Words and Responsibility

A couple of years ago The Australian Dictionary of Biography requested me to write the biographical entry for Professor John Willett, the first Vice Chancellor of Griffith University in Queensland. I had worked there in management for most of his tenure in this position, had known him well and admired him immensely. My first instinct was to decline: as the ADB is the definitive source of information on prominent people in Australia, this would be an awesome responsibility for a person of his stature. It turned out I was the latest in a long line of former colleagues they had approached who felt the same. Years earlier I had written another entry for the ADB on a Brisbane headmistress so in the end I agreed, because I knew what was involved and I felt we owed him so much.

I have never put such an effort into such a short piece of work, which was supposed to come in under 1000 words. The ADB finally published all 1800 words of the article I sent them with a note pointing out that he had not lived a 1000 word life – they couldn’t find anything to edit out either!

The ADB, housed at the Australian National University in Canberra, brings out a new volume every two years; it is produced in hard copy for libraries (although I believe this is being phased out) and is of course also available on-line. It is invaluable to researchers. There is no payment to authors, many of whom are employed as academics. What motivates the rest of us? I suppose it depends on the subject you’re asked to research. In this case, I felt it was an honour.

by Pat Noad

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