Lessons from the State Library of Victoria

Nic Low

I spend a lot of my time writing in a cottage in the bush. As an antidote to isolation, when in Melbourne I work out of the State Library of Victoria. I love the atmosphere beneath the reading room dome: readers deep in their cups, students flirting in echoing whispers, security guards watching like snipers from the galleries above. I’ve become fond of some of the guards over the years, particularly the eastern-European woman with short blonde hair, and the older caucasian bloke with a big white moustache. They never remember me.

Anyone who’s worked in the dome knows the chairs are lethal. They’re hard-edged and awkward, and leaning back evokes an ejector-seat mechanism liable to dump you on the floor. To break up long days in those atrocious seats, I take breaks every hour to roam the building. Part of my ritual is to pull a random book from the shelves and read a couple of pages. I’ve been doing it since undergrad. I’m yet to choose a book that hasn’t given me some useful insight. If you’re like me and try to rationally control every aspect of your writing, serendipity, the joker, is a powerful force.

Over the years spent visiting the dome, I’ve begun to explore further afield on my walking breaks. The SLV is not so much a building as a hive, and there are galleries and chambers I missed when I first arrived. (I’m embarrassed to admit this, but for about six months I thought the Redmond Barry Reading Room was the dome. I felt foolish and delighted when I took the other stairs and found myself gazing up into that well of light). The dome galleries are stunning, more so if reached via the old spiral staircases when the guards aren’t looking; the upstairs corridors, the offices of the visiting scholars, the stacks of obscure small-town newspapers, the old cloak rooms: everything has a story to tell.

But the best place to pull things off shelves at random is in the archives. The SLV archives are a wonder: several floors and many acres of tight-spaced rows containing the output of tens of thousands of brilliant souls. As research for my current book, I’m looking for traces of nineteenth-century Māori visitors to Melbourne, which has meant spending long hours down there identifying Māori-language texts. I still adhere to my hourly breaks. It’s a privilege to wander among that history, to pause, pick something at random and read. If the spacious dome is Melbourne’s consciousness, the archives are its unconscious. Each time I dip into an archival box it’s a glimpse of the city’s collective dreams.

Like dreams, much of what’s down there is banal (urban planning and drainage figure strongly), but I’ve also found some fascinating things. There’s a file of large-format maps showing mineral strata covering the whole of Australia. They’re a wild spray of colours—pink for bauxite, green for iron, black for auriforous reefs. (I like to imagine the complete set laid out across Etihad Stadium, so we could walk the continent to gauge the scale of our mineral wealth.) I’ve dipped into troves of letters relating to early farming and bush life that don’t look like they’ve ever been catalogued; and there’s even one row entirely containing cook books going back to the 1850s. But what intrigues me more than anything, and the real reason for this post, is the section devoted to Australia’s literary magazines.

Back above ground in the 800s section of the dome (on the far wall opposite the entrance), you’ll find every back-issue of every journal of note that’s gone to print in Australia. Southerly is there, as is Meanjin, Overland, Quadrant, Australian Literary Review, and now the younger generation of titles like The Canary Press and The Lifted Brow. New issues are in single copies, back-issues bound together into hardcover volumes. So while many of you will know this section, you may not realise that beneath the dome is a cornucopia of archival material relating to those same magazines. And this is where it gets interesting. As far as I can tell—from pulling items at random, backed up by casual chats with archival staff—up until budget cuts in the ’90s, not only did the SLV archive the published magazines, they also archived submissions to the magazines.

This is from the days when writers typed or printed their work, sealed it in an envelope and entrusted it to the post. In due course a rejection slip came back. I’d always assumed that unless you’d included that now-obsolete acronym, a SSAE, your manuscript got thrown away. But thanks to some visionary State Librari8ans, many, if not most, of the rejected submissions to Australian literary magazines from the 1940s until the late 90s were stored. The catalogue entries refer to things like ‘Overland Magazine Archival Materials’ or ‘Meanjin Papers 1944-56′; but what that really means is the mother of all slush piles. Seemingly depending on who was editor at the time, some of the boxes I pulled were organised in folders by issue, others a serious mess. Put together, it’s a wonderous (and slightly terrifying) thing to behold.

I’m currently chatting to the Head of Storage and Digital Collection Services, and the current editors of the various magazines about how this might be done, but at some point in the future (when I don’t have a book deadline), I’d like to consider precisely what it was that got thrown out, and why. The romantic in me likes to imagine finding some undiscovered individual genius, but what’s far more interesting, and more useful, is big-picture analysis. Are there patterns in what and who was rejected; whole strands of Australian thinking that never really saw the light of day? In this digital age could we digitise and publish the whole damn lot, as one big ugly fascinating mess? And what would it do to a person’s brain to try to read the entire slush pile of 60 years worth of rejected work?

I’ll come back to these ideas in a future post once we’ve had a little more chance to gauge the extent of what’s there. And next week, if the SLV team give me the go-ahead to reproduce it here, I’m going to share one little gem I found in that great compost heap. It’s a manifesto of sorts, or perhaps I should say, a shopping list. Australia isn’t big on manifestos. They’re idealistic and prescriptive, and usually pretty pompous (if anyone’s followed the New Aesthetic movement out of the UK a year or two back, you’ll know what I mean). So while Australia has had its share of recognisable literary groups and cliques, it’s pretty rare for anyone to commit a set of goals and demands to paper. So, I was excited to turn up something that does exactly that. While it was never published, it seems to sum up pretty neatly what Australian writing over the twentieth century has been about.