Sunday, 19 October 2014

Pamela Carswell writes to Philip Harvey in December 1993

Pamela Carswell was already into retirement when called upon by the librarian of the Joint Theological Library (today the Dalton McCaughey Library), Dr Lawrence McIntosh, to work there on rare books and cataloguing. Pamela, Lawrence, and I were for many years editors of the Australasian Religion Index (ARI), something we did inside library time over maybe two to four days, depending on the load of indexing received, and its complexity. Complexity of some kind or other appears to be at the forefront of Pam’s mind when she typed this letter in December 1993. The letter itself surfaced during a clean-out of old stuff at home over the weekend. Why she wrote rather than just told me may be because I was on leave and she needed to unload her troubles long distance. Those were the days when we still unloaded and before we started uploading or downloading. ARI indexers and other readers are here given a rare glimpse into the backroom thoughts of the ‘razor-sharp’ mind of Pamela Carswell. ‘Razor-sharp’ was a term she herself used whenever referring to someone of high intellect, usually with her tongue in her cheek. The context is that Pamela has taken home the draft printout of Volume 5 for correction. Footnotes follow the letter.

Saturday (11 Dec. 93)

Dear Philip –

                      Have done 900/971ths of ARI vol. 5, which I promised LDM (1) to bring up on Thursday. I’m becoming increasingly exasperated with that CD-ROM thing. I mentioned Missions – Directories, which is perfectly good LC but simply not permitted by the Thesaurus (2), either by way of the standard subheadings or by analogy with some other entry in the body of the text. The CD has it, many times over. Similarly, while the Thesaurus has Christians – Relations – Jews see Jews – Relations – Christians, the CD allows both – which again I imagine is LC practice and probably an LC imperative. The Thesaurus seems so often to go out of its way to differ from LCSH, and yet the RIO indexers are happily using both, including LC subdivisions.

As for Wagga – it’s not just their computer, it’s them. (3) Surely the computer can just as easily file Women’s Christian Temperance Union after Women, Catholic as before it? Or Women, Catholic before Women missionaries as after it? The Thesaurus follows the ALA filing rules – why should Wagga set up a system of its own? Quite apart from the computer’s inability to recognise articles, prepositions and conjunctions most of the time – most of the time, not always – the filing is quite perversely different from that in the Thesaurus (or in any card catalogue I’ve seen), e.g. Freedom (Theology), Freedom of speech, Freedom, Religious, (an instance, note, where the computer has decided to recognise the ‘of’ – you see, it can do it if it wants to). Just noticed another: Women (Theology) – Biblical teaching followed by Women – Bibliography.

Then of course there are the plain blues such as the one I showed you, where Paul VI is weaving in and out of all the Paul the Apostles.

I thought that’s one of the things computers were miraculously good at, putting things in whatever order they’re told to. Anyway, I’ve rather changed my mind about those see refs., I don’t think Wagga could cope with the interfiling of them.

I’m glad the entry-by-entry, descriptor-by-descriptor checking and checking against the index is almost through. The first 4 vols. weren’t so bad but with this one about a third of the things I queried were on the CD, so it seems a waste of time to check the descriptors against anything else. Tho’ I scored one or two – e.g. Depressions – 1929 – Australia (Depressions, Economic … and that one didn’t stop at 1929), plus Mysticism - Jewish [ - Judaism] and Cambodia [Kampuchea since 1976] and the odd misprint and blind ref. Apart, that is, from the quick-flip-through list LDM asked for a couple of weeks ago, which he checked against the wretched CD thing – seems most were OK, including to my chagrin Christians – Relations – Jews, and Missions – Directories.

Kay and Michael Cole (4) had lunch here yesterday – nice, easy guests and never before have I had such success with a pud – a chocolate mousse, one whose ease and foolproofness in making is entirely due to the appalling richness of the ingredients, no beating, no separating of eggs, no food-processing, just all casually stirred together. I managed to pile the recipe for six into two individual dishes (naturally I couldn’t eat it) and expected them to give up about a third of the way through. I watched fascinated as they didn’t even slacken speed till they got to the dish-scraping stage. I think had they been alone they would have gone on to the dish-licking stage. I was gratified almost to the point of tears and when they fell to their knees and pleaded for the recipe it was very nice to be able to produce a photocopy on the spot. I see no reason now why I should go to the bother of cooking anything else when I ask people for lunch.

Totally unexpected Xmas note from Janet yesterday, I’m glad she hasn’t despaired of my lack of rapport with Esmeralda. (5) But she rather suggested by delicate implication that by way of contrast with her life-affirming paganism (pagan is the word she used) I’m to be classed with the monkish flagellants of the Middle Ages, turning their flayed backs on the delights of this world for the joys of the world to come. I suppose I’ve brought it on myself – who could endure the Pritikin diet were it not for pie in the sky? (6) But I’ll have something to say about that (delicately phrased) as soon as I’ve finished that dratted ARI (only 71 entries to go). I’m really glad she’s resumed contact.

Almost came to blows with my Croatian friend (the Einstein of Rosanna) about the word ‘strive’. (7) Very alarming, she now thinks we discuss these things on equal terms. She showed me a job application letter she was particularly proud of, in which she expressed her admiration for the strive displayed by the firm with whom she was seeking employment, the strive for good employer-employee relations. ‘Striving’, I said. ‘Strive’ is not a noun. ‘But I like the word ‘strive’,’ said Debbie. ‘It is a good strong word.’. ‘Yes, it’s a good strong verb’, I said, ‘but tho’ you can admire someone’s drive or dive you can’t admire their strive. It’s not good English.’ ‘But I have seen this word used just like that, many times!’ ‘Look, Debbie, IT IS NOT GOOD ENGLISH. You mustn’t use it in your job application!’ We fair glared at each other. And do you know I woke in the night and almost convinced myself that these days it’s quite acceptable to say things like ‘You know, the sheer strive of the man is undeniable’ and ‘What would I do for a tenth of his strive?’ Next day – when I knew she would have put this thing through their laser printer – I said I hoped she’d amended strive to striving or thought of another word, and she grinned and said she had. But next time - ?


Since I last addressed you, the knob on the cold water tap on the bathroom basin disintegrated in my hand so that I couldn’t turn it on or off without savage use of the massive pair of pliers I picked up in the street some years ago, and only then with very great difficulty. Brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink didn’t appeal and anyway I felt as outraged as if one of my legs had dropped off while out shopping so all indexing/letter-writing/eating/calm thought ceased till things got back to normal. It is now less than six hours since the crisis broke and there is now a new and better knob on the cold water tap in the bathroom basin and – just as a bonus – a new and better washer too. All for $10, which is about the price of the knob and washer. It’s not that I have a friend who is a plumber, but a plumber who is a friend – even on a Sunday. And  I’ve finished ARI vol. 5. I’m sure that Lawrence will see the point of this particular objection, nor even that you will – but I don’t like these descriptors for one of the articles: 1. Religion, Primitive - Mangaia (Cook Islands). 2. Mangaia (Cook Islands) – Religion. I mean, I don't like the first one, surely it's a value judgement? Why not just 1. Religion, Primitive. 2. Mangaia (Cook Islands) - Religion ...? I mention this in case it comes up for discussion but I feel LDM is deciding all these things himself with the help of Pope CD-ROM and the only thing we’ll perhaps be discussing is the filing problem. Anyway, I’m sick of ARI and even sick of trying to sever Timor Timur from Indonesia, it’s a lost cause. (8)  The main thing is I can turn the cold water on in the bathroom and turn it off again, whenever I like.

love – Pam


(1)   Dr Lawrence McIntosh, librarian of the Joint Theological Library (now Dalton McCaughey Library) in Parkville, Victoria, 1982-1996.

(2)   Religion Index Thesaurus, the subject list of descriptors of Religion Index One (RIO) used for indexing ARI, loosely based on Library of Congress Subject Headings (LC or LCSH) but with its own subject-specific variations and subheading structure.

(3)   ARI was at that time published by the Library Studies department of Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, where data input took place. I hasten to say that Pamela is here engaging in ‘razor-sharp’ annoyance and intends no harm of anyone living or dead. Her subsequent complaints are directed at technology and not humans.

(4)   Kay Cole was librarian of Corpus Christi College Library in Clayton, since shifted to Victoria Parade, East Melbourne and renamed The Mannix Library.

(5)   A mutual friend who had, at the time, adopted the unusual name of Esmeralda and expected her friends to call her by the same.

(6)   Janet seems to have assumed that Pamela was still a practising Roman Catholic.

(7)   Pamela lived in the north-eastern suburb of Rosanna. Debbie was one of her neighbours, recently arrived from the Balkans.

(8)   A major bone of contention inside editorial at the time was the independent status of East Timor. Pamela argued for its independence while consensus held that, whatever one’s political beliefs, Timor was part of Indonesia. After self-determination at the turn of the century the country became known as Timor-Leste.

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