Make history with the Academy

March 31, 2021
Montage of images from the Fenner Archives
Everyone is invited to make history with the Academy. Images from the Fenner Archives, including of Professor Frank Fenner.

The Basser Library and Fenner Archives at the Academy have a rich, varied and historic collection of published and primary source materials that researchers use to analyse the history of Australian science and establish continuity with science as it is practised today.

The Basser Library and Fenner Archives were first formed to collect materials documenting the history of science in Australia, and to conduct and promote related historical research. Over its 60-year history, the collection has evolved into a nationally significant resource that provides a rare and valuable window into Australian scientific discovery from the late 19th century onward.

The Basser Library Collection

Sir Adolph Basser was an optician, jeweller and philanthropist whose £25,000 donation in 1960 enabled the Academy to establish a library.

The Basser Library was officially opened by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1962. It now comprises published material in disciplines relevant to the research and scientific work of Academy Fellows. The library includes an extensive collection of books numbering around 4000 titles, and an uncounted selection of scientific journals, periodicals and proceedings.

Of particular interest are publications and reports produced by the Academy, historic journals by each of Australia’s state museums, and back issue sets of scientific periodicals including those created by colonial era Royal Societies and other voluntary scientific associations that flourished in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Rare books

In 2016 the Academy arranged for the National Library of Australia to conduct a uniqueness survey of its collections.

This project highlighted several hundred volumes that are held only at the Basser Library or in a very small number of public Australian collections.

The Fenner Archives Collection

The Academy holds a treasure trove of largely unpublished material donated by Fellows of the Academy, prominent Australian scientists and scientific organisations.

The archive, or manuscript, collection was established in 1962 by then research associate Anne Moyal and is named for the eminent microbiologist Professor Frank Fenner as an accumulation. It comprises 233 individual collections—an estimated 10 million pages stored over 140 thousand folders—and is a valuable primary source of information on Australian scientific practice in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Highlights include Professor Fenner’s own papers, which meticulously document his life and work over eight decades and cover his contribution to the World Health Organisation team behind the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox. The Fenner Collection was added to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register in 2019.

The archives also contain a wealth of material documenting the first Australian Antarctic exploration efforts, with collections by expedition members who kept immaculate records, diaries, landscape sketches and some of the earliest photographs taken on the continent.

Accessing the collections

The collections are in good condition but require improved conservation management and findability to ensure their longevity and maximise their benefit to Australian and international researchers. 

Work has begun to professionally digitise, and make accessible online, important collection material with the long-term aim that anyone in the world can find and access a digital version of historically significant content in the Fenner Archives.  A searchable online catalogue of Academy collections and associated digital images is expected to be published in the first half of 2021.

Contact the Academy to enquire about accessing the library and archives.

Make history with us

Interviews with Australian Scientists

The Academy is committed to reinvigorating its Interviews with Australian Scientists in audio (podcast) format. Supporting this project to record stories enriches and inspires the next generation of exceptional scientists and provides a unique and personal insight into the challenges and progress of science.

Digitising the archives

With the archives, the Academy is the only place in the world that holds the 233 collections, and there is strong global interest to access the material. Even with the best of care, the archives are at risk of damage and degradation over time. Digitisation of the collections will protect and preserve them for many generations and open them up to the world for scientific and historical research.

Donations from organisations and individuals are welcome and will contribute toward the costs of preparing for and conducting the interviews of Fellows of the Academy, and the very significant cost of digitising the archives.

Make history with us

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