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NCACL celebrates 50 years of championing Australian children’s stories

Suzanne Lazaroo

14 March 2024: The heart of a nation can be found in its stories – and for half a century, the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature (NCACL) at the University of Canberra has helped keep that heartbeat steady with its tireless work of celebrating, collecting and cataloguing Australian children’s books.

Headed and run by NCACL Director Professor Emerita Belle Alderman AM and a dedicated staff of volunteers, the Centre has a collection of about 58,000 Australian children’s books.

“About 6,000 of these have been translated into 79 languages, which we think beautifully illustrates the appeal and importance of Australian children’s stories,” said Professor Alderman.

“The Centre is also home to hundreds of original artworks, authors’ and publishers’ papers, ephemera – toys, boardgames and more – all built on children’s books.”

NCACL volunteers have also painstakingly compiled and curated several free-to-access databases: Picture Books for Older Readers, NCACL Cultural Diversity Database, and NCACL Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Resource.

Today, the Centre’s collection is valued at $12.8 million.

While the archives are open to all, University of Canberra students and staff enjoy particularly convenient access to the archives for research, and to gain valuable professional experience via Work Integrated Learning (WIL) and internships.

The Centre marked its 50-year milestone with a week-long celebration of workshops, a panel event, guided tours of the Centre’s collection and a cocktail event gathering authors, partners and well-wishers, all focused in and around its home in The Hub, at the University’s Bruce campus.

Delivering the welcome address at the anniversary event, the University of Canberra’s Interim Vice-Chancellor Professor Lucy Johnston acknowledged the long connection shared by the University and the Centre.

“It is only apt that I start from the beginning – in the form of a story,” she said.

“In 1974, the Australian Government gave $500 to each Branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. Lu Rees, then-President of the ACT Branch, proposed that there should be a national collection of Australian children’s books, and the ACT Branch began that collection, housed in their homes.”

In 1979, the collection had outgrown these homes – and the then-Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE, which would become the University of Canberra in 1990) stepped forward to provide a new home for the Centre.

“They knew the collection would be of interest to students in education, literary studies, cultural heritage, communication, public relations and languages,” Professor Johnston said. “And so the collection of 1,000 books and 80 collections of material about its creators came to the then-CCAE.”

Renowned author and illustrator Bob Graham – whose relationship with the Centre spans his own decades-long career – delivered a typically evocative welcome address, saying that the 50th anniversary had rendered him “a big brown bear standing in a stream, snatching at salmon … swiping at memories".

“NCACL is an extraordinary resource of cultural importance to the arts in Australia, and is run with such dedication and expertise by Belle and the volunteers,” Mr Graham said.

“Its archives hold my life laid out in a bibliography – seeing such fundamental parts of the [book creation] process, it almost seems more ‘real’ than seeing the finished product has been.”

As part of the celebrations, Christopher Cheng – award-winning author, NCACL Ambassador and co-chair of the International Advisory Board for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) – launched Behind Secret, Sealed Doors. Written by Emma Janssen, the book stars her daughters Sophie and Niome, as they explore all the magic NCACL has to offer.

The celebration event was filled with meaningful moments, community connections and opportunities for book-lovers.

Mr Graham and Rose Howes – who has volunteered for over 30 years at NCACL – were presented with awards for their service and collaboration; Dr Malcolm Beazley AM, Director and Founder of the Australian National Museum of Education (ANME) also presented Professor Alderman a memento for the collection.

And both Kingston-based independent bookstore The Book Cow and SCBWI members set up book tables for browsing and buying.

NCACL’s Acting Chair Mr John Faulks captured the spirit of the occasion – and NCACL –  in his address: “The thing that most distinguishes humans from machines is the imagination, and we are the tellers of things we imagine and things we observe … knowledge locked away is knowledge lost. NCACL works to make it accessible to all.”