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Original manuscripts bring history to life :: NLA Publishing

Book production values are important to us. Our recent book, Capturing Time: Panoramas of Old Australia by Edwin Barnard, includes 12 double fold-out pages to ensure that the city panoramas (photographic and illustrative) can be shown in true proportion. Twenty panoramas, dating from 1810 to the 1920s, and over 200 illustrations and maps feature in this publication. (Click here for a review of Capturing Time: Panoramas of Old Australia by our editor Cassie Mercer.) Research for this book led indirectly to the digitisation of the entire Enemark collection of over 500 panoramic negatives that the Library holds. The negatives, stored in a cellulose nitrate store, were difficult to handle and access. Handling the negatives increases the risk of damage. Digitising this collection has enabled online access to these wonderful images of life in Australia in the early 20th century while preserving the original negatives.

Exploring the Burke and Wills expedition
In most cases, we generate publication ideas in-house and then approach an author with a proposal. This was the case when we decided to publish a book based on William Wills’ diary. When Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills set out on their journey with the Victorian Exploring Expedition, Wills took with him a diary in which to record his experiences. His pencilled entries would go on to help historians and students of Australian history understand the circumstances that led to the tragic end of the expedition.

Today, the diary is held by the National Library of Australia and forms the foundation of Starvation in a Land of Plenty: Wills’ diary of the fateful Burke and Wills Expedition.

We approached Michael Cathcart, who was presenting a radio series on the expedition at the time. Together, we chose the diary pages that we wanted to reproduce in the book, and Michael wove his text around them, moving back in time from the expedition to include biographical information.

The relationship with the local Indigenous people is a theme that runs through the book as the author describes how the Yandruwandha were willing to provide the lost men with sanctuary and food. Wills was only too willing to open himself to their humanity but Burke resisted and the men perished.

Michael based his book on extensive research from records held by the Library and on the advice of Aaron Peterson, a descendent of the Yandruwandha clan who cared for Burke, Wills and their companion, John King.

One of the greatest joys in an historian’s life is to handle the pages on which historical figures wrote their stories: to trace the line of their handwriting, to imagine the circumstances in which they wrote those words,” Cathcart says. “I feel as though I have shared a moment in time with William Wills, as though I have had the privilege of hearing him breathe.”

The collections at the National Library abound with visual and graphic material associated with the Burke and Wills expedition. Research began with the many engravings produced to publicise the expedition at the time, original sketches drawn by Becker on the expedition and well-known artworks of some of the scenes created at a later date. It then expanded to include objects belonging to Burke and Wills, contemporary illustrations and prints, as well as some modern photography of some of the places they went, so as to set the scene for the reader. Close-up sections of maps from our collection were also a great way to track the expedition’s route as the story progressed.

It has been a fascinating process to trace the continued appeal many visual artists have felt for Burke and Wills and to see how they have also continued mythologising the story.

In this publication, Michael Cathcart intriguingly balances these myths with the realities of Wills’ experience, so it was important that the heroic imagery was contrasted with reproductions of the raw and devastating handwriting of Wills’ final diary itself.

starvationlandofplenty
Click on the book cover for more information.

Editing books such as these involves working closely with the authors to understand his or her personal connection to the historical material. When our editors receive a manuscript to edit, the writer has often lived closely with that material for months, if not years. The writer faces the challenge of providing the reader with a unique insight into the subject matter, while honouring the material’s historical nature. The editor’s role is to assist the author with that difficult juggling act.

For readers young and old

Our list also includes children’s books, extending our audience and furthering the Library’s aim to ‘ensure that all Australians can access, enjoy and learn from a national collection that documents Australian life and society’.

The children’s books that have been most successful have not only included many primary sources and been firmly grounded in the collection but also, in their design and writing, allowed a creative presentation of history to attract a young readership.

Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea by Stephanie Owen Reeder won the Young People’s History Prize in the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2012. Using a fictionalised narrative, it tells the story of teenager Grace Bussell, who helped pull from the sea the survivors of the wreck of the Georgette in Western Australia in 1876. (Click here for more on Grace Bussell.)

Historical details are included at the end of each chapter. These include citations from letters written by those involved, newspaper accounts from the time and even a colonial recipe for a Christmas pudding. There are also feature spreads which provide historical insights into life in the 1870s, including information on pioneering families, life at sea and celebrating Christmas.

Such information, along with an epilogue that documents what happened to the characters in later life, photographs of the main characters, and images painted at the time, help bring history to life for a young audience.

Children’s author Kirsty Murray, who wrote Topsy-turvy World: How Australian Animals Puzzled Early Europeans, notes:

Nothing on Wikipedia can convey history as powerfully as a carefully crafted story presented within the pages of a beautifully bound and illustrated book.

The Big Book of Australian History by Peter Macinnis was published in October 2013 and The Big Book of Indigenous History, edited by Professor John Maynard, is in the planning stage. Historical consultants, science experts, Indigenous consultants, teachers, librarians and school children all form part of our team of checkers.

NLA Publishing also produces ebooks, which give readers the additional feature of being able to link directly through to the collection online. They are available from a range of platforms including Google Books and Apple iTunes book store.

We are always happy to receive suggestions about ways our collection could be used to produce interesting and creative history books through our submissions process on our website: publishing.nla.gov.au

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