John Alexander Ferguson: Preserving Our Past, Inspiring Our Future

by James Ferguson. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2011. 236 pp. $39.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-64227-7183.

“Is it in Ferguson?”, one often hears being asked, and librarians and bibliographers refer to the standard reference for Australiana published between 1784 to 1900. This is the seven-volume Bibliography of Australia, 1784-1900 that Sir John Alexander Ferguson (1881-1969) made a significant part of his life’s work.

Ferguson’s life was dedicated to work – as judge, bibliographer, librarian, historian and collector. A picture of how these interests threaded through Ferguson’s life has been compiled in this straightforward account written by his grandson, James Ferguson. His view is that little is known about the private lives of scholars “how they developed their interest, the type of people they were and what motivated them to do the things that brought them to attention.” He set out to identify the man behind the scholar “to consider the influences on him and the motivations that drove him.”

To do this, he weaves the facets that made up Ferguson’s industrious life. There is much to fit in with active legal engagement as a judge of the Industrial Commission of New South Wales (1936-51/3); many interests in collecting and writing, membership of the Royal Australian Historical Society from 1911 (including presidency in 1922 and 1940-42); directorship of the publishing firm that his father-in-law established, Angus and Robertson; Presbyterian church commitment (as elder from 1912, and procurator 1921-36); trusteeship of the Public Library of New South Wales (from 1935), for which Ferguson also served as President (1936-67), and on its governing body until his death in 1969; and concurrent commitment to the National Library of Australia and its developing collection.

The book divides into two halves. The first half covers Ferguson’s early to mid-life activities, and describes how he consolidated himself professionally, and in terms of his family life and of his writing and collecting. Family and work intermeshed, so that much of his work was a family affair. Bibliographic notes were spread across the kitchen table, and Ferguson’s long association with the National Library of Australia began with being introduced in 1910 to the then acting Commonwealth parliamentary librarian at the home of his father-in-law.

Ferguson’s disciplined approach began with Scottish antecedents. He reached Sydney in 1894 at the age of twelve when his father became minister of Presbyterian St Stephen’s Church, Sydney (where he remained until his death in 1925). Ferguson’s parents left him with a liberal outlook, strong sense of social justice, respect for scholarship, and industrious habits.

In Sydney, young John Ferguson witnessed a rapidly changing society, with Federation of the Australian colonies proclaimed in 1901. At 25 he married Bessie Robertson, daughter of George Robertson, Sydney’s remarkable bookseller and publisher, and with whom Ferguson shared interest in family and Australiana.

Ferguson regularly attended the Mitchell Library from its opening in 1910. In the following year, he began his ongoing membership of the Royal Australian Historical Society (RAHS), with its emphasis on primary sources. This focus was in tandem with his own collecting interests. He began collecting from 1914. He made his initial foray into bibliography, publishing in 1917 a bibliography of the New Hebrides. Over time, he assembled a remarkable private library.

The book’s first section runs up to the death of Ferguson’s first wife, in 1937, and publication of the first volume of his Bibliography of Australia (1941). The book’s second half describes his later life, library activities, second marriage in 1945, the growth of his second family and ongoing work, and ends with a chapter on Ferguson’s legacy. Chapters 7 and 8, in perhaps what is the heart of the book, illustrate how Ferguson balanced family and professional life.

Usefully to non-Australian readers, James Ferguson gives sense of the historic background against which his grandfather worked. Putting his grandfather’s activities into context like this is appropriate because Ferguson’s bibliography is more than what was described by National Library librarian Pauline Fanning, who knew Ferguson well, as “a faithful guide to the printed records of our past.” The Times Literary Supplement agreed, and described Ferguson’s bibliography as possessing “the character of a history within itself –a history that is given life by the compiler’s full and enriching annotations.” A panorama can be viewed of the emergence of a native culture from Ferguson’s bibliography.

While known as bibliographer it is as preserver of material that Ferguson’s real achievement rests, which is why the book carries its subtitle. Ferguson built on the legacy left to Australia by the nineteenth-century collector David Scott Mitchell, who kept for future Australians a remarkable record of the emergence of their nation. Mitchell collected when there was neither historic sense nor appreciation for the historic record, when it was thought that Australia had no history of its own. Mitchell’s legacy was to make Australians aware that they possessed a history of much interest, and Ferguson built on this. He collected when material could still be found widely, and compiled it comprehensively at a time when, as late as into the 1960s, sensitivities prevailed about convict records and access to them.

Ferguson, when addressing the Library Association in 1953, defined bibliography “as the art of examination, collation and description of books, their enumeration and their arrangement in lists for the purposes of information.” The reviewer, Catholic archbishop and Australian historian Eris O’Brien (1895-1974), is seen as being most perceptive of Ferguson. O’Brien likened the similarity of the task of the historian and the judge, with both “formulating a judgement and reaching a conclusion based on as complete knowledge of the facts as possible.” Ultimately Ferguson presents his grandfather as having a “historian’s approach” because he collected material that “shone light on the history of the nation, the people who made it and the events which shaped their lives.”

Dr. Eileen Chanin, University of New South Wales, Sydney