Monday musings on Australian literature: Untapped (The Australian Literary Heritage Project)

I have Lisa (ANZLitLovers) to thank for this Monday Musings because, commenting on my recent Margaret Barbalet post, she mentioned this Untapped project, which, embarrassingly, was unknown to me. Then, seeing our discussion, novelist Dorothy Johnston joined in, and offered to send me some information, which she did. So, I now have a copy of the launch announcement press release. This eased my embarrassment a little, as the project was announced two months ago, on 18 November 2021, and was launched on 6 December (at this gala event). Easy to miss, says she, at such a busy time of year!

Yes, yes, but what is it, I hear you all saying? Essentially, Untapped aims “to identify Australia’s lost literary treasures and bring them back to life”. In other words, it’s about bringing to the fore again those books that have been published in the past but are now out-of-print. The books are produced in eBook format, and are available for borrowing from libraries and purchase from several eBooksellers.

I like that it’s “a collaboration between authors, libraries and researchers”, and that “it creates a new income source for Australian authors, who currently have few options for getting their out-of-print titles available in libraries”. The project has some significant partners, including the Australian Society of Authors, National State and Territory Libraries, the Australian Library and Information Association and Ligature Press. 

What a visionary and practical project. I am particularly thrilled about it because it ties in somewhat with our reframing this year of the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW) to focus on forgotten and past women writers. The two activities don’t completely align: the new AWW is focusing on works published fifty or more years ago, whereas Untapped focuses on books that have gone out of print, and many of these are far more recent than 50 years old.

On the Untapped website, linked above, they have clearly outlined the steps:

  1. Identify missing books: it seems that the current collection comprises 161 books, which they describe as an “inclusive and diverse selection of lost books in need of rescue”.
  2. Find the authors and obtain the rights: this, I imagine, would have been particularly time consuming, tracking down the appropriate people to deal with – authors, estates and/or literary agents.
  3. Digitise the works: this involved scanning, then using OCR to convert the text, followed by careful proof-reading and scan quality checking. For this proofreading they focused on “hiring arts workers affected by COVID”. Then there’s all the work involved in (digital) publication, including design, metadata, royalty accounting, and uploading onto the library lending and other platforms.
  4. Promote the collection: this is where the libraries come into their own, promoting the collection in their various ways, and ensuring payment to the authors. Dorothy Johnston mentioned in her comment on my post that “we’re hoping to generate some publicity through the Geelong Regional Libraries this year”. She’d love to find any other “current or past writers living in or writing about Geelong” who might be covered by the collection. If you live in Geelong, keep an eye out for this.
  5. Collect the data and crunch the numbers: like any good project, its managers will analyse the sales and loan data. Their aim is “to understand the value of out-of-print rights to authors, the value of libraries’ book promotion efforts, and the relationship between library lending and sales”. They will feed this data, they say, “into public policy discussions about how we can best support Australian authors and literary culture”. They also hope the project might encourage new interest from commercial publishers. This research aspect is led by Rebecca Giblin, Associate Professor of Law, University of Melbourne.

As I understand it, the initial project involves this collection of 161 books, and the research will be based on this, but having created the infrastructure, they plan to “keep rescuing lost literary treasures” for as long as they have the resources to do so. The books will also be lodged at the National Library as part of its e-deposit scheme, ensuring that they’ll be available “for as long as libraries exist”.

It’s a great initiative that will spotlight work from beloved Australian authors and provide new access to those works. (Olivia Lanchester, CEO, Australian Society of Authors from Press Release)

The books

When Lisa mentioned the project, it was to say she’d bought Margaret Barbalet’s non-fiction book, Low gutter girl: The forgotten world of state wards, South Australia, 1887–1940. So, curious, I checked the site out, and bought Canberra tales, the anthology of short stories by Canberra’s Seven Writers (Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge, Marion Halligan, Dorothy Horsfield, Dorothy Johnston) .

However, Lisa’s purchase should tell you something interesting about the collection, which is that it contains not only fiction. It includes a wide range of genres and forms, including novels, histories, memoirs, and poetry. The project also wanted a diverse collection, so there are works by First Nations author Anita Heiss, Greek-born Vogel/The Australian award winning author Jim Sakkas, and Lebanese-born writer and academic Abbas El-Zein, to name a few. Their books are all 21st century, but, there are also significantly older books, like Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate strangers (1937) and M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (1947).

I thought, of course, to check my own library, the ACT Library Service, and found an announcement on their website. Not surprisingly, they draw attention to a Canberra connection, as Johnston would like to do in Geelong:

The books include some with a connection to Canberra, through the author or substantial Canberra-related content. For example: The golden dress by Marion Halligan, One for the master by Dorothy Johnston, The moth hunters by Josephine Flood, The schoonermaster’s dance by Alan Gould, and others.

I should add that all of Canberra’s Seven Writers are included.

So, a wonderful project. The question is, will it achieve its goal of ensuring the long tail of authors’ works stay available in a world where money not culture rules?

57 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Untapped (The Australian Literary Heritage Project)

  1. I’ll have to buy Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. I get emails from 3 (Perth) suburban libraries but I can’t see that any of them mentioned this initiative in the last two or three months. I’ll go to South Perth tomorrow and see what they say (and I’ll email my librarian cousin).

      • City of South Perth Library have never heard of Untapped and when the found it on the internet their senior technician said, Oh, that’s a State Library thing. A nice young man did take my phone and locate Untapped on my BorrowBox app (which defaults to audiobooks).

    • Good question, M-R. the site talks about this a little. Reading between the lines, there was either a committee or coordinator drawn from “library collections experts, the Australian Society of Authors, literary agents and individuals”. Hou it exactly worked I don’t know, but with libraries involved, seeing the results, and reading their brief intro, they had a clear idea about “cultural importance”, which they defined broadly” and being “inclusive and diverse”. There would have been practical issues too re garding locating the rights owners and whether they were willing to participate.

  2. Thanks for your post, WG! You’ve explained the project very clearly, though I understand that there are quite a few questions remaining to be answered, and more questions will no doubt arise as the project unfolds. I don’t know all the details, but, in answer to your question M-R, a committee was set up to create an initial list of books. (I don’t know who was on it.) There is no suggestion that this list is final or exclusive. I don’t know if past library borrowing records were consulted, but I want to pay tribute here to the wonderful branch manager at Queenscliff, who has been patching and mending the few last library copies of ‘One for the Master’ in the hope that people will still be able to go on borrowing it. Now they can.

    • Thanks Dorothy. Yes I should have covered the selection of books. I thought the website was clear in a general way about this, but not about the details. My guess is the list was a lot longer than the collection is, and that some books on it might skll appear if rights holders can be found, rights negotiated (though I can’t imagine many owners of out of print books would not be interested.

      More interesting is about the future -what is the structure and process for keeping the collection expanding. What consideration was taken, is being taken, re commercial action like Text Classics?

    • Dorothy, WG and I were discussing just yesterday did Social Realism come to an end in the 1960s, but I see Goodreads describes One for the Master as SR. Now I’ll have to find a copy.

    • Drat! I should have kept my copy of it! The Spouse bought it for me way back in the 90s, from the International Bookshop (which was a very appropriate bookshop for it, given its industrial content, eh?)

      • Abbas is a friend of ours, so I’m thrilled that his books can still be found this way!

        (Sorry for the late commenting. I’ve been reading blogs on my phone, but for some reason am having a LOT of trouble liking and commenting. It seems to want me to log in every single time on every single blog! So I have to wait until I get onto my laptop to comment…and I then often forget what I was planning on saying!)

        • 0h Bona, I’m not the only one. I’m having the same problems. It started with one or two blogs but it happening to more and more. I’ve tried everything I (and Mr Gums) can think of. I can rarely like a post now because it assumes I’m not logged in. I think this means I can only like a post l’ve already commented on.

        • It’s nice when a tech issue is not you alone! Hopefully alleviates the user-error factor 😅 I have noticed it keeps prompting me to use google chrome as my default browser (which I won’t do) so maybe it has something to do with that????

        • I am in the same case, with an Android phone and Firefox browser (which Android/Google resists at every opportunity). I had assumed it was because my default mail account was different from my WP one, but I’m starting to think WP just doesn’t like phones. Did you see Kimbofo’s suggestion to use the WP app? Not something I’ve tried.

        • I am replying using the wp app & I’ve had nine of the usual issues. Trouble is I cannot filter & sort blogs on the reader like I can in Feedly. Over the years I have followed (too) many blogs so trying to find Sue’s post was tricky. Replying to a comment is easy on the app too. Maybe Kim knows of a way to sort all the blogs?

        • Yes, I reply to comments quite often on the app, under notifications, as I’m doing now, but that only works, doesn’t it, once someone else has commented on your blog or on your comment on another blog. I don’t like readers full stop. I use email with filtering to catch the blogs I follow. Mainly because I just don’t want to have another place to check.

        • Wow, so what’s going on? I hate the app. I use it to check notifications and respond to comments sometimes… As I’m doing now… But my problem comes when commenting on other blogs. Or is she talking about the WP app reader? I don’t like that either!

  3. Good that you’ve got on to this, WG. They approached all of us Seven Writers separately as well as for Canberra Tales, but if my response was anything to go by, none of us were sure that any of the others had been contacted and were reluctant to ask for fear of hurting feelings. So it was great to see the others had books on the list. They asked me first about West Block but since it just had been reprinted they offered to use Sapphires instead. A great boost to us all.

    • Thanks Sara … I checked all your names and guessed they’d asked you all, which is wonderful and a testament to the standing you all have individually. I saw that your Sapphires was there. Excellent.

  4. I don’t know the answer to most of these questions, but thanks for asking them. I doubt if print on demand will be considered for cost reasons. And I don’t know about Text Classics, which has of course filled a gap. It depends on the budget, doesn’t it, how far the collection will expand, and also on the interest shown in the first lot of books. In answer to your question, Wadholloway, it took me 7 years to find a publisher for ‘One for the Master’. During most of this time, postmodernism was the height of fashion. But would I call my novel social realism? Probably not. If you do read it, please let me know what you think.

    • I should have included some in my post, as some of these ponderings did pop into my head. I need to get over my desire to keep my posts to around 1000 words! I know I have limited time to read blogs so I try not to turn people off.

      Social realism … I’m thinking that some of the books I read in the 80s and 90s could be seen to deal with social justice issues (poverty, class division, etc) but the style/approach/voice was different. Less documentary sounding, more internal; less telling, more showing? I’m rummaging around in my memory here and being a bit clumsy … and probably pushing the envelope a bit.

      • The authors of that period who are ‘political’ – Thea Astley, Marie Munkara, Janet Turner Hospital for eg. – deal with the issues of the time, race and refugees (more race) and terrorism. Economic/Industrial stuff is so 1930s. And now that we have stopped being prosperous the reaction in fiction has been to go Dystopian.
        I’m interested that DJ says she was writing in an atmosphere of postmodernism. I really must read One for the Master

  5. I’m not taking any of the credit for this post, Sue, you would have come across it in due course anyway. I’ve trawled through everything on their site, and I’m going to go back through those that I’ve reviewed and tag them on my blog so that people will know that they’re available. If there’s not too many for it to be onerous, I’ll also add a link to the site on the separate reviews…

  6. I’m unclear on this Sue – do they want us to purchase hard copies to donate to the collection/library, or for outselves? Apologies if I have misread your post!

    • Hi Sue, sorry if I’m not clear … no, this is a project whereby out-of-print books that the project consider should still be available have been digitised and placed in libraries for borrowing by readers via electronic lending services such as BorrowBox or for purchase from eBook sellers like Amazon Kindle. I think the end of paragraph 2 says this, but I realise now that I should have made it the opening sentence of paragraph 2.

  7. Thanks for clarifying Sue! I thought that was what you meant as there’s no money for publishers in printing them, which is sad.

    • Phew, thanks, Sue, glad we’ve worked that out. I was pondering with Dorothy re whether print-on-demand might be a goer for those who prefer print copies. It seems that print on demand hasn’t really taken off as a point-of-sale service as it was thought it might.

      • My persona experience of print-on-demand was ending up with a paperback was so tiny it was almost too small to read Sue, (in fact I remember discussing it on your blog somewhere) so I would think poor quality such as that wouldn’t help matters. The book store owner was unimpressed when she saw it, and she won best regional bookstore a while back.

        I wonder how many people do read Australian novels like those of Astley, Witting etc? You reviewers would know better than I, and I’m genuinely interested? Is it a niche group of readers?

        I have a copy of Astley’s The Orchard Thieves out on loan from our regional library (and I think it’s wonderful). It is in near perfect condition except for a little yellowing of the pages due to age. I notice from the stamp at the back it was borrowed once in 1997, once in 1998 and twice in 1999. The record is then a blank until It was lent out four times in 2006. There is no written record of loans from 2006 until now, it would be interesting to ask the library staff to check, I wonder if they can? It doesn’t even have one dog-eared corner, so I can’t imagine it has been borrowed many times since 2006. It’s a 1995 paperback edition.

        What does this tell us about reading habits in my area I wonder!

        • Yes, we did discuss it Sue. I bought Thea Astley’s A girl with a monkey in POD, and while it wasn’t beautiful, and had very narrow margins (hopeless for a marginalia person like me!), it was certainly OK, but not perhaps for people with sight issues.

          And yes, good question. My reading group did Witting last night, and we love Aussie women writers, but several had never heard of her. These are literary fiction writers, and that “genre” is a bit niche, like most genres (but some niches are bigger than others!) That doesn’t mean though that there aren’t more people to reach. Also, Untapped does have a variety, including a few Garry Disher novels.

          I’m guessing you mean Elizabeth Jolley’s The orchard thieves? I guess the fact that the paperback has lasted all that time suggests that it hasn’t been handled a huge lot! The shame is that it seems that public libraries aren’t doing more to promote our literary heritage. If librarians don’t know or care about it, where are going to struggles to get Aussies to know or care. Just a display of older Aussie books every now and then, a piece in their newsletter or on their websites focusing on an author or era, etc, would get even a couple of keen readers who might then by word of mouth tell another.

  8. I have found a few of the novels digitised in Untapped in various street libraries and events such as Bookfest here in Brisbane. Occasionally op shops as well. They tend to be ancient and battered and either free of very cheap but are ok as all I want is to read them (or eventually read I should say). I did notice that George Turners Cupboard Under The Stairs is digitised. Hooray! Never seen it anywhere but for sale at huge prices on the internet.

    • Thanks fourtriplezed. Yes, as you say, they are around but you can’t guarantee to get what you want when you want it, can you? With these available again now, maybe some courses will include them in reading lists!

    • Thanks Liz … and very true about OCR. I do sporadic editing on TROVE, which includes our National Library’s newspaper digitisation project, and some of the OCR is terrible as you can imagine given the print quality and age of many of the papers.

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