Australia's oldest public library will offer a new fellowship for an Aboriginal researcher to explore their family history by delving into its vast collections.
One among a program of 16 administered by the State Library of Victoria, the Victorian Aboriginal family history fellowship sits alongside the Victorian Aboriginal cultural heritage research fellowship, each worth $15,000.
CEO Kate Torney said the fellowships aim to increase Aboriginal Victorians' access to cultural knowledge held in the library's collections.
"There is an incredible array of records that we keep on behalf of Indigenous people," she said.
"These fellowships are about understanding the gaps in our collections while also encouraging the community to work with us on the material that we already have."
Recipients receive a cash grant enabling them to undertake three months of research, as well as shared office space and access to library experts.
Maxine Briggs, Koori librarian at the library's recently established Victorian Indigenous Research Centre, will help the successful recipients make the most of their deep dive into the collections.
"In the colonial period, people were moved between missions and protectorates to break their connections to family and country and prepare them to join the new society, and also as a reprisal for political activism," Briggs said.
"The forced separation of Indigenous people from their traditional country and their family networks, along with attempts to suppress Indigenous knowledge and culture, means that Indigenous family history is both uniquely challenging and critically important for our continued survival and wellbeing."
The library's family history team will also be available for consultation.
Researchers can draw on a wide range of physical and digital resources, including databases from overseas libraries.
"We don't put too much of a framework around it," Torney said.
Ultimately, recipients' output might take the form of a novel, a book of poems, a play or a suite of photographs.
"The fellowships are about allowing people to have the time and space to discover the collections," Torney said.
"If something comes from that, fantastic. But that might be in 10 years' time, so it's not deadline driven."
The new family history fellowship aligns with a burgeoning interest in genealogy, a trend reflected in the popularity of SBS TV's Who Do You Think You Are?
"During lockdown in 2020 we took the opportunity to look at areas of growth in collection access, and family history was a massive part that," Torney said.
Over the past decade, she added, the library's family history team has transformed what was very much a colonial-driven set of resources into something more multicultural and relevant to contemporary audiences.
"Family history is a huge area of interest, and it's lovely to be able to support that," Torney said.
The 16 fellowships are worth $215,000 in total and applications close on September 5. Successful applicants are notified on November 11.
The library's current Indigenous cultural heritage research fellow is working with Briggs and other library specialists to recover cultural practices around Indigenous astronomy.
"The recovery of ancestral knowledge from the archives is like completing a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are scattered through the archives," Briggs said.
"As a project it is vitally necessary to support the continuation of Indigenous culture in Victoria."
Meanwhile, Torney has announced she will leave the State Library of Victoria in September following six years of service. She is to become CEO of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation.
Library Board of Victoria president Christine Christian paid tribute to the departing CEO, who successfully oversaw the library's recent $88.1 million redevelopment, Vision 2020.
"This included raising $27.7 million in philanthropic support for the project, which enabled the creation of StartSpace for early-stage entrepreneurs ... and the magnificent refurbishment of the historic Ian Potter Queen's Hall," Christian said.
Victoria's creative industries minister Danny Pearson said the redevelopment was "a once-in-a-generation transformation".
"Thanks to Kate, our 165-year-old State Library is more relevant and connected to Victorians than ever," he said.
Torney, who came to the state library following a 20-year career in broadcast journalism at the ABC, said she was deeply grateful for the opportunity to steer the library through such an exciting period.
Australian Associated Press