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Cultural Studies, Historical Studies, Humanities

Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australia

07.11.11 | Comment?

 

Almost a decade in the making, the Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australia, edited by Jenny Gregory and Jan Gothard, is now the most up to date and authoritative composite portrait of the state’s history. This work is a remarkable achievement. It is the result of a sustained collaborative effort that is a credit to the skill and energy of the editorial team and to the more than three hundred contributors, along with hundreds of expert readers.

In 1912 J. S. Battye, the well-known State Librarian of Western Australia, produced the Cyclopedia of Western Australia: An Historical and Commercial Review, Descriptive and Biographical Facts, Figures and Illustrations, which remained a central reference resource for WA history throughout the twentieth century. The highly regarded volumes of the sesquicentenary series appeared in 1979, followed in 1981 by the influential A New History of Western Australia, edited by Tom Stannage. While the primary impetus for the new Historical Encyclopedia was the fact that existing state-focused works had become out-dated, the project also responded to the recognition that histories and reference works aiming to cover the whole of the nation did not deal well enough with WA, and that this state retains its distinctiveness and so continues to deserve its own encyclopedia.

The sub-subtitle of Battye’s iconic work, ‘an epitome of progress’, indicates a different focus from that of the Historical Encyclopedia. Whereas Battye emphasised and, perhaps inadvertently, exaggerated the consensual nature of society in his fast-growing state, Gregory and Gothard highlight WA’s diversity (‘multiple voices and multiple perspectives’). Their commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship allows many points of view to be accommodated. This, in turn, has led to a productive interweaving throughout the volume of historical threads that have received less attention in earlier publications, such as local scientific and technological developments and environmental concerns. One of the most notable features of the work is that women, Aborigines and other traditionally marginalised groups are very well represented. Through its inclusiveness this work can play an important role in broadening the lens through which Western Australians view their history. In this way the Historical Encyclopedia provides a rich resource for counteracting the slanted record generated in the last century and for redefining Western Australian social and cultural identity.

There is nothing surprising about the way the Historical Encyclopedia is laid out – alphabetically, and with directions to related entries and to further reading at the end of each article. More than 30 themes are set out in the Introduction and these underpin the selection of entries. Articles range from 200 to 3,000 words in length. Each has been written by a subject expert (an impressive spread of contributors of different ages and at different stages in their careers, showing the strength of research on WA), and all have passed through a process of review to ensure the greatest possible veracity. Biographical entries are not included, a conscious choice and a sensible one given that their inclusion would have necessitated a second volume, possibly delaying the project and duplicating existing resources, as the editors note. Eleven appendices provide useful lists of governors, premiers, winners of major awards, guides to Royal Commissions, royal visits, convict ship landings and even a summary of songs about Western Australia, linked with locations.

The Historical Encyclopedia has particularly high production values. The thousand-odd pages are impressively bound, as one would expect from the UWA Press imprint, which has long been associated with high quality production as well as scholarship. At $89.95 this hard-back volume is affordable beyond the library market. The textured/embossed cover features a painting of WA’s floral emblem the kangaroo paw by Rica Erickson, the acclaimed WA artist and historian, who died at the age of 101 only months after the Historical Encyclopedia was launched.

It is true to say, with the editors, that the volume is made available in ‘an easily accessible format’. However, one obvious recommendation for a work of this scale and significance is that it should be available online so that it can be accessed by many more people than it is able to reach in print-only form. I felt constrained by not being able to search through the whole volume by keyword. This is one of the dominant techniques for ‘reading’ massive reference works such as this in our digital age – a recent shift in literacy that has only occurred over the past decade. A companion website (http://www.hewa.uwa.edu.au/home) does offer the option to browse all headwords and authors and to search electronically through these by keyword, but this is a compromise, only a stopgap measure. I certainly hope there are plans to offer this print work in a digital format so that it can reach wider audiences. Its continuing relevance may rely upon it being available digitally. The world of online encyclopedias has been developing fast over the past decade and there are now mature digital genres for the display of historical information, supported by international standards, to ensure the sustainability of data.

Over time the old printed encyclopedias have developed their own character. Their initial function of providing accurate historical information becomes less relevant as they take on another role and another life as historical artefacts, valued for the insights they offer on the time in which they were produced as much as for their content. In the aging process, personality traits not apparent at first show through, and fine lines become deep wrinkles. Battye’s Cyclopedia is a very senior citizen. As such it is entitled to rights and liberties that the younger ones do not enjoy. We respectfully turn a blind eye on its British/Commonwealth-centric focus, and silently lament the lack of women and Aborigines. Historians now value its biographical sketches of figures of the day partly because the depictions are so dated, because they speak of the values of the era. This brings into focus one fundamental quality of printed works that cannot be replicated easily in the digital domain: while printed works are very clearly a record of the time in which they were produced, online resources are constantly updated and they remain forever young. We are prevented from seeing their character as a whole because their constituent parts are in a state of perpetual renewal. In its current print form, the Historical Encyclopedia will offer future generations unique insights into our society in our time, in the first decade of the twenty-first century. These will be drawn not only from the content of the entries, but also through the very capable editorial framing and selecting of topics, and in the tone of the articles and the approaches that individual authors take to their subjects.

The success of any literary work can be measured by the extent to which the public take it to heart – although in the case of a major reference work such as this one, it may ultimately take a century to gauge. The Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australia will undoubtedly be the last print-based encyclopedia of this state’s history and for that reason alone will occupy a very special place. It deserves to be savoured and appreciated.

Arthur, Paul Longley. Review of The Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australia, by Jenny Gregory and Jan Gothard, eds. Studies in Western Australian History 27 (2011): [pages tba].

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