5 ways my research as a reference librarian reminds me - entirely by accident - of how grateful I am to the women who have gone before

1. I am grateful to the women who have put up with incredible condescension from men with control issues.

Letter from F R Timbury

(Hint: the indignity is in the last line – to add insult to injury she would have had to type that!)

This is the last page of a five page letter from one FR Timbury to the editor who dared question him. Timbury was asked to contribute a significant portion of work to the book Onward Australia by Ion Idriess. The book was about inland development and Timbury’s contribution was focused on diverting waterways inland to increase farming production. He was a rugby player who represented Australia and went on to become Mayor of Roma. 

I found this letter while doing a query for a person who believed we had a catalogue record wrong in asserting we had a manuscript written by Timbury for Onward Australia.

2. I am grateful to the women who were the exception to the rule 100 years before they would have received any credit or encouragement for it.

Armidale Amazons, all-female firefighting brigade, October 2006, Emergency / Department of Emergency Service

I found this photograph in Queensland’s Emergency Services’ magazine Emergency while looking for some mention of campfire legislation for a query. The Armidale Amazons were an all-female firefighting brigade in the early 20th century. This close encounter prompted me to look a little further. Of course, Trove provided me several articles and photographs on this all female firefighting team who gained recognition across the globe.

The Town of Armidale. (1904, July 13). Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 - 1907), p. 28. Retrieved March 4, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71511620

FIRE BRIGADES' DEMONSTRATION AT ARMIDALE. (1904, January 2). Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 - 1954), p. 1. Retrieved March 4, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article79380978

The Armidale Amazon Fire Brigade. (1903, August 18). Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1889 - 1915), p. 4. Retrieved March 4, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article61396472

3. I am grateful when I read anything and everything about the Australian Women’s Land Army.

Working on the farm, World War II, ca. 1942, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Negative number: 161585

Women all over Australia flocked to the organisation like the Country Women's Association (CWA) in an effort to form an official Land Army in Australia at the commencement of World War two. Their efforts were not recognised by the government till 1942 and they met criticism and resistance from all quarters – the government, the agricultural lobby and those whose farms they were working. 

Objections from agricultural groups ranged from not being able to train women to prune to just being unable to cope with the sight of ‘women folk ploughing’ (Hardisty 1990, p.4).  This reticence was being voiced even as it was acknowledged that women were already doing this work (and have been for centuries – don’t even get me started on the issue of gendered agricultural labour). From the Primary Producers Union “we are dependent on our women having to provide a goodly proportion of labour on most dairy farms today…I doubt very much that there is scope to introduce women … our main concern is to retain sufficient manpower…” (Hardisty, 1990, p.5) 

They were paid under minimum wage and in some circumstances, wages didn’t even cover board or living expense. They didn’t receive uniforms till 1943 and often went cold for lack of clothes or money to buy them as recruit were largely from working class backgrounds. Their war contribution were not properly acknowledged till the 1990s when they were finally allowed to march at Anzac day parades and issued civilian medals. Even then they could only get a medal if they proved their service, which was hard because the department of manpower destroyed all of the Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA) records after the war. 

There have been a couple of books written by AWLA veterans and a documentary made called Thanks Girls and Goodbye: The story of the Australian women’s Land Army. These items are all held at State library and the film is also available to stream for free from Kanopy for all State Library members.

4. I am grateful for my never-ending desk reading list – 80% women!!

Pile of books by women authors, Image taken by State Library staff member

Some of these are from research on behalf of clients but others are the result of passing by gems on the shelves during my ‘roves’ (gotta keep an eye on those people sneaking iced coffee and food into the library!). The beauty of general reference collection is the interesting, rigorous and accessible reads at your fingertips. If you’ve ever wondered where to find that sweet spot between your local library and the university library is? It’s here at the State Library of Queensland. 

5. I am grateful for the women who sent me the query that allowed me to find this photo – in my opinion one of the most engaging photographs in our collection.

South Sea Islander woman planting sugar cane in a field, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Negative number: 142325

I encountered this photo because a client has requested that I identify what copyright restrictions – if any – were on it. She wanted to publish it in a memorial blog to the late Tracey Banivanua Mar, an indigenous historian. Tracey Banivanua Mar had featured a series of photographs of Australian South Sea Islander women in her article "The Contours of Agency: Women’s Work, Race, and Queensland’s Indentured Labour Trade." In Indigenous Women and Work, pp. 73-87. These women had been slaves on the sugar plantations in Queensland. We hold the photos in our collection. 

This photo spoke to me. I’m not even sure I can put it into words without sounding trite or privileged (I am a white middle-class women after all). It’s something about her smile that might not be a real smile, something about her situation, something about the way she reached down to her child. She’s not broken and you just know she’s got this. This photo was featured in our recent exhibition Plantation Voices.

Leela Wittmer

Librarian, Information Services

State Library of Queensland

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