Reference books have become very difficult to shift. Good luck finding a buyer for a set of old World Books, once the pinnacle of home learning and now dusty relics of an era that wasn't search-engine optimised. Even op shops have had to turn them away.
With abundant knowledge anywhere you can get a phone signal, the appearance of a new volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography is like a vision from a bygone age. What is anyone going to do with this handsome, and rather expensive, hardback, the 19th in a set stretching back to 1966?
General editor Melanie Nolan tells me there are some who like to read their Australian Dictionary of Biography in the bath, absorbing all the biographical entries together as a whole. "It surprised us to begin with. We have millions of hits online, and yet there's still an appetite for a hard copy book as well," Nolan says.
I understand completely: I have my own set of the dictionary, domineering too much shelf space in a flat really not big enough to house reference books. Take any volume off the shelf, though, blow off the dust and open to a random page, and you'll learn something new.
There's John Alexander MacPherson (1833-1894) in volume four, who was probably the first European boy born on the site of Canberra; he became a Victorian politician. There's Henry Lawrence Miller (1913-1972), a Sydney boxing promoter, "gregarious, loquacious and tough when it was required", whose life is recounted in volume 15. Volume two includes an entry for Mary Reibey (1777-1855), an ex-convict who took over her husband's merchant business after his death - a legendary businesswoman, who was found guilty in 1817 for assaulting one of her debtors; she was a favourite of Governor Lachlan Maquarie.
The new 19th volume features 680 biographies of eminent and representative Australians, who died between 1991 and 1995. It's a book of a generation, Nolan writes in its preface. It's a snapshot of late 20th-century Australian life, printed and eternal, with a new home at the ANU Press.
These days, of course, the dictionary also lives a very full life online, where it can be consulted for free. With so much information available, clear and concise biographies make useful starting off points for researchers.
No longer is the single research goal of the dictionary "to produce a volume of half-a-million words, containing the lives of about 670 Australians, written by 500 authors and to do so in roughly 30 months", as long-serving general editor John Ritchie put it in 1994. But that goal has never been abandoned.
For decades, the task of taming the might of Australia's collective story was done with pencils and index cards, forming the sprawling biographical register. It began, it's thought, in a shoebox on the desk of Laurie Fitzhardinge in 1954. Fitzhardinge, by then a reader at the Australian National University, had first immersed himself in Australian history as a research officer at the National Library, which he joined in Canberra in 1934. By 2009, the register had grown to 300,000 index cards - the backbone of the dictionary. History, as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1838, is the essence of innumerable biographies.
In 1962, Professor Keith Hancock, the director of the ANU's research school of social sciences, convinced the university council that support for the dictionary project was part of the ANU's national charter. Recurring funding began for the project, which had already gained the support of historians around Australia, and the real work of dictionary compilation started.
Working parties developed lists of potential entrants for the dictionary, authors selected and entries reviewed by editors - including historian Manning Clark. It was decentralised, slow and painstaking, with many academic squabbles - and threats of resignation - shaping the eventual form and content of the dictionary.
The process now is much the same but on a more even keel. "It's an extraordinary national collaboration. It has so many people involved. Yes, it's kind of morphed over time from the single idea - the idea that every country worth its salt should have a national dictionary project," Nolan says.
After work is completed on the 20th volume, which is already underway and will take the dictionary to the end of the 20th century, its research editors will turn their attention to the earliest period of coverage, up to 1850.
"Even with online, even with our plans for revision, we're really still very much thinking in terms of periodisation and chunks. Because what's important is the relationships between people and groups, and the context in which they find themselves in order to understand ... people's agency and people's achievement," Nolan says.
Many of the entries are now more than 60 years old, and some have stood the test of time better than others. The most glaring problem is with the entries never included. There are no entries for Indigenous people in volumes 4 or 7; the first volume has only 10 women spread through 578 pages.
"The thinking behind the Australian Dictionary of Biography is that it would have significant and representative people. We've been very good on the significant people, but we haven't been so good on the representative. That early period now is begging to be redone," Nolan says.
It's not about abandoning that early work, which was critical in the development of Australia's history. "Is it the case that simply every generation rewrites history or is it the case that we keep what's there - there's quite a bit of agreement - and we do develop new interests, new questions, new subjects that we wish to put in there? Undoubtedly, we'll have new subjects," Nolan says.
It's not that historians are smarter or the dictionary's editors and working parties are better people than their predecessors. A combination of social change and access to information has brought people into the picture who were once cut out - intentionally or not.
"It's always been before that you didn't have sources. Take something like domestic violence or sexual assault," Nolan says. "In the past, you think, we're never going to find that kind of material. But you can take a convict like Sarah Bellamy: she was sexually assaulted, and she was believed and went to a case in 1790. And she went on to marry James Dudworth, who was technically a reprieved convict, who was responsible for much of the building in early Sydney - he was a stonemason.
"And we can see that it's there. We can use the court records. The ironic - I guess it's ironic - issue is people who have been criminals or convicts, or people who have been subject to state intervention and surveillance, have records about them. So it's deeply ironic that there are many records - official records, [a] surprisingly large number of records - of women and Indigenous Australians at contact, and they just haven't been mined or used before."
Revisiting the early years also avoids the difficulties of recent history, still fresh and contentious. Living memory casts a long shadow and recent archives are tough to break into. Nolan says the dictionary is now perilously close to the present.
"Part of my job is dealing with people who are concerned about how their mother or their father has been portrayed. Have we written harshly enough of a paedophile? Have we been too generous to someone?" Nolan says.
"It's not just their parents or their uncles and aunts and grandparents, but also people in the historical community. Many people have opinions. They met [the subject] or they have very strong reactions. There's a difficulty with doing very recent people."
So the team - a decentralised and mostly volunteer group (none of the authors are paid) - will reassess the past. The dictionary has a contract for a few more volumes, which will cover the 20th and then special collections of biographies of Indigenous people and parliamentarians.
Very important people who died after 2000 will still have entries prepared. Nolan says there could be 10 of these a year - editing each one is a week's full-time work. It will be up to future biographers to stitch together the patchwork of Australian lives still being lived - perhaps in another 60 years' time.
In that way, the Australian Dictionary of Biography is one that won't be left to gather dust.
- Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19: 1991-1995, 970pp. ANU Press, $130 or free PDF.