Northcote High School Library decided to get rid of some books, which is not news: such libraries discard books all the time. Except, the method by which NHS Library went about it was news. A week ago, The Age‘s Adam Carey had a report, School library discards outdated and offensive books on colonisation: Carey’s report begins,
Dozens of 20th century non-fiction titles deemed historically inaccurate or offensive have been removed from the Northcote High School library as part of a push to decolonise the school’s book collection.
“decolonise”. Yep, again.
There are already other signs that this will not end well: the meaning of “historically inaccurate” can be subjective; “offensive” is very subjective, and very shaky ground for the removal of a book. Carey’s title could have used some quotes or, better, scare quotes.
The critical question is, who is doing the deeming, and how? Well,
[The school] leaned heavily on the guidance of Dr Al Fricker, a Dja Dja Wurrung man and expert in Indigenous education at Deakin University …
Dr. Fricker and the school librarians apparently went through “all 7000 titles”, and according to Dr. Fricker,
Some of the books removed were almost 50 years old and were simply gathering dust anyway.
Carey quotes Dr. Fricker,
We wouldn’t accept science books being that old in the library …
To which the only appropriate response is “Yes, we damn well would, you ignorant clown”.
Some solid truths, in the sciences and the humanities, have a way of staying true. But clearly Dr. Fricker is not a fan of the Olds. How, then, did Dr. Fricker and the school librarians deem which dusty texts were no longer acceptable?
Books were assessed to make sure they were predominantly written by First Nations people, or had First Nations people working or authorising them …
Authorised by First Nations people even if the text was not primarily about First Nations people?
Others were removed because they promoted heroic stereotypes of colonialist settlers but overlooked the frontier wars.
Which appears to answer our question. If a history text deigns to suggest it wasn’t all easy going for colonialist settlers, of if there is insufficient Indigenous blood splattered on the pages, then farewell to the text.
Dr. Fricker and the librarians also had issues with “offensive [and] outdated terminology”:
Texts that refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as nomads or hunter-gatherers … are among those that were cut from the school’s collection.
[It was ensured that books] did not use outdated images or inappropriate language such as “aborigines”.
We’re not going to enter the anthropological minefield of accurate and acceptable terminology. It suffices to note that what is deemed to be the acceptable, best or necessary term to use has changed several times over a short period. (Alternating “Aboriginal” or “Aborigine”, capitalised or not, as one or both forms were labelled disrespectful; then “Koori” was mandatory for a period; then “Indigenous Peoples”; and now Fricker’s sparkly new “First Nations”.) It makes it absurd to glean automatic offence from writings published in earlier phases of this ongoing history of linguistic policing. In particular, discarding every text that refers to “hunter-gatherers” or “aborigines” is likely to result in a hell of a bonfire.
To be fair, not all texts deemed problematic were discarded. Carey’s report indicates that 36 texts were removed from the library, but also with
a further 12 titles being filed under a new restricted category. … These books were kept in the collection but flagged as restricted, with a blurb explaining why.
Dr. Fricker explains:
It just means that [students] don’t just accept those books at face value and take them as gospel …
Also implying, it seems, that the texts of which Lord Fricker approves – Dark Emu, for instance – should be taken as gospel.
In the end, the question is what are the 48 books Dr. Fricker and the librarians deemed sufficiently “outdated” to warrant removal or brown-bagging. We do not know the answer. Carey’s report names five books that were removed, however, although without any indication of the specific reasons:
Beverley Kingston is a serious and highly respected historian. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and for three decades, before retiring in 1999, was an Associate Professor at UNSW. Kingston was also a trailblazer. In 1972, Kingston created and taught the first university subject on Australian women’s history, indeed the first Australian subject on “Women’s Studies” in any sense, and she wrote a number of influential books on aspects of this history. Kingston was a pioneer of the idea that we can teach new things, produce new kinds of history, but it’s a fair bet that Fricker is unaware of and couldn’t care less about any of this.
Published in 2006 – so not all that dusty – Kingston’s A History of New South Wales is regarded as the authoritative historical work on New South Wales. Of course, given the author, the History is the furthest thing from a reactionary tour of noble governors and conquering explorers. All the reviews we have found of Kingston’s history are very positive, and our opinion is that the book is excellent.
Kingston’s writing is careful and scholarly, while also being clear and engaging. The book is enjoyable, a very human and somewhat Left history of a developing, experimental society. There is a strong focus on the effect of historical events on the broader community, on women’s rights and labour rights and, generally, on those in less control of their destiny. She describes well the necessary pragmatism and the inevitable hypocrisy of a new society. Kingston is too professional to indulge in emotive language, but her empathy can be felt throughout.
Again, we’re doubting that Fricker cared, that the general, undeniable merits of Kingston’s History mattered to him. It’s a safe assumption that Fricker’s sole concern was with History’s treatment of “Aborigines”, which is how First Peoples are referred to in the text. “Offensive” term aside, let’s consider this treatment.
Kingston’s History contains a couple dozen passages on the consequences of settlement on Aboriginal society; they are not her primary concern but neither is the coverage token. As with the History in general, these passages are written with a calm concern for truth, but with empathy. Here are two passages, from History’s second chapter, on the early settlement days.
Competition for the fish and oysters found in the waters of Port Jackson was probably the first intimation for the Eora people of the seriousness of the danger represented by these newcomers. Then there was the incredibly efficient felling of trees with iron axes and saws, the destruction of tubers and fouling of water supplies. The Aborigines saw the mysterious but deadly effect of firearms. They experienced inexplicable and devastating sickness as they were exposed to colds and flu, smallpox and venereal disease. Competition for food and other resources led to conflict, thieving, and murder on both sides. Eventually farms with a plentiful supply of corn and potatoes in the barns and lots of meat neatly herded and enclosed by fences would present both a threat and a snare to the independence of the Aboriginal people. This did not happen for some years, and in the meantime, Europe’s diseases and her bad habits were let loose in New South Wales, hunting and fishing grounds were destroyed in desperation or ignorance, and havoc was wreaked on those Aborigines unfortunate enough to live too close to the white settlement.
Commissioners were appointed to collect the fees, supervise the squatters, and adjudicate disputes over rights to grass and water. However, the speed and the distances the squatters
covered in search of unclaimed pasture made regulation impossible. More importantly, the squatters became easy targets for the Aborigines whose lands they were invading with their flocks and herds and wagons of arms and provisions. As Aboriginal attacks became common, so too did squatter demands for military or police protection. But the murder of a group of harmless Aborigines, mostly women and children, by stockmen at Myall Creek in 1838 was certainly not in self-defence. The law exacted capital punishment with unfortunate consequences. … serious crimes committed … against Aborigines … were driven underground. Police became reluctant to lay charges, and juries to convict, lest the prescribed penalty be imposed.
This is not wailing, black armband history, but is stating bluntly the devastating effects of settlement on Aboriginal life. Here is another excerpt, on an Australia Day protest in 1938, the 150th Anniversary of settlement:
While Hero Black, Archie Boney, Anzac Williams, Jimmy Wongram and the others were playing themselves in the official ceremonies, about 100 other Aborigines, veterans of a decade of campaigning against the inequities of the Aborigines’ Protection Board, had gathered in the Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street to pass a resolution declaring 26 January ‘A Day of Mourning and Protest’ for them.” The Protection Board, set up in the 1870s to shield NSW’s remaining full blood Aborigines from exploitation as closer settlement claimed evermore of their land, had clearly failed. The number of full bloods declined to a pitiful level. This was not surprising as levels of nutrition on the board’s reserves were often woeful and the withdrawal of rations used frequently as a punishment, while health-care and education were badly administered often by the same under-qualified, overworked and poorly paid manager and his wife. Nevertheless, the board managed to have its powers extended to cover part-Aborigines as well by insisting on its duty to educate part-Aboriginal children excluded from state schools, and to supervise their training as farmhands or domestics. Those Aborigines who were, in fact, struggling for independent economic survival saw the board as a threat to their independence anda barrier to their self-respect. Known by Aboriginal people in the 1930 as the Persecution Board, it represented both charity and the officialdom they desired to avoid, the equivalent of the workhouse detested by the poor in Victorian England.
Did Fricker find these passages unacceptable? We very much doubt that he considered them at all, given he had another 6999 texts waiting for him, to be either condemned or reprieved. It’s a reasonable assumption that Fricker spotted “Aborigines” in History and that was enough. Even if not, even if Fricker went further and located some other micro-crime, Fricker’s rejection of History is absurd.
It seems plainly obvious that Fricker did not properly evaluate History to weigh the text’s virtues and problems. For Fricker, one “offence” apparently outweighed all virtues, irrespective of how minor the former and how great the latter, and no matter that the book might be the best or only source in that library for information on some particular topic, including topics that Fricker would presumably claim to care about. There is no reason to believe the other 35 condemned books were treated with any greater consideration or respect.
Unsurprisingly, a number of historians are quietly livid with the treatment of Kingston’s fine work and, by extension, Kingston. But also, and also unsurprisingly, Fricker and the school librarians had applauding supporters, who will undoubtedly continue to applaud as Fricker continues his decolonising crusade. AEU, the powerful teachers’ union, clapped happily. A few librarians were only grumpy with Fricker for his getting the credit when they’d already been merrily “decolonising” their libraries; Carey also reports that the School Library Association of Victorian considered that the Northcote school “had set an example for other schools to follow”. Which is all closer to the Fahrenheit 451 firemen than one would ever hope to be occurring in real life.