June 2018 Guest Speaker, Melanie Nolan

Our speaker was Melanie Nolan, the general editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Here is a short version of her talk, including her answers to questions from the floor. [Photo: ANU School of History]

Melanie began with an acknowledgement of country.

The ADB began in 1957, led by Keith Hancock, with the aim of establishing a federal dictionary project. Hancock had a history of involvement with the UK Dictionary of National Biography. The ADB’s first employee was Ann Moyal. Her work duties included driving round in her car, all over Australia organising working parties and drumming up support for the dictionary project. Douglas Pike was appointed as first editor, not Ann, in 1962. In 2006 the dictionary went online, free. It now gets 60 million hits a year. So far there are 13,000 articles. The ANU continues to be a strong supporter. Files not yet online are all available to be consulted at the ANU archives. The current crop of biographies includes people who died between 1991 and 2000; it will be a decade’s work. Once the articles go online, and then taking into account any feedback, they will be published in book form.

The ADB has always prided itself on including both significant and representative people; it doesn’t have to be just a collection of elite names. ADB biographies include a rabbiter and an unemployed person. However there are fewer of these latter subjects than we would like. The organisation feels embarrassed about past omissions in representation. There are too many Scots! Too few Irish! Too many military people. They now have an ARC grant for an indigenous volume. Melanie is working on colonial women. Of course the ADB is only one of many organisations which find themselves in this position: e.g. the New York Times has a catch-up project for the large numbers of women omitted from its obituaries page; seehttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/obituaries/overlooked.html.There are three main research projects: Indigenous Australians; First Fleet; and Colonial women. The ADB is also doing all the revisions that it can with the resources it has. The Labour History people gave over 2,000 articles to the ADB; they are working through them. Each article takes 5 to 6 hours to put into the system. The public are wonderful! They write in to correct errors. If documentation is provided the ADB will fix the problem immediately. Some articles require a total rewrite, such as for Angus McMillan. Issues of mental health, sexual abuse, or domestic violence may now be raised, unlike in the past.

In 2010 the ANU integrated research schools and the faculty, resulting in the requirement that ADB become a research centre with staff teaching course on biography, supervising graduate students, organising conferences, publishing monographs in its ANU Press series, and so on, as well as work on the dictionary.

The ADB always wants volunteers; suggestions; and writers.

Melanie answered questions about comparable national cultural institutions and funding. The NLA’s Trove website has had continual recent cuts under the ongoing annual ‘efficiency dividends’. However it received $16.4 million in a budget announcement 2016-2020. So despite federal funding cuts to the library, Trove is all right for now. The Netherlands have a similar online search engine; New Zealand something like, but with limitations. Talking about funding, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was given a huge grant of £25million to revise it from the mid 1990s to the mid-2000s.m: the articles on women went from 5% to 10%. The ADB lives in hope of windfall funding like that too!

This was a marvellous and well-received talk, and we hope members will engage and consider what contribution they might make to this foundational project.