In a time where Library space is at a premium and print collections are increasingly making way for digital, Rare Books and Special Collections stand out as unique points of difference within university libraries and offer a multitude of opportunities for creative and innovative educational experiences and original research.
The University of Sydney Library’s Rare and Special collections comprise manuscripts and books spanning millennia, from over 2000 B.C. to the current day, and encompassing literary, cultural, scientific, and religious thought across the globe.
Ethel M Richmond bequest
Ethel M Richmond’s generous bequest to the University Library has enabled a large-scale project to catalogue these collections, making them searchable and discoverable to researchers worldwide.
In 2017, a sketch of the Virgin and Child, since attributed to the Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione, was found in the back of a 15th Century edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy along with a contemporary inscription giving Giorgione’s age and the exact date of his death.
This previously unknown information allows Giorgione’s career timeline to be rewritten, and the addition of a new drawing to the small oeuvre of this enigmatic artist is of significance to art historians worldwide.
Who knows what other tantalising revelations are waiting to be revealed through this cataloguing project?
Sydney Digital Collections
In addition to cataloguing, the Library has a concurrent digitisation program that provides open access to high quality digital versions of significant historical and cultural treasures, via Sydney Digital Collections.
Lockdown Discoveries Series
Lockdown Discoveries is a series of blog posts and an exhibition created and curated by the Rare Books & Special Collections Cataloguing Project Team to highlight some of the weird and wonderful items they discovered whilst working from home during the 2020 Covid-19 Lockdown.
The exhibition showcases highlights from the Graham Science Fiction collection, handpicked and curated by the RBSC Cataloguing Project Team. The exhibition has been temporarily paused for the 2021 stay at home orders and will reopen when it is safe to open the Rare Book reading rooms once more.
Explore the links below to learn more about the cataloguing project, the discoveries and resulting exhibition.
Thank you for completing our online survey and interview.
When you first heard about Rare Books & Special Collections (RBSC) at the University of Sydney Library, what did you expect it to be? What do you think it is now?
We are looking into how RBSC is perceived and used (or not used!) so that we can provide a better experience for people trying to learn about and access it.
We have been seeking feedback from University of Sydney academic staff via an online survey with the option of a 30-60 minute interview over Zoom. We want to hear from academics who have used Rare Books & Special Collections as well as those who haven’t. We heard from academics across different faculties, including those who have used Rare Books & Special Collections as well as those who haven’t.
What the survey covered
what you think Rare Books & Special Collections is
where you first heard about it
if/how you are using it
There was also an optional section about the East Asian Collection, as part of this is located alongside Rare Books & Special Collections.
The interview will be a conversation about your perceptions and experiences of Rare Books & Special Collections: things people like or find frustrating, what they think it is or should be, and if it is useful or relevant to them.
Thank you so much to everyone who completed or shared the survey.
Our new exhibition, Seeing the Unseen: A history of imaging the pregnant uterus, sourced from The University Library’s Rare Books & Special Collections, features significant works that aided the professional development of midwifery and the practice of obstetrics between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Intended to assist in the instruction of practising midwives, the works describe and illustrate the anatomy of the gravid (pregnant) uterus, as well as discussing possible treatments during complicated labour.
The exhibition was curated by Ben Higginbotham, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney.
Seeing the Unseen is on display at the SciTech Library and Fisher Library (Level 3) until 30 July 2021.
Frontiers of Science Fiction is a Rare Books & Special Collections exhibition that features works from both The Frontiers of Science strips and our science fiction collections. It is on display in the Level 2 Exhibition Space in Fisher Library until 15 August 2021.
Frontiers of Science was a groundbreaking Australian syndicated newspaper comic strip published internationally between 1962 and 1980 and created here at the University of Sydney. Its aim was to disseminate scientific knowledge in an easily comprehensible way during the height of the Cold War between Russia and America, to a public fascinated with, and indeed enmeshed in, the scientific and technological rivalry between the two world blocks. The “space race” was inextricably tied to the “arms race” and defined the era from 1945 till 1990.
The original Frontiers of Science strips ran from 1961 and were significant as a means of communicating and popularising science. The series was produced and distributed by Press Feature Service, and co-written by Professor Stuart Butler from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, and journalist and film-maker Bob Raymond. Early artwork in the series was by Andrea Bresciani; it was continued later by David Emerson.
The Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections holds the archive of these strips, and the physical copies of the original paper ‘pulls’ – five days of strips that could be sent to the newspapers around the world for publication.
Rare Books and Special Collections also has several science fiction collections donated and acquired over the years, including the Steele, Graham and General Science Fiction collections. These form a comprehensive survey of 20th century speculative science writing.
The exhibition Frontiers of Science Fiction is an attempt to find the intersection of science fiction writing and science by juxtaposing the Frontiers of Science with these myriad SF books. In doing this, it is hoped that a kind of imaginative tableau of ideas in the 20th century, the popular scientific imagination, and the current state of scientific ideas (via QR code links to online content) will inspire interest, thought, and imagination.
The exhibition is arranged in themes broadly defined by the literature as an easily accessible and populist point of contact. Themes include ‘The Moon’, ‘Relativistic Travel’, ‘Rockets’, ‘Cryonics’, ‘Robots’ and ‘Plagues from Space’. It includes original Frontiers of Science sheets next to the books, with QR codes linking to the contemporary science for the theme.
Here is a brief taster of a few of the themes:
Life in the Computer Age
This Frontiers of Science piece from 1965, probably of all the collection, encompasses more accurate predictions in one edition than all the others, and in some ways has the most relevance to the lives we lead today. It also highlights how difficult it is to predict what may happen in the future.
Tim Berners-Lee, the initiator of what became the worldwide web in 1991, envisaged something entirely different to the system that we have today. He certainly expected something which would democratise information and its transmission, but by his own admission, he never foresaw the leverage that vast commercial interests now exert upon all of us using the internet.
This single panel from the Frontiers of Science strip 178 (11/02/1965) is concerned with the way that information from all libraries will be available in your living room. It is not too far off in terms of the internet at least, and more specifically e-books in the modern academic library.
The hierarchical notions of information access prevalent at the time are predicted to remain intact in this vision, and libraries are named as the big player in information technology. The fullness of time has proven libraries have become in some ways marginalised as they are no longer the only receptacles of knowledge. The reality has been an atomisation of information via internet and its social media, which over 30 years have slowly and increasingly become concentrated in the hands of the tech giants that hold most power: Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook; companies that recently faced congressional hearings on their monopolies.
This Frontiers of Science pull has a lot of other ideas too:
The need for a more human interaction language for interface, which came true in Basic then language interfaces via the QWERTY keyboard
The extension of this to voice command (Siri and Alexa)
Prediction of extra leisure hours because of the alleviation of drudge jobs
Phone calls or communication to computers automating the product supply chain end to end
Radar speed traps and centralised government revenue collection- taxation boon
The paperless office
Looking only at voice command, we could take the example of Siri:
Apple’s proprietary voice recognition and response software, native to billions of devices worldwide in homes, offices and pockets, has a dark 1970s precedent in Dean R Koontz’s novel Demon Seed (featured in the exhibition).
In this book, Siri (or Google Hub or Apple Home) are presaged in heroine Susan Harris’s home security system: an AI which becomes obsessed with her, ultimately attempting to own her mind and body via the powerful control it exerts.
Frontiers of Science 026, entitled ‘The Giant Leap’ deals with contacting other intelligences and crosses over thematically with some notable books in the SF genre.
Many of the books in the exhibition are concerned with the details of alien contact but a few of them delve more deeply to speculate on the existential and conceptual problems humans face in such contact.
Arcady and Boris Strugatsky’s expert exploration of alien contact and its implications is called Roadside Picnic (1971). In this book, the remains of an alien visit to Earth create a restricted zone where artifacts left behind have unfathomable powers, and some people – “stalkers” – come to claim some of these objects for their mysterious effects, at great personal risk.
The titular metaphor relates to this: what would the remains of a roadside picnic look like to the animals of the forest? The book implies that our meagre understanding makes us the animals in this scenario, in the face of an intelligence too advanced to fathom.
In The Listeners by James E Gunn (1972), the message received from the vast reaches of space divides humanity and causes untold tumult.
In our copy on display, the cover features an image of the Arecibo Message. This radio transmission was sent to a cluster of stars 25,000 light years away to demonstrate the power of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974. It is a three-minute message of exactly 1,679 binary digits – which, if arranged in a specific way, can explain basic information about humanity and earth to extra-terrestrial beings. It has as yet only travelled a small fraction of the distance to its destination.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity has in recent times become affirmed as a correct model of the universe at the macro level. The collision of two black holes and the detection of the gravity waves that emanated from this event happened via CalTech’s LIGO observatory in 2016. The new LIGO discovery is the first observation of gravitational waves themselves, made by measuring the tiny disturbances the waves make to space and time as they pass through the earth.
In Frontiers of Science 435, part 2 of the strip concerns itself with explaining Einstein’s idea of gravity waves but notes that scientists at the time considered them impossible to measure.
Einstein’s later theory of special relativity deals with what happens to bodies approaching the speed of light. Frontiers of Science 636 from 1973 illustrates this well, and the Library’s science fiction collections represent this in a number of well-known books.
In Poul Anderson’s book Tau Zero (1970), 50 space travellers are compelled to continue accelerating to near light speeds after miscalculating planetfall. Ultimately, relativity as per Einstein’s model mean they can witness the end of the universe, its rebirth and make a new planetfall in an entirely new cosmos.
Similarly, Joe Haldeman’s book, The Forever War, has a decidedly 1970s twist on relativistic interstellar travel. In his novel, the effect of time dilation between the earth and the travellers going off to wage war against an implacable and virtually unintelligible enemy means the returned soldiers are perpetually at odds with the Earth they come home to after decades of Earth time. Haldeman’s own experiences as a returned Vietnam veteran colour this tale of an Earth (read America) that has upturned the values that drafted him.
All the wonderful covers of the books chosen for display are not possible to show here but traverse the breadth of artistic expression for the genre over the years and should not be missed. We hope to see you at the exhibition.
About the curator: Mark Sanfilippo is the Library’s Learning Spaces Officer. He has worked in the museums and galleries sector, notably at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Sydney’s Living Museums. He practises and has an interest in art, design and visual communication, and has an addiction to art supplies and rickety musical instruments. His approach to science is that of a fascinated layperson. He is an advocate of the possibilities of the imagination in interdisciplinary approaches, particularly when applied to the sciences. This is his first solo curated exhibition.
Don’t miss this new exhibition, featuring many of the great classics of science fiction from our Rare Books and Special Collections. It was curated by Library staff member Mark Sanfilippo, who chose the items, produced the descriptions, and even wrote and performed the theme music – which you can listen to on Soundcloud.
The exhibition is titled in honour of the Australian syndicated newspaper comic strip, Frontiers of Science, created here at the University of Sydney and published internationally from 1961-82. Its aim was to disseminate scientific knowledge in an easily comprehensible way, during the height of the Cold War between Soviet Union and America.
The exhibition features works from both The Frontiers of Science strips and our SF collections. It explores classic SF themes: space travel, artificial intelligence, aliens and alien civilisations, light speed, life in the future, astronomy, celestial bodies, planets, galaxies, solar systems and many more of the realms where imagination rules.
Check out Frontiers of Science Fiction from 1 March to 15 August 2021 in the Level 2 Exhibition Space in Fisher Library.
The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: to propagate or to be propagated is an East Asian Collection exhibition that feature wartime propaganda posters and photograph. A physical display is currently on level 4, Fisher Library.
CONTENT WARNING: The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: to propagate or to be propagated analyses and critiques visual representations of the political rationalisation strategies of the Japanese Empire during World War II from a historical perspective. The following post contains politically biased contents, including romanticisation and celebration of colonialism and racially vilifying imagery. The post does not reflect the views of the Library or the curator.
The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: to propagate or to be propagated
The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (GEACPS, 1931-15 August 1945) was a supranational framework consisting of the Empire of Japan’s colonial territories within geographical proximity near the metropolis from, but not limited to, Empire of Manchuria, Republic of China, Kingdom of Thailand, State of Burma, to Provisional Government of Free India. (See “Map of East and South-East Asia” below for the visualisation of countries’ geographical proximity to Tokyo, Japan).
Such geographical proximity influenced not only the structure of the colonial administration and racial hierarchies in the empire, but also the rhetorical strategies to legitimise colonial rule.
The ideology of the Japanese colonial empire to prosper Asia under its leadership preached the unity of the GEACPS, reflective of Pan-Asianism, with an established system to not only advance each nation’s economic role, but also assimilate politically, culturally, and linguistically. Although the intention was perceived skewed and geared towards Japan’s welfare specifically her economic and military interests, the mass media censored and controlled by the government reinforced amicable and constructive impression on colonisation and wartime assimilation, away from the realities of violence and inequality.
The wartime posters and photographs, exclusively censored, produced, and publicised, were pictorial instruments of the belligerent governments within the interconnected scheme of systematic rationalisation and justification. The propaganda of Imperial Japan oriented towards rationalising the conquest, justifying colonial rule and idealising war mission to mobilise the Empire of Japan during the Second World War as the “liberator” of Asia from Western colonialism and the “builder of new order”.
At the core of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was Pan-Asianism that promoted the political and economic unity and cooperation of Asian peoples by depicting the war as a “race war” against the West, led by the United States and the British Empire. Pan-Asianism, which emerged in the late 19th century, was an ideology advocated and actively promoted by Japan to wield influence over the colonised territories and retain dominance through voluntary assimilation. Pan-Asianism was an instrument to legitimise the conquest and the subsequent colonial rule of Imperial Japan as the “liberator” of Asia from Western colonialism by encouraging patriotism to seek social equality through the expression of loyalty to a transcendental emperor. Hideki Tojo (1884–1948), Prime Minister of Japan during the World War II, praised the “spiritual essence” of Greater East Asia, which he contrasted with the “materialistic civilisation” of the West during the Greater East Asian Conference of 1943 (Tokyo, 5-6 November 1943) – which was responded by the members of the conference pledging solidarity in pursuing a race war. While encouraging peoples of the colonised territories to follow, Japan encouraged the Japanese army to lead. The ‘Read This and the War is Won’ booklet intended for the Japanese army unfurled Imperial Japan’s banner that it is a duty of the Great Power of Orient to stabilise Asia and emancipate its oppressed peoples “emasculated by generations of colonial subjugation, with blood and colour linked to that of Japanese… [and] make men of them again and lead them along the path of liberation”.
 John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, c.1986), 24-25.
The poster as a strategic means of disseminating information is potent, particularly within the context of a systematic wartime propaganda. The “blank canvas” quality of poster that enables graphic and visually arresting designs, manipulation of representations, and inclusion of symbolism and concise texts, made it an effective tool of propaganda.
Accordingly, a poster was often used for: advertising – targeted form of promotion for not only product but also ideology; stereotyping – arousing prejudices by portraying enemies with stereotyped racial features; dehumanising – depriving enemies of human qualities to generate a sense of fear and hatred; repetition – reiterating a particular symbol or slogan; and flag-waving – justifying violence a patriotic act based on the undue connection to nationalism.
The advertisement poster of international rail routes highlights Empire of Japan’s industrial achievement and its vision to become the “builder of new order” with the construction and expansion of transport services connecting Japan, Korea, Manchuria, China, and Europe. Along with the international rail routes advertisement, posters on coal mining of Mengchiang (Mongol Border Land), Taiwanese pure cane sugar, bank (of Japan, China, and Manchou), textile, hotel (“Hotel New Osaka”), and insurance, covered in The Almanac andadvertised in English language, are interesting to note.
The advertisement showcases one side of the coin without a glimpse of the other. Notably, the Burma-Thailand Railway is known as the “Death Railway” today due to the high death toll of a captive labour force of approximately 60,000 Allied prisoners of war forcibly engaged in the construction of rail line.
Stereotyping and De-humanising Cartoon
In a book War Without Mercy by John Dower (1986), “the white men were described as arrogant colonials who dwelled in splendid houses on mountainsides and hilltops, from which they looked down on the tiny, thatched huts of the natives. they took it as their birthright to be allotted a score or so natives as personal slaves”.
The cartoon by the Chicago Tribune’s Carey Orr was published three days after the Attack on Pearl Harbor as an unequivocal reminder of how the surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet became an indelible symbol of Japan’s inherent treachery, and inspired an immediate commitment to a ‘war without mercy’.
The above representations of the Allied forces are visually contrasting, with Japanese cartoon presenting the stereotypical obese and grumpy White-man, emphasising John Bull’s corpulence in comparison to the starving Indians positioned on the lower-left corner, while American cartoon is depicting a heroic, strong, and determined navy personnel.
The Japanese Empire did not only manipulate visual imagery to rouse collective antipathy toward the enemy, but also published cartoons to caution the public against the Western influence, particularly the individualistic and materialistic orientations.
This May 1942 cartoon from the government-sponsored magazine Manga is titled “Purging One’s Head of Anglo-Americanism,” with a caption, “Get rid of that dandruff encrusting your head!”. The scurf being combed out is identified as extravagance, selfishness, hedonism, liberalism, materialism, money worship, individualism, and Anglo-American ideas.
The fundamental quality of photography being a reflection of a moment in time, a photograph is commonly believed to bear a witness to history and preserve moments as the pictorial evidence of reality, objective and unbiased. The common misconception that disregards the intention and regulation of photographer allowed such quality of photography to be exploited in a systematic manner. The photography was a convincing method of propaganda that exaggerated or fabricated reality to manipulate a viewer’s thoughts and emotions for an advantage. It was often used for the following strategies: bandwagon – the join-the-crowd technique that convinces a viewer to join the mass movement; inevitable-victory – that appeals the viewer her victory is assured; and euphoria – that promotes or fabricates an idealised vision of happiness and stability.
The below photographs are drawn from Japan Photo Almanac 2603 published by Domēi Tsushin-sha in 1943. Domēi Tushin was a news agency monopoly and a production of the Japanese government’s propaganda aimed to build foreign publicity; a sole voice through which government-approved lines and broadcasted news transmitted abroad in different languages. The Almanac was a celebratory annual record captioned in English and Japanese languages that traces victory throughout the war progression and offered skewed insights into colonisation and wartime assimilation, with coverage of amicable photographs.
The Almanac appeals to the reader that Japan has achieved its claimed objective to emancipate oppressed peoples of Asia under Western colonisation, and manifests political, cultural and linguistic assimilation is voluntary, and for the betterment of Asia as a collective.
Please note that the titles enlisted for the photographs are strictly drawn from the publication.
About the curator: Dohui (Abigail) Kim is a Master of Art Curating student at the University of Sydney, interning at Rare Books & Special Collections. Dohui graduated from the Australian National University with a Bachelor of Art History and Curatorship in 2019 with double minor in Anthropology and Japanese Language.