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Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

8 August 2017

'Secret files from World Wars to Cold War' database

Librarians Anna Rubinowski and Melanie Thorn let us in on a little known story from the Cold War era, as an example of what can be found by researchers using this database of secret files, available through the Library.


Attaching a dispatch on a carrier pigeon during the Cold War
On 14 August 1947, in the third meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Carrier Pigeons, held at the Ministry of Defence in London, Flight Lieutenant Walker informed the Committee that civilian member Captain Caiger had “invented a form of box, by means of which to launch pigeons from high speed aircraft, and that he had constructed a prototype”. The Committee, made up of representatives from various areas of the British Armed Forces, agreed that the Air Ministry should arrange trials of this prototype in consultation with M.I.5 and report back to the Committee.

The minutes of this top-secret meeting are part of the British government secret intelligence and foreign policy files available through Secret Files from World Wars to Cold War. Sourced from the U.K. National Archives, the database centres around the Permanent Under-secretary Department’s files documenting British intelligence activities from 1873 to 1951 and their influence on foreign policy. All files are full-text searchable and point to related content, making it easy to discover the fascinating stories that shaped world history in the 20th century.

Following the trail of the carrier pigeons, the files tell the story of the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee that was formed in November 1945 in response to General Menzies’ top secret memo summarising the use of pigeons in WWI by both sides (including that pigeons on parachutes were dropped over enemy-occupied zones with questionnaires for patriots, and that Abweher pigeon lofts were ‘contaminated’ by English pigeons disguised as German pigeons) and identifying a need to continue this work. The Committee’s role was to collect and circulate information on the latest developments in the area and to ‘be responsible for research, experimental work, and the training facilities required by personnel of the Intelligence Services’.

During its existence the Committee supported the publication of the ‘Pigeon Racing Gazette’ (through Caiger) in order to foster international contacts, tried to encourage pigeon racing from East to West as opposed to South to North, and mused whether experiments involving human powers of water-divining and coloured pieces of cotton on the face of a compass might be of interest in connection with the different coloured liquids in the eyes of pigeons.

Sadly, the Committee was unceremoniously disbanded in May 1950 because ‘the active use of pigeons was no longer contemplated by any of the potential user Departments’.

Caiger went on to publish ‘The secret of the eye’.

The purchase of the database was made possible through the Ada Booth Benefaction.








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22 May 2017

Insults in early modern Italy' - History Seminar in the Library 2017

Emma Swiney, Honours student, reports on this year's History Seminar in the Library.  

Watch the video of the full lecture below and view Jonathan's slides here.


Dr Jonathan Davies and guests view a Rare book display
 at 2017 Arts/Library History Lecture 

Among some beautiful examples of Early Modern pieces from the Matheson Library Rare Books collection, visiting historian Dr Jonathan Davies from Warwick University presented some of his research into the history of "Insults in Early Modern Italy".

In studying the history of insults in Early Modern Italy, one must contextualise these insults within the violence of the time. It is from this approach that Davies introduced us to Delle Considerationi e Dubitationi Sopra la materia delle mentite, e offese di parole ('Reflections and Doubts on the subject of Falsehoods and Verbal Insults') by Bolognese professor Camillo Baldi.

Davies has been working with this text, often overlooked by other scholars as a reprint of one of Baldi’s other works, as an alternative to the Judicial records that have most often been used to examine the history of insults. From this perspective Davies challenges the traditional conception of Early Modern insults as static and based around shared taboos, and instead posits that, based on research by Trevor Dean, the most powerful insults are, in fact, culturally specific.

Dr Jonathan Davies (R) Warwick University, with
 Peter Howard, Deputy Dean of Arts, Monash
Focussing on Early Modern Italy, these insults are directly related to a culture of honour, which is reflected in the levels of violence and violent crimes in Italy, more so than anywhere else in Europe during the same period. Davies uses evidence quoting homicide rates up to triple that of other contemporary European societies and, more recently, on research into the prevalence of factionalism and feuding in the Italian states. This type of violence shocked contemporaries, as reported by Sir Robert Dallington who travelled the Italian Peninsular in 1596-7. Dallington reported two ways that quarrels were often settled, being through Duals or Vendettas, the latter of which he says caused twenty-one deaths between Pisa, Siena, and Venice only during the time he was travelling in those cities. These two types of quarrels are intrinsically tied to the culture of honour throughout Italy at the time.

Nowhere else was this factionalist violence more pronounced than in Bologna, the city from which Baldi, the author of Davies’ focus text, was writing. Davies suggests that this was caused by the emasculation of the Bolognese aristocracy, upon the defeat of the city by Pope Julius II. The estimated homicide rate of the area quadrupled during this time, and it is in this context that Baldi wrote his Considerationi e Dubitationi. This work, wherein Baldi identifies situations that might arise, and theorizes the most appropriate outcome, was dedicated to the Bolognese Elite, indicating that the situation in Bologna was something that Baldi felt the need to comment on.




As Davies listed the focus of each of the numerous chapters in Baldi’s books, he asked that the audience consider which subjects Baldi highlighted or repeated most, and if there were any patterns they might notice. Additionally, the audience were asked to keep in mind how recent methodologies, such as Gender or Class, might be used to analyse the works. Certainly, notions of hierarchies (such as what do do when insult is handed down by a prince) and gendered concepts (seen in the many chapters on lovers and affairs) were clearly present throughout these texts.

Baldi’s Considerationi e Dubitationi reveals to us a wide range of insults which may have arisen in Early Modern Italy, and also examines the relationships between the quarrelling parties and how this may have affected the given situation. To conclude his presentation, Davies contended that, when looking at insults in this period, we need to examine texts such as Baldi’s alongside the often-used judicial texts, to get a richer view of the relationships between quarrelling parties.


The author:
Emma Swiney (@emma_swiney) is currently completing her Honours degree in History. Her research focuses on the formation of Identity in late-15th Century Florence, and how politically active men related themselves to their city through an understanding of Florentine traditions and history. She also commits some of her time to mentoring undergraduate students, especially in helping them to formulate questions for independent research. In the coming years she hopes to continue her studies in Renaissance history within the supportive framework of the Monash History Department.





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1 February 2017

Women’s Letters and Diaries databases

The two resources featured here provide a valuable way to see into the past, says Melanie Thorn, Subject Librarian. 



Mary Queen of Scots is one of hundreds of writers whose
experiences are published here. 
British and Irish women's letters and diaries: 1500 to 1950, and its companion North American women's letters and diaries: colonial to 1950 are databases that reveal the personal experiences of over 400 British and more than 1300 North American women from various historical eras.

For example, the American database includes the story of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who enlisted in the confederate army as Harry T. Buford in the 1870s. She wrote of her experiences in battle and as a Confederate spy, and her arrest for ‘being a woman in disguise’. "There was, evidently, something suspicious and mysterious about me; and, suspicion having once been excited, some lynx-eyed detective was not long in noting certain feminine ways I had, and which even my long practice in figuring as a man had not enabled me to get rid of." [1] 

Not only does the story point out that women fought in the Civil War, but provides insight into cultural and social understandings of women and femininity.

Gerda Lerner, an American historian who was involved in the creation of the first graduate program in women’s history in the United States, was unimpressed at the lack of interest in the topic when she entered academia in the mid 1960s.  “In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist.” [2] This was replicated in terms of research, with Lerner noting that the number of historians interested in women's history “could have fitted into a telephone booth”. [3]

Thankfully this has changed, but primary sources written by women can still be difficult to find and this is what makes these databases so valuable.

The search tool in these databases is incredibly powerful and allows you to easily search for very specific content, for example, content written by widowed women who lived in New York city in the 1860s, or for women who were writing about a particular historical event, like the bombing of Pearl Harbour. A good example of the latter is the American, Natalie Stark Crouter, who was confined in a Japanese civilian camp in the Philippines with her businessman husband and their two children throughout World War II.

She writes,  "After the children left for school, we turned on the radio about 8:15 -- and heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor. While listening, we heard planes and went out as usual to see them. Almost over the house, quite high, came seventeen big bombers in formation. We could see them plainly and thought they were American. I remarked, "Well, we probably won't be standing here looking up at planes like this much longer. As they passed almost opposite the house, we heard a long ripping sound like the tearing of a giant sheet and saw an enormous burst of smoke and earth near officers' quarters at Camp John Hay -- the first bombing of the Philippines before our eyes." [4]

In addition to the raw material like this, the database also includes biographies of many of the authors, providing the context of people who would otherwise be little known in history.

The two Diaries and Letters databases are available through Library Search, and the Databases A-Z. Please contact your subject librarian if you would like more details or help in using the databases: Melanie Thorn (Clayton) or  Rod Rizzi (Caulfield).

To discover more primary source databases for history see the Primary Sources library guide.






[1] Loreta Velazquez, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Valazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieut. Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army, (Hartford, CT: T. Belknap 1876) 278,  [accessed 10 January]

[2] William Grimes, ‘Gerda Lerner, a Feminist and Historian, dies at 92’, The New York Times, 3 January 2013 [accessed 16 January 2016], (para 4 of 24)

[3] Grimes, New York Times

[4]Natalie Stark Crouter, Forbidden Diary: A Record of Wartime Internment, (New York, NY: Burt Franklin & Co. 1980) , [accessed 10 January]

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14 September 2016

Jay Winter's Photographing War: the Kodak revolution

Yale historian Jay Winter presented a provocative lecture on the Kodak revolution of World War I, and the vast trail of unofficial photography it left behind. In this article Monash University graduate student Sam Prendergast discusses the concept of dignity in death, and the questions raised by what the soldiers chose to photograph. [Scroll to the bottom for a full recording of Jay Winter's lecture.]

Jay Winter at the lecture held at Matheson Library
Few 20th century events have been so heavily memorialised as WWI. In Australia, the process of commemoration starts early. Every April, Australian primary school children draw crayon depictions of Gallipoli. They group uniformed men in wide-brimmed hats and spend their red ink on poppies. The official iconography of war makes its way through generations; as we move further from the event we become increasingly reliant on what we have learned to remember.


This is the context in which Jay Winter spoke about the ‘Kodak revolution’. While official war photographers captured a censored record of WWI, soldiers left a vast trail of unofficial photographs. They did so with the help of pocket-sized Kodak cameras. In moments of boredom, action, significance, or reflection, individuals recorded their experiences of war. Few of the images have made their way to the textbooks, but that might change; as archives of the Great War grow, the photographs move out of family photo albums and into the public domain.


For historians, the significance of the ‘Kodak revolution’ is realised in the archives. As Jay Winter stressed throughout his talk, the collected Kodak photos hold some democratic potential: soldiers’ photographs can counter prevailing assumptions about the nature of WWI. In one of Winter’s selected videos, we see men piling corpses on a truck in a fashion that evokes the Holocaust. The image of men stacking bodies is haunting in a way that statistics are not. In images, we lose the accuracy of numbers but we gain a sense of what it means to deal with death on a mass scale. Unofficial photos do a good job of portraying the gruesome practicalities of war.

World War I items from the Rare Books Collection at Monash
The soldiers’ photos tell us less about what they wanted to remember than about what they wanted to record. As Jay Winter guided us through a collection of images, I found myself wondering why these amateur photographers thought to pull out their cameras at particular points. This was especially so when Winter called our attention to a set of photos that belonged to a doctor. At war, the man had captured images of people in their dying moments. Some of the photos seemed curated: a head tilted, unnaturally; a body placed in position. In one image, an injured soldier laid in the dirt, his face in pain. The photographer had titled the image, ‘A dying Serb’. When Winter showed us the photo he asked: is there no dignity, even in death?


It was a provocative question, designed to make us question the photographer’s motivations. The assumption, on Winter’s part, was that the photographer, a soldier, acted unethically when he captured an image of another man dying. I was not so sure. The value of the Kodak photos is that they show us how soldiers’ experienced the war. Without one man’s photo, there would be no record of the other man’s death. I wondered what the dying man might have thought about having his image captured at that moment. Perhaps he, like Winter, wondered why the photographer would strip him of all dignity in his final moments. Perhaps he felt relief that someone was bothering to capture an honest portrayal of his death at war. Or maybe he was just consumed with whatever consumes a person when they’re lying, near-death, in the dirt.


Either way, the photo tells us about something about the reality of the man’s death, and there must be some dignity in having that experience recorded and remembered – if not for the photographed man, then perhaps for the many others who died similar deaths, or for those who returned home, having witnessed friends and strangers die. Because of the Kodak archive, the man is, at least, remembered as something other than a number. In capturing images, the amateur photographers left us with a democratic scaffolding around which to construct meaning. That one man could photograph another, as he died, reveals something about the battle front; it is at once tethered to the home front and, yet, removed from the home front’s norms.


War strips people of their dignity long before they die; the question is whether or not the archive can restore it. The ‘Kodak revolution’ created a wealth of source material, but the value of an archive is realised through its use, not through its mere existence. As more ‘democratic’ records of war make their way into historians’ hands, we face new questions about how to use the materials – how to read them, select them, and present them. Perhaps there is rarely dignity in archives: the respectable, legitimised trash cans of the past. But there might be some dignity in using them to restore a lopsided version of history. As a graduate student, Winter’s lecture raised unexpected questions about the ethics of trawling through documents and guessing at the motivations of people who are long-dead.




A video recording of the lecture is available, with permission from Jay Winter.

Sam Pendergast is a Masters candidate in the History Department, Faculty of Arts. Her research focuses on the question of how historians can overcome the limitations of long-archived oral histories in order to bring forth "unheard" narratives. Currently, she's working with a collection of post-WWII Soviet displacement narratives; in 1950s Munich, US scholars created translated transcripts of their non-recorded interviews with Soviet DPs.


Follow Sam on Twitter:  @samprendergast_. 


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