concerning the great rift with David Williamson and his wife in the early seventies. And all the projects he and Ann have worked on for the past ten years or more. Roughly half of them are projects which have never been produced. But we've photocopied at least two, and sent them back - because they've now reached the production stage.'

The Program is also interested in buying the administrative records of small publishers and literary magazines. It recently acquired the files of Tasmania's Island magazine, and Lynn Hard is keen for more.

The Collection is currently being indexed to page level, and the indexes placed on computer. Then:

'Next year we are planning to put the Collection on an optical storage system - probably video disk. We want to have the physical image of each page of a manuscript captured on the disk. It will be much easier to get around in a manuscript using the video images, rather than handling the paper. It also means people never have to handle the paper unless they have a really good reason. For purposes of security and preservation, it's an infinitely better system.'

All this technology will possibly make some people uncomfortable. But it will ensure the next hundred years of Australian literature is much better cared-for than the last. And where will it end?

'Eventually the Manuscript Collection will be available externally from our campus - via the use of computer terminals. So if you were in Melbourne and you wanted to look at something here, then you could do it.'

There are manuscript collections in other Australian libraries, the best-known being that of the National Library. Brisbane's Fryer also has a fine collection. But the technology now being put in place at the Defence Force Academy may put that institution in the forefront in the near future. An English major from the University of Southern California, Lynn Hard went on to spend some years as an independent data processing consultant in the US. The Academy Library is now undoubtedly benefiting from this.

In what ways did he think the future of literature would be bound up with computer automation?

'We will be launching, probably in August now, the Australian Literary Database. This will be an automated online index to Australian literature. So if you were interested in what, say, Graham Rowlands has written, and you were also interested in who had reviewed what he has written, all of that - plus biographical information - would be available to you.'

These projects - particularly the Manuscript Program - will mean an access to the workings of Australian writers that previous generations of researchers have never known.

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