Building an Archive: The H.H. Richardson Papers in the National Library of Australia

Rather than offer an oral catalogue of the National Library's holdings on Henry Handel Richardson (a revised guide has recently been issued), I thought it might be more interesting to describe briefly the process whereby the Library built up its Richardson collections over a period of fifty years.

I shall start with a basic fact: the Henry Handel Richardson Papers that have survived are nearly all in this Library. There are a few collections in other libraries that contain letters written by Richardson, such as the Kernot Papers in the Mitchell Library, but the papers that Richardson herself assembled and kept during her lifetime, as well as some of the papers of her parents and husband, are stored in the National Library.

As far as I know, Henry Handel Richardson never had any contact with the National Library. It is quite likely that she did not know it even existed. Until well after the Second World War, the Library was a small and fairly obscure institution, located in Parliament House and various temporary locations in Canberra. It was essentially the parliamentary library, although it had been calling itself the Commonwealth National Library since 1923. It had acquired Australian manuscripts, on a small scale, since the early years of the century and it held some notable manuscripts on early exploration and also a couple of substantial political collections. It had occasionally acquired literary manuscripts; for instance, it bought the manuscripts of poems of Lawson, Gilmore and others from A.G. Stephens in 1924. It also had received single manuscripts from one or two English writers, such as Kipling and Masefield. Even so, until the Richardson Papers were acquired, the Library did not hold the personal papers, as distinct from a few manuscript or typescript drafts, of a single Australian writer. By the 1940s, however, the Library was beginning to undertake new activities and projects and gradually challenge the Mitchell Library, its rival in Sydney, as a collector of Australiana. One important initiative was the establishment of a Liaison Office in the Australian High Commission in London in 1944. The Library has had a liaison officer or agent in Australia House ever since and it is hard to see that it could have acquired all the Richardson Papers without that permanent presence in London.

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Published 1 May 1998 in Volume 18 No. 3. Subjects: Australian literature - Manuscripts, Correspondence, Libraries.

Cite as: Powell, Graeme. ‘Building an Archive: The H.H. Richardson Papers in the National Library of Australia.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1998.