Recording the Nation: Nationalism and the History of the National Library of Australia
Tiffen, Belinda, The Australian Library Journal
Nationalism as a force in shaping and understanding historical events, long recognised by historians, has emerged as a rich field of historiological study. Awareness of nationalism has spilled into cultural studies, where the role and history of museums has been investigated in the light of nationalistic influences. Favoured images of a nation's history, culture and people may impact on collecting and curatorial decisions. Library historians have been slower to recognise the impact of nationalism on library collections, although national and state libraries are prone to nationalistic influences. As they purport to collect the documentary heritage of a nation and its people, they engage with questions of national identity, history and geography. This paper maps some of the intersections between nationalism and libraries by considering how changing concepts of nationhood and Australian identity have influenced the formation and development of the National Library of Australia.
In an influential article, 'Public libraries and national identity in Britain, 1850-1919', G. K. Peatling takes library historians to task for their neglect of nationalism as a focus of study, noting the 'failure to assimilate one theme of increasing currency among the wider historical community, that of national identity' (1) He adds that 'within the field of history, so varied and widespread has the literature around the theme of national identity become that it would seem any sub-discipline seriously intent on gaining greater academic consideration would be ill-advised to ignore it'. (2)
Peatling's assessment of the engagement of library historians with nationalism is perhaps too harsh. Certainly students of book and library history focusing outside the academe of Britain and America have attempted to track the influence of nationalist politics and ideology on library collections and practices. Mary Stuart, for example, has described how the creation of the Rossica Collection of the Russian Imperial Library was used to promote burgeoning Russian imperialism and nationality in the nineteenth century. (3) Andras Riedlmayer has explored in a series of articles how the documentary heritage of the former Yugoslavia, embodied in national and academic library collections, was targeted during the Bosnian-Serb conflicts to destroy ethnic groups through the decimation of their cultural and linguistic heritage. (4) In a similar vein, Miriam Valencia has illustrated the important role played by libraries in the Nazi assault on Jewish and Polish culture and nationality in World War II, through the appropriation and movement of collections, control of acquisition methods, and even manipulation of classification systems. (5) Pamela Spence Richards has written on how both Soviet and American library activities supported national foreign policy and served nationalistic agendas during the Cold War period. (6)
These selective examples represent a small but lively cohort which has been active in exploring the nexus of nationalism and library history, largely within the context of Eastern European and Middle Eastern historical and cultural studies. Scholars of Western democratic nations have been slower to engage with nationalism as part of the sub-disciplines of library and book history, although their colleagues in the fields of history, political studies and cultural and museum studies have produced substantial bodies of work exploring questions of national identity.
One of the reasons for this neglect is alluded to by Richards, in one of the few essays which does attempt to engage directly with nationalist discourses as they pertain to the libraries of Western nations. In 'Cold war librarianship: Soviet and American library activities in support of national foreign policy, 1946-1991' she argues convincingly that both Cold War superpowers used their libraries to demonstrate their 'economic and cultural …
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Publication information: Article title: Recording the Nation: Nationalism and the History of the National Library of Australia. Contributors: Tiffen, Belinda - Author. Journal title: The Australian Library Journal. Volume: 56. Issue: 3-4 Publication date: November 2007. Page number: 342+. © 2008 Australian Library and Information Association. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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