After calling Western home for almost a century, a one-of-a-kind notebook that includes the earliest known records of endangered Australian Aboriginal languages has journeyed half a world away to join in a revival of that country’s Aboriginal identity.
More than 170 years old, the Horatio Hale Notebook, housed in Western Archives, is full of jot-notes about Australia during the mid-19th Century.
Now on extended loan for the new Living Languages exhibition in New South Wales, the notebook is an amalgam of heritage, anthropology, geography and languages that help define a people, according to Australian curators. Most of the hundreds of Aborigine languages and dialects that once existed are either no longer used or are highly endangered because of the joint legacies of colonization and residential schooling.
“What is amazing about the notebook is that the linguistic content is still being used today,” said Melissa Jackson, a librarian at State Library NSW and one of the curators of the exhibition.
For example, the Wellington/Wiradjuri word for butterfly is budya-budya – which is the same as the word found in the New Wiradjuri Dictionary complied by language custodians today, she said.
The exhibition, Living Language: Country, Culture, Community, is co-curated by its Indigenous Engagement Branch with Elders and language custodians.
Hale, an American anthropologist, visited Australia in 1838-39 as part of the four-year U.S. exploring expedition known as the Wilkes Expedition. He scribed a smorgasbord of information in first-hand observations, interviews and notes copied from – and credited to – other sources of the time.
Through his conversations with two missionaries who had connections with linguists in other areas, Hale compiled vocabularies of Awabakal, Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi and Gandungarra languages.
“His purpose was not to translate one language but to understand all languages. It was fortunate these two informants were able to give him insight in many languages,” Jackson said.
While available to the Australians on microfilm, this is the actual notebook’s first physical journey since Western Archives received it in 1940. Western has made it available on extended loan until next July so it can be shared with elders and Aboriginal communities after the exhibition ends.
“It’s not just returning something to Australia; it’s also returning this to the Indigenous communities of Australia,” explained Robin Keirstead, Western Archivist, noting this is a great example of how international collaboration can make a significant difference in both scholarly and cultural ways.
Western Archivist Thomas Belton said the notebook shows the early history of anthropological record-keeping and fieldnote-taking. But he agreed its significance is more than between its covers.
“It’s not simply an historical document,” he said. “It’s amazing that some little record, almost half-forgotten here, has taken on this greater significance halfway around the world. “
Hale was a member of the scientific corps during Wilkes Expedition, an exploration of the Pacific islands, coasts and continents, a journey that generated an artifact collection that became foundational to the Smithsonian Institution.
A philologist (someone who studies languages) and ethnographer originally from New Hampshire, Hale was assigned the job of recording his interactions with everyone he met. The result was scores of notebooks detailing Indigenous languages and cultures of the Pacific islands, Australia, South America and North America.
Many of those books – ultimately part of a collection that included a library of more than 12,000 volumes –moved with Hale to Clinton, Ont., where he practised law and raised a family with his Huron County-born wife, Margaret.
Although most of the collection was destroyed during a fire in the family library, some notebooks survived. Some notes were later sold in an auction in Philadelphia and others were passed to his son, Charles.
Upon Charles’s death, his widow donated some of the remaining papers to Western through noted librarian Fred Landon.
Over the years, Western’s collection of Hale’s books and study notes has drawn the attention of researchers and attracted a growing volume of citations and footnotes – which then drew the attention of Australian researchers.
Last fall, State Library of New South Wales asked about the possibility of a loan for their Living Linguistics exhibition. “We’ve done a lot of loans in Canada and in Europe,” including from the university’s famed Mahler collections, Keirstead noted.
None of those are the only document in existence as the Hale papers are, however.
“It’s one-of-a-kind. This really falls into the ‘unique’ category,” Keirstead said.
Western extended the loan for eight months beyond the exhibit’s closing so there would be time to share the notebook with Aboriginal elders and others.
Ensuring safe passage of the precious cargo across 15,000 kilometres was no simple task. The book shipped through a customized box-in-box-in-box packing project – first in a custom-built clamshell storage case; then inside a purpose-built wood box made in Toronto, surrounded in custom-cut foam-core inserts; and then the whole thing was placed into an even larger box and sealed with screws.
The matryoshka-like packing job ultimately meant a notebook about the size of a modern paperback novel made its way across the oceans in a container the size of a large suitcase.
“There’s never been the level of detail and documentation and handling as with this exercise,” Keirstead said.