Setting the Record Straight: Bibliography and Australian Literature

By Hetherington, Carol | Australian Literary Studies, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Setting the Record Straight: Bibliography and Australian Literature


Hetherington, Carol, Australian Literary Studies


The AustLit Gateway is the result of a collaboration between eight Australian universities and the National Library of Australia. It began in 1999 'when a group of Australian universities, which had developed general and specialist Australian literature databases over the previous decade, decided to pool this knowledge into a single web-based information service' (AustLit Homepage). The project was a response to a perceived need for a comprehensive scholarly bibliography of the national literature that positioned itself to exploit advances in electronic technology and the flexibility of the online environment. This paper has no intention of tracing the history of Australian bibliography per se, but a brief overview of the development of bibliography in the field of Australian literary studies to 1999 will allow us to examine the way in which AustLit continues a bibliographic tradition, while extending, crossing and re-defining existing limits and boundaries.

Rigorous, scholarly bibliography must be considered a cornerstone of critical and interpretive literary studies. What do we mean by bibliography? D.F. McKenzie suggests that 'Bibliography is the discipline that studies texts as recorded forms, and the processes of their transmission including their production and reception' (12). Put more simply, bibliography is the recording and description of literary production. Within this definition there is room to encompass a huge diversity of endeavour, from the national bibliographies claiming to record the 'literary output of an entire country', through bibliographies within particular disciplines, to the bibliographies, or lists of works cited, accompanying articles and essays; it involves the recording and representation of material in the whole range of formats--print, audio-visual media, and electronic sources. Historically it has included the detailed description of books as physical artifacts that is usually found now only in work on pre-twentieth-century texts, manuscript cataloguing and the catalogues of specialist booksellers. Contemporary bibliography is leaner, sparer, and places more emphasis on information indexing. The legendary E. Morris Miller himself avoided what he called 'over-elaboration and minute discussion of the technical details of books' (Miller 2).

Writing in 1940, Miller highlights the relationship between bibliography and criticism as well as foreshadowing the growth of the latter. In the introduction to his Australian Literature: From Its Beginnings" to 1935 he says: 'The development of literature in Australia has reached the stage when the demand for criticism has become impelling.... But criticism cannot accomplish its purpose without the aid of bibliography' (1). Miller's Australian Literature, updated and extended to 1950 by Frederick Macartney, was the first attempt at a comprehensive bibliography of Australian literature. Its breathtakingly simple and optimistic intention was to 'place on record the extent of Australian authorship' (9). (1) Since then, and with good reason, bibliographers have sought to impose limits on the scope of bibliographic projects. It has been estimated by the editors of the Bibliography of Australian Literature 'that almost three times as much creative literature has been published in the five decades since Miller and Macartney's cut-off date of 1950 than in the more than 150 years it covers. That is a sobering thought for any bibliographer' (Hay and Arnold x). While Miller and Macartney listed 8,320 titles by 3,491 authors writing in the creative genres of poetry, fiction and drama, the first volume of the Bibliography of Australian Literature edited by Hay and Arnold lists 10,000 titles by 3,500 authors (Hay and Arnold xii). These figures refer only to separately-published creative works. In addition, contemporary bibliography aims to take into account the body of critical commentary on these 'primary' works, as well as the large quantity of creative and critical work found in periodical publications. …

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