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2003-03, 337, Book Reviews, Jurgen Wegner

‘A history of the book in Australia, 1891-1945: a national culture in a colonized market’ / edited by Martyn Lyons & John Arnold

(St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2001). xix, 444 p. $A50.00

“Book history” is hardly a recent phenomenon and some aspects of it have been an area of serious study for several centuries at least. As an area for academic research, the social, cultural and intellectual contribution of books has been the subject of study for over 50 years. Yet it is only in recent years and with the development of various national projects (Canada, England, New Zealand and now Australia among them 1) that book history has reached the momentum of a general and popular fascination – fascination about who we are and how we came to be what we are. What better mirror for our vices and virtues, achievements big and small, failings secret and pronounced, than … the book?

We tend to use terminology as a kind of shorthand that often doesn’t quite have that common meaning we ascribe to it. For a term in such wide usage, book history is seldom defined. Most of the literature deals with it as if it were a term of common understanding: “Well, after all, it is purely and simply The History of Books!” But not of magazines or journals? Or pamphlets? Or newspapers, book illustration, typography? Nor perhaps the wood chips industry, technological innovation in applied chemistry and in engineering, education, industrial relations? Is book history really a part of printing history then? Perhaps it is the other way around? Or maybe they are unrelated? Maybe the study of newspapers and of paper are independent areas of study best left to their own specialists? Most of the literature leaves its application conveniently vague. And perhaps it is best thus, for it allows all manner of researchers and scholars to participate in the widening debate.

One dilemma of book history is that the people who write about the book generally are of the scribbling classes. The fact that “print culture” is not necessarily there for the production of reading matter is all too easily overlooked. The emphasis is always on that word “culture”, a remnant of nineteenth-century Bildungsdrang [‘the urge to educate’, Ed.] which has only ever allowed one function to the Black Art … that of handmaiden to literature, aesthetics, culture, intellectual improvement. Would it surprise anyone that only a minute amount of the products of the printing press have had anything to do with books and reading? There are many layers to our print culture, a culture that dates back to the very beginnings of colonial settlement. It is a diverse and challenging history, full of surprises. Our first printing, for example, really was scraps of paper. And its study still very much a terra nullius. It is not only unfortunate that the framework within which it exists is that constructed by and for the researcher and the scholar. The printing and allied trades have been and remain one of Australia’s key performers by all economic indicators. The past fifty years of interest in book history have also seen fifty years of technological revolution in print. A revolution that has barely been noticed by the book historian.

I have been reading a collection of articles by David H. Hall called Cultures of print: essays in the history of the book2. In his second essay he makes some mention of the work of Isaiah Thomas, a printer who began work on his pioneering History of printing in America in 1808. “No man of letters in 1808 would have written a history of printing … Nor would a man of letters have collected newspapers.”  We owe all this to Thomas’s wonderfully undifferentiated sense of himself and of his independence from the hierarchies of traditional literary culture” (Hall, 1996, p. 17-18). The past fifty years have seen an unprecedented destruction of our book and printing history, not only primary and secondary source materials, but of machinery and equipment as well – to an extent that one could be forgiven for calling this the revolution that dare not speak its name. Where is our Isaiah Thomas when we need him most!

The present work, A history of the book in Australia, 1891-1945, is the middle volume in a trilogy intended to document by means of a variety of eclectic articles the wealth and fascination of our heritage of print. Volumes on the early period to 1890 and the post-colonial period 1946 to 2000 are intended to follow at yearly intervals. The work owes much to the Bicentennial historical research models both in outlook and period divisions. While I could describe the result as unfocussed, this method does provide a good way of showing the complex inter-relationships between book and society, industry and intellect. My main concern being with the assumption always present in this subject, that the only fit and proper topic of print culture is that of books and reading… with all that this entails.

 Of the 53 papers included only a couple deal with the production side of the equation… and this in a fairly general manner. One is a basic overview of print technology applied to book production; the other is on Australian print workers with special reference to the PIEUA. A topic such as the latter could easily have filled this HOBA volume on its own. But from my own experience, two articles could be said to be two more than I had expected. A sad comment on the neglect of one of our key cultural indicators. Eight of the 37 contributors are writers/researchers, 23 academics, and 6 librarians. At least one of the librarians is from an academic background, and most are either senior librarians or ones with academic qualifications. Surprisingly, there is no-one from the industry itself. Where are the journalists, printers, booksellers, publishers, typesetters or typographers, illustrators, trade unionists, the captains of industry, to recount the many histories from a trade perspective?

The result is a volume of quite diverse material, some exceptionally interesting. There are the usual suspects: Jennifer Alison writing on Angus & Robertson and Carol Mills on the New South Wales Bookstall Company. But there are also some new chums writing on aspects of the book that are not really commonly tilled ground. I would number among the good reads:

  •  Stuart Macintyre, “The Communist Party as publisher”
  • Anne Holmes, “Publishing in languages other than English”
  • Bruce Scates, “Radical bookshops”
  • Martyn Lyons, “The library in the workplace: the New South Wales Railway Institute Library”
  • Martyn Lyons, “The Bush Book Club of New South Wales”
  • Richard Nile & David Walker, “The mystery of the best seller”
  • Helena Studdert, “Women’s magazines”
  • Leigh Astbury, “Art publishing”.

When I say that many of the studies are quite cursory, I would also add that, for such a large number of studies and covering such a broad topic, material needs to almost be encyclopaedic in style. I would also like to commend the editor, Martyn Lyons, for his broad church and inclusive approach. I quote at length from his introduction: “The history of the book, or the history of print culture, as some would prefer to call it, is a great leveller … To the historian of Australian paper manufacture, it may matter little whether the end product is used to publish Patrick White or railway timetables”3. And: “The historian of the book is concerned not just with the creative imagination but with all the processes of production, including typesetting, binding, illustration, editing, proofreading, designing …” (Lyons, 2001, p. xiv). It is interesting to note that such international reference works on book history as the ABHB4 are now thinking of broadening their coverage one step further by also removing some of the artificial time constructs of “history”. The definition of “history” usually includes only academic works or works written from an historical perspective, while excluding older trade-technical literature written at the time as current information. Such a limiting definition has been the bane of the study of printing history, something that Dr Horst Meyer in his BBB5, for example, has to his credit always steered clear of.

Book history is more than just the study of books. The complexity of the world of print and its impact on our social fabric, its influence in determining what it is to be human, is something which has been too dominated by academia and too little studied in its other manifestations. Perhaps it is too late to rescue all but a few remnants of Australia’s print culture, but some remains waiting  to be salvaged. The subject is not only a good read, it is the study of an all-embracing system which has largely underwritten human, especially Western, social, economic, literary, political, technological and cultural development. The articles presented here are a useful introduction to the world of books in Australia, from The Man from Snowy River to beyond. It is highly recommended to anyone who thinks they have a serious interest in the book… or would like to discover something of the complexity of the well-springs of the Australian psyche. And at A$50.00 the book can only have been heavily subsidized.

The world of print in Australia, however, remains largely uncharted.


1 See, for example, the websites for Canada: http:// http://www.hbic.library.utoronto.ca/; Oxford: http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/ hobo/; Edinburgh: http://www.arts.ed.ac.uk/chb/index.html; the Netherlands: http://krait.kb.nl/coop/bibliop/bibl-html/index.html; and New Zealand: http://www.otago.ac.nz/nzpg/print/index.html. Many other resources are also accessible via the SHARP homepage: http:// http://www.sharpweb.org/.

2 David D. Hall, 1996, Cultures of print: essays in the history of the book Amherst, University of Michigan Press, 195 p.

3 Though I do take issue with his “Books of course cannot come into existence without authors”. Does he really intend us to think of the producer of a railway timetable or a restaurant menu as an author? The vast majority of “books” have diffuse authors of this kind.

4 ABHB: Annual history of the printed book and libraries, 1 (1972), to date 29 vols.

5 BBB: Bibliographie der Buch- und Bibliotheksgeschichte, Bd. 1 (1980/81), to date 19 vols..



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