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The 'Encyclopedia of Melbourne'

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Monday 12 December 2005

Andrew Brown-May, senior lecturer, Department of History, University of Melbourne


The Encyclopedia of Melbourne  


Whenever I walk from the John Medley Building at the University of Melbourne to the Baillieu Library, I pass the sculpted forms of two figures of Atlantis. These pillars of strength once graced the porch of the 1880 Colonial Bank in Elizabeth Street, cut and pasted in 1972 onto the eastern entrance of an underground carpark. Sometimes these fabled strongmen, bearing the world on their massive shoulders, have given me strength; on other days their stern countenance and straining muscles remind me only too clearly of the burdens of the encyclopedist. 


Melbourne is a significant city in the context of international urban growth, and compilation of the recently published Encyclopedia of Melbourne has been privileged from the outset by the city’s historical position as regional and national focus and as one of the world’s pre-eminent 19th century metropolises. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ symbolised the achievements of Australian urbanisation and suburbanisation.  


The printed city encyclopedia is a relatively recent development, emerging, especially in North America, from the concerns of urban scholars to produce exceptional and accessible reference sources while maintaining a high level of theoretical rigour and innovation. Our team began work on the print volume in 1996, the 700,000 word single volume encyclopedia contains 1650 A-Z illustrated entries of between 100 and 4000 words in length, covering a diversity of thematic areas from pre-European settlement up to the present day, across the 31 municipalities of the greater metropolitan region. The team of editors and 450 contributors to the Encyclopedia have given long and careful attention to the process of making sure we give coverage to such broad themes as culture, demography, architecture, immigration, education, law & order, indigenous history, science and nature, sport and religion. 


While users will expect factual information such as the first winner of the Melbourne Cup, or the date of Victoria's Separation from NSW, or the derivation of the city's street names, we also encouraged contributors — including Barry Humphries, Keith Dunstan, Stephanie Alexander, Tony Birch and Arnold Zable — to capture those sometimes more elusive qualities of the city - the spirit of place, the celebration of biographical attachments to city landscapes, or nostalgic memories of bygone days.  


The CONFECTIONERY entry documents the industrialisation of manufacture that saw the origins and growth of the family-owned specialist sweet-makers from the 1840s, and their subsequent takeover in the 20th century by multinationals. But historian John Lack also catalogues the assortment of lollies  


once bought over the counter in small quantities at what came to be called milk bars: the buddies, freckles, black cats, licorice blocks, straps and ropes, mint leaves, false teeth, bananas, milk bottles, aniseed balls, gobstoppers and ‘gumboils’, raspberries, sherberts, snakes, and the like. The agonising choices made at the lolly shop [continues John Lack] were among Australian children’s first lessons in decision-making, and counting.  


The entry on SMELL discusses issues such as health and building regulations, and pollution control, but also we hope captures the unique ways in which the city's smells ...  


shape its character and the daily experience of its inhabitants: the seasonal whiff of wattle-blossom heralding deep winter and early spring; the salty tang of a cool change sweeping off Port Phillip Bay; the hot baked bitumen of a schoolyard; vinegary fish and chips on a Friday; newly mown grass on a suburban Sunday; the musty amalgam of formaldehyde and dust that infused the Swanston Street museum for over a century; the smell of streets and gardens settled by rain; a multitude of backyard BBQs fired up on warm weekends.  


The city of course changes beneath our feet, and in trying to make the book comprehensive, we end up chasing our tail, so it is with a mixture of relief and pleasure that we finally stand still and release the book. There were no road closures when the Encyclopedia was launched- no street parades, , no balloons released -- but it is a truly civic project, a civic touchstone, a massive achievement on the part of the city's scholarly community, a first for any Australian city, and by any measure one of the best major events that Melbourne has seen for a long time.  


Guests on this program:

Andrew Brown-May  

Senior Lecturer 

History Department 

The University of Melbourne