Researching & Writing History

17 May 2011

Unlock the Past logoI attended the Unlock the Past Researching & Writing History Seminar in Adelaide on 13-14 May 2011.

I’m starting to wonder if I attend too many genealogy seminars – why? At this seminar I caught up with people I met at the Genealogical Society of Victoria‘s Australasian Scottish Conference in Melbourne a few weeks ago and I met the husband of a friend I caught up with at the Auslib Sense of Place local studies conference in Sydney a week ago. Plus I caught up with various Adelaide friends as well. Genealogy and family history is a great way to build up a network of friends and colleagues around the countryside.

In my various studies and government jobs over the years, I have been involved with or had responsibility for various publications so I was familiar with a lot of the content of this seminar but it was good to get fresh perspectives on some of the issues.

Day one started with Peter Donovan, professional historian from Donovan & Associates talking about So, You Want To Write History? and this was an informative talk illustrated entirely with cartoons which I loved. Included in the seminar satchel was a copy of Peter’s book Adventures With Clio: Historians Recounting Their Memorable Experiences and for the bargain price of $5.00 I was also able to buy Peter’s book So, You Want To Write History which was the basis of his talk. It was a great introduction to the two day seminar.

Next was Peter Bell a professional historian and writer talking about How Old Is My House and this was an introduction on how to trace a house history with lots of practical hints and good illustrations. Peter’s handout summarised the major sources. I first met Peter back in Brisbane in the early 1980s when I was working in the John Oxley Library – good to see we are both still involved with history 30 years later.

Due to illness, Cassie Mercer from Inside History a new magazine launched last year, was unable to attend and Alan Phillips from Unlock the Past (UTP) spoke briefly about Inside History, UTP and Find My Past Australasian collection.

After lunch was Ashley Mallett, an editor and author, talking about Sporting History and Biography and this was one of the topics I was most interested in. However Ashley’s presentation was more suited as an entertaining after dinner type talk rather than a how to session and I am no wiser on how to research sporting history and biography.

The next speaker was myself talking on Writing Resource Guides and this is an area well outside my usual comfort zone as I have never talked on this subject before. I agonised over what to say, what to include and in the end I opted for basic advice based on my own experience and included some of my favourite resources so that attendees could go home and check them out. I was grateful for the feedback over afternoon tea which was positive I’m happy to say. I might blog this talk as the websites might be of interest to others.

Carol Baxter, genealogist and author, was the next speaker on Writing Creative Non-Fiction. Carol is an enthusiastic and motivating speaker who set the scene for her two talks on Writing Interesting Family Histories the following day.

Jackie van Bergen, a proof reader, was next with What I Meant To Say Was … and this was an interesting and humorous session which was summarised in her handout. A key lesson was not to rely on spell check alone as it only picks up words spelt incorrectly, and won’t pick up where you have used a wrong word. She gave examples where publishers had to pulp books because of inappropriate words not being picked up in the editing and proof reading stages.

In the last session of the day on Publishing and Marketing – Self Publishing or With a Recognised Publisher, John Scardigno from Peacock Publications and Michael Bollen from Wakefield Press talked about the issues involved.

Day 2 started with Graham Jaunay from Adelaide Proformat talking about Accessing Government and Private Archives. As a former government archivist I always find it interesting hearing researchers talk about using archives and some of the issues they find frustrating. It was good to see Graham talking about private archives in Adelaide as all to often researchers only think about government archives.

Carol Baxter was next with Writing Interesting Family Histories which is the title of her book on the subject and I think most attendees went home with a copy – I know I did! Carol gave examples of how to turn boring paragraphs into something much more interesting and appealing to readers.

After lunch, Annie Payne from History From The Heart gave a talk on Gather, Organise & Preserve Your Personal & Family Stories which was also a bit of show and tell. Annie held up items such as a green butter dish and asked attendees what memories did the dish invoke and we could all identify with it (although my Gen Y son wouldn’t have a clue) .

One thing I especially liked was when she handed out three jars, each with a particular smell inside and people were asked to recall what memories the smell brought back. I use photos and documents to stimulate memories but had never thought of using smell before.

Patricia Sumerling then spoke on Oral History: Tips For Historians and her informative handout summarised her various points. Patricia also gave the next talk on Understanding Context in History or A Work of Fiction, again with a useful handout. She was an entertaining speaker giving her own experiences  on various projects and books to highlight the points she was making.

The final session was Printing Your Book with David Sweeney from Openbook Howden. He illustrated his talk with examples of various books and gave costs for each type which was quite useful for those planning to publish.

Earlier I mentioned the seminar satchel and it had lots of useful flyers and handouts from publishing companies and presenters so that attendees can learn more after the seminar. There were trade display tables including Gould Genealogy & History, Unlock The Past, Wakefield Press and History From The Heart.

All up it was a very intensive two days and as usual I have come away with new ideas, new things to do, and renewed inspiration to finalise all those various draft family histories I have sitting in my filing cabinets. Now to find the time!!

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  1. Would love to attend something similar in Sydney (Hint,hint Unlock the Past)
    Sounds like a great event with good variety of speakers.

  2. We always thought this theme was something we could do anywhere – preferably with a host partner to assist with publicity. But we wanted to see how the first one went before making any further commitments. We have been sounded out about a slightly varied theme for Melbourne next year. Brisbane is another possibility. Sydney? There seems to be a lot going on there, but we are open to it if supported locally.

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