Trove: the writer’s best friend

Absolutely fabulous best friend. Writers often do very strange things in the name of research. Take for instance me. In the early days of writing my manuscript Paris Next Week, I decided on the suburbs my main characters would live in. Sarah Montague would live in Elizabeth Bay and her best friend Louie Gilbraith would live in Darling Point, a surburb east of the centre of Sydney and just east of Elizabeth Bay. See my earlier post Playing Musical Chairs With Sydney Suburbs on how I came to that decision. Now all I needed was a suitable house for both.

Enter my best friend. It wasn’t too hard finding a suitable mansion on google for Louie but Sarah’s house proved elusive. I don’t know how many searches I did on google for Elizabeth Bay houses/Elizabeth Bay mansions/Old houses in Elizabeth Bay etc. I wasted hours trolling through 21st century real estate and countless images of the iconic Elizabeth Bay House. Nothing suitable. Around this time I had started using Trove and bingo! 103 search results, predominantly the first half of the last century. I had my house for Sarah along with a lot of internet sites such as the Historic Houses Trust, the State Library and the Government Printing Office. Invaluable.

Need to find what wealthy Australians got up to in the 1920s? Try Tea Table Gossip which I only discovered through the newspapers scanned at Trove. “Mrs W A Sargent of Greycliffe, Darlinghurst has returned from her trip to Victoria.” “Miss Gertrude Toohey will sail for South Africa next week. Early in March her marriage with Captain Justin Pargiter, M.C., of the 27th Light Cavalry, will take place.” Priceless!

As Trove itself explains: “Trove helps you find and use resources relating to Australia. It’s more than a search engine. Trove brings together content from libraries, museums, archives and other research organisations and gives you tools to explore and build.Trove is many things: a community, a set of services, an aggregation of metadata, and a growing repository of fulltext digital resources. Best of all, Trove is yours, created and maintained by the National Library of Australia.”

AND it is not just Australian content. Trove has content from the rest of the world. I was recently searching for details on the Burlington Cafe in Sydney. No luck on google so I choofed off to Trove. Sure enough I found one image of the cafe in 1919 and because I hadn’t ticked Australian content I came across a lot of US content as well. For instance: “Burlington, N.C.Cafe Owners form strong bond” an article published in McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, 2004 April 4.

I’m off now to find a house in Avalon in 1923 suitable for a big, possibly drunken party. Wish me luck but I don’t really need it as Trove has my back!

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Lost – Elizabeth Bay Mansions. Found – the artwork of Gladys Owen

View from Darling Pt across Rushcutters Bay to Elizabeth Bay

View from Darling Point across Rushcutters Bay to the Elizabeth Bay mansions 1879 – source City of Sydney Image Library

Yep! This photo above has caused me a lot of grief. But let me start at the beginning. I am currently researching high society in Sydney during the 1920s. Until recently I thought (naively as it turns out) that I could simply read up about the wealthy and then fashion up a house and lifestyle for my main characters. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? How wrong was I!

This is a black hole in our history. Our novelists were not writing a Sydney Great Gatsby – they were, for the most part, writing about life in the bush. Later, the subject has hardly been touched on, which has impacted on the amount of research I now have to do. I was just realising all this a few weeks back when I decided I might have to look into the history of houses in the area to pinpoint and research the lifestyles and choices of the people (particularly the daughters) that lived in them.

Tantalisingly all these high society people are floating around in Trove in gay abandon. They are having farewell parties (off to the Continent, San Francisco, Hawaii). Hosting charity functions, balls, afternoon tea parties, enjoying the sea breeze at Hotel Cecil, Cronulla and all manner of other social activities. I swear they travelled and partied more than we do but what did they do day after day? How were the hours in their day actually filled when you were wealthy (you weren’t travelling on the Continent) and you didn’t need to work? Enter the picture above.

I chose five houses in the Elizabeth Bay area to research, working mainly on the images. It was late at night, I found this photo and reference to a short history of Ellizabeth Bay Mansions and being tired, I didn’t write the reference down – simply saved the photo. I thought I’d go back the next day and look into the reference. Could I find it the next day? OF COURSE NOT! The photo was there but no reference.

A few days later I visited the Mitchell Library and experienced first hand the very misguided changes that have been made to this historic library. Because of staff cuts, there were only two staff members on to help with people wanting to access the special collections. I was requesting maps of Darlinghurst Road in the 1920s and also looking for those notes on Elizabeth Bay Mansions. With the new changes to the Library I was told to put my requests in at the State only to find that what I wanted was at the Mitchell. I ended up going backwards and forwards between the two libraries four times.

I was very frazzled – almost as much as when I was Waiting for Eleanor Dark. In the confusion I missed requesting a book that I did come upon about Elizabeth Bay mansions. Another trip down to Sydney! But I did find the wonderful woodcuts and etchings of Gladys Owen. I was given an enormous folio tied with a ribbon and I was mesmerised going through images of Spain, Italy and England created between 1919 and 1960. This is what the Mitchell should be for. To look at special collections in the building where these collections are housed. It is with relief I heard that the recent changes and staff cuts are going to be reversed!