Ferguson's Bibliography of Australia

The following is a transcript of the paper presented by Peter Arnold at the First ANZAAB Conference held in Canberra in June, 1995.

When Sally was casting around a few months ago for contributions to the conference, I agreed to talk about Ferguson mainly because I think that it's a work that has been widely misused and misjudged, even by booksellers with some pretensions to scholarship, and I thought also that it would be useful to try to place it in its historical context. A good deal of what I have to say will hardly be news to many of you, but I hope that I can add something to your appreciation of this fundamental work.

I issued my first catalogue in 1969. For a bookseller aiming to specialise in Australiana, it was a most auspicious moment to begin, because that year also saw the publication of the final volume of Ferguson - forgetting for the moment the promised index volume and the addenda, which I'll come to later. Like most of you here today, I have never known what it was like to operate with the great handicap of not having the complete Ferguson. We take it so much for granted that it is hard to imagine what it was like for our predecessors to find collations, compare editions, gauge relative rarity and, until most of the volumes had appeared, to form an idea of the extent of the literature concerning or printed in Australia up to 1900.

John Ferguson was born in Invercargill in 1881. Remarkably enough Morris Miller and H. M. Green were also born in this year. He moved to Sydney with his family in 1894 and in 1906 married the daughter of George Robertson of Angus and Robertson. Under Robertson's influence he soon became a serious collector of Australiana and for many years had first pick at A. & R.'s. His earliest bibliographical publication was the first part of his Bibliography of the New Hebrides, privately printed in 1917 and completed with the third part in 1943. In 1919 he was already working on a bibliography of Australia's role in the First World War, and over the next two decades he was compiling bibliographies of the literature on New Guinea and on Federation: none of these saw publication, although of course the Federation listings were eventually incorporated into the Bibliography of Australia. He also published a number of bibliographical articles in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, on such subjects as the literature relating to George Barrington and to the 'Scottish Martyrs'; and in 1936 he contributed to an account of the pioneer printers, the Howes, and their press. In 1961, he was knighted for his services to bibliography.

The first volume of the Bibliography of Australia appeared in 1941, listing books published through 1830. In hindsight it seems remarkable that it took so long for such a work to appear in Australia. By contrast, three bibliographies of New Zealand were published between 1887 and 1909, and they were followed in 1924 and 1928 by Williams's outstanding Bibliography of Printed Maori. Obviously the literature of New Zealand is smaller, but it is still very extensive: the new New Zealand National Bibliography takes 1200 pages to reach 1890.

Ferguson did have one important predecessor in Edward Petherick: but his pioneering 'Bibliography of Australia' remained unpublished, apart from three sections which appeared in the pages of his journal the Torch, in 1887-88. There was also the massive catalogue of the Australian holdings of the Sydney Free Public Library, published in 1893. This is still very useful because it includes books outside the scope of the final three volumes of Ferguson, and because of its multiple classifications and index, which make up to some extent for the lack of an index to those same volumes of Ferguson. An excellent bibliography of Australian poetry appeared in 1925, by Percival Serle, but we had to wait until almost 150 years after the commencement of printing in New South Wales to get the standard bibliography of Australian literature as a whole, by Morris Miller, and the first volume of Ferguson's full-dress bibliography of Australia.

At the risk of insulting you all, let me recap Ferguson's terms of reference. It's a regrettable fact that users of bibliographies - myself included, often fail to read the compiler's preface, in order to discover the scope of the work. This results in some awful cataloguing gaffes. One of the commonest is the description of minor medical works as 'not in Garrison and Morton', when of course that famous work is a select bibliography of books and articles that have made a notable contribution to the advancement of medicine. But I doubt whether anything could match my favorite howler in this vein, the description of Menadue's History of the Australian Natives' Association as not in Greenway, Bibliography of the Australian Aborigines. In the case of Ferguson, I'm sure we have all seen books described as 'not in', when the description could have been 'excluded by'.

Volumes 1-4, covering the years 1784-1850, aim to include, with full collations, all books, pamphlets, broadsides and periodicals, including newspapers, published in Australia or relating to Australia. Also included are books not directly concerning Australia, but which are by or about people who played a notable role in our history - such as Bligh or La Perouse. Expressly excluded are maps and prints, unless published in book form or collective form, and the literature of Cook's voyages, which of course had already been listed in the Mitchell Library bibliography of 1928. Although he doesn't say as much, Ferguson also generally omitted from these volumes printed music and a good deal of ephemeral printing such as theatre and other programmes, unless they were especially early or otherwise notable: but perhaps he made this decision because he knew that he would be unable to track down more than a small percentage of such things. Finally, he aimed to list all of the relevant holdings of the Mitchell, Dixson and National collections, as well as his own.

After 1850 he excludes fiction, poetry and drama, but generally admits literary essays and criticism, and - I am taking this more or less verbatim from his preface to volume 5, also excludes statutes, newspapers and periodicals, reprints from learned journals, all parliamentary papers and other governmental papers, books on medicine, science, technology and the law, unless directed to the general public, school books of an elementary character, programmes - opera, drama, musical, and opera word books, catalogues of sales, auctions, art exhibitions, shows, sporting fixtures and the like, pamphlets advertising sub-division land sales unless the pamphlet contains historical information and or local views of historical interest, and, finally, articles and annual reports of companies, clubs, unions and other societies, unless early or otherwise notable.

It is clear from Ferguson's prefaces to the later volumes that he is becoming increasingly irritated by booksellers describing books as not in Ferguson which in fact are outside his terms of reference. But, allowing for the stated exclusions, how comprehensive and accurate is his enormous bibliography? To attempt to answer this question one has to consider the work in two halves: the volumes to 1850, which are almost entirely the work of Ferguson himself, and the three subsequent volumes, which incorporate entries from numerous collaborators, most of them librarians, but including a number of private collectors. It was this collaboration that led inevitably to inconsistencies and an increase in the number of errors - inaccurate collations are common and there are many books described as having bindings of leather or half leather which are obviously not original.

It was also inevitable that there would be more unintentional omissions from these later volumes, simply because of the huge increase in the quantity of printed matter that appeared in Australia and about Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century. Pamphlets from this period which were overlooked by Ferguson are still continally coming to light. A more telling criticism of these later volumes is that Ferguson's discretionary inclusion of scientific works, especially works on natural history, leads to some obvious inconsistencies. To give only one example, he excluded McCoy's Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria, a substantial book with fine coloured plates, but allows in Brown's Forest Flora of South Australia. Perhaps if McCoy had simply entitled his work 'The Zoology of Victoria', it might have been included.

In comparison, the volumes to 1850 are much more successful in achieving Ferguson's aims. For a start there are far fewer collation errors. On the whole the descriptions he gives in volumes 1 to 4 can be relied upon. Some exceptions that come to mind are his collations for volume one of Flinders's Voyage, for Macarthur's New South Wales, 1837,and for the grands voyages of Dumont d'Urville, Freycinet and Duperrey. It is also true that he is not strong on variant issues and bindings, some of which can of course be quite significant as denoting priority or an altered text - but many of these variants have been only recently described, and one can hardly expect a high degree of this kind of refinement in a pioneering work on such a grand scale.

It is natural that as booksellers we tend to be hypercritical of Ferguson because we use it mainly as a descriptive bibliography. Historical researchers, on the other hand, have given it high marks because as an enumerative bibliography, its primary function, it is very good, the first four volumes especially so. It is quite remarkable how few books or pamphlets of any consequence have been omitted from the listings to 1850. When you also take into account the wealth of historical notes - some of them very lengthy, throughout the seven volumes, it is no wonder that the work is so highly regarded by historians: the writing of Australian history would have been so much more difficult without Ferguson.

There are, however, a couple of shortcomings in the earlier volumes that should be mentioned. I've already remarked that ephemeral printings are not so well covered - especially after 1830, though this is perhaps understandable. Ferguson is also in these volumes a little weak on government publications, which, admittedly, can also be fugitive - often single leaves. But a number of substantial government printings are omitted, including all but the first volume of the New South Wales Government Gazette, first published in 1832. Ferguson makes no mention of the subsequent annual volumes, which, I might add, are sometimes of considerable interest. They contain, for instance, the first published reports of exploring expeditions by Sturt, Mitchell and Kennedy.

The one Addenda volume so far published, covering the period 1784-1850, is, I have to say, a disappointment. It is of course useful to have additional locations recorded and to have the addenda previously published in Ferguson's seven volumes collected in one alphabet. His addenda make up the bulk of the volume, and include the most interesting items - such as the Trial of John Macarthur, yet regrettably no attempt has been made to acknowledge Ferguson's contribution by distinguishing these entries in some way. In contrast, the second category of addenda, revised entries, is senselessly expanded by the editors' decision to reprint each such entry in its entirety, no matter how slight the revision. In some cases entries of almost a page in length are identical to Ferguson's original items, except for an added reference to the Australian Encyclopaedia, or some other work published since his description originally appeared.

The third and final category of addenda - new entries, is perhaps the most disappointing of all, though the compilers are hardly to blame for this. It is, rather, a tribute to how little of historical importance Ferguson missed. There are, it is true, quite a number of newly described Van Diemen's Land government printings, but otherwise nearly all of the new entries consist of later editions of previously listed works and books of very slight Australian interest - or indeed, in a few cases, of no Australian interest. Most of Ferguson's collation errors remain, and there is little evidence that the editors have consulted well-known collectors - let alone booksellers. Nor do they appear to have checked other bibliographies. If the New Zealand National Bibliography had been looked at, for instance, they would have discovered a real treasure, namely Jorgen Jorgensen's account of his whaling voyage in 1805 from Sydney to the South Island of New Zealand and back, which was published in Copenhagen in 1807.

I shall conclude by referring to one striking example of Ferguson's diligence. In 1939 he sailed to Jakarta - then Batavia, to search the Archives of the Dutch East Indies for any record of Bligh's arrival there after his celebrated open boat voyage following the mutiny. The two broadsides listed in the Bibliography of Australia as items 33 and 34 are the fruit of that quest.


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