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FCIL Newsletter

Volume 14, Number 2
February 2000


Australian Law & Librarianship
18th IALL Course, Melbourne, Australia
September 1999
Margareta Horiba
Tulane University Law Library

If there was ever a doubt in my mind whether to attend the IALL session in Melbourne, a remote  and unfamiliar place, it was quickly dispelled during the IALL sponsored program at the annual  meeting in Washington, when Ruth Bird, director of the law library at University of Melbourne,  gave a lively and informative introduction to law, life and politics in Australia. And during the social hour following there was much enthusiastic testimony to all good things down under.

My flight to the southern hemisphere lasted one long night but I arrived in the beautiful city of Melbourne at the same time spring was breaking out and people were filling the parks and outdoor cafes. Disconcertingly at first the sun warmed from the north at midday and the shadows pointed south. I gradually got my bearings. Melbourne is an elegant and modern metropolis with an efficient public transportation system. Meals and services are provided with style and at very reasonable prices. The rchitecture is serene with a blend of two worlds, the old and the new, Europe and United States. I strangely felt as if I had been there
before.

The days of expertly planned meetings and excursions resonated with superb presentations, hospitality and fine meals. The neatly finished papers were handed out at registration for anyone to read ahead. There were 45 participants altogether, one from Europe and one from East Asia, the rest divided between North America and Australia. The small size of the group
allowed for an unhurried and intimate atmosphere with ample opportunity to establish new contacts which is sometimes the most valuable thing to bring back. IALL members may never have had such good value.

Most of the meetings were held at the charming Old Treasury Building, close to the Parliament of Victoria and other governmental buildings, bordering beautiful gardens where officials, as well as IALL members, were sprawling on the grass during lunchtime. University of Melbourne hosted the meetings one day and during our excursion we visited Monash University for a presentation and a tour of the law library. The Parliament and Supreme Court of Victoria libraries hosted gracious evening receptions in their old world architectural splendor. Wildlife and wine were, as might be expected, also included in the program on a delightful tour to Healsville Sanctuary and Yarra Valley.

These altogether pleasant contours never diminished the seriousness and substantive contents of the meetings. Justice Peter Gray of the Federal Court of Australia, the first key note speaker on the day dedicated to issues related to indigenous people worldwide, acknowledged at the outset of his presentation that we were meeting on land that traditionally belonged to the Aborigines. This was a gesture that is part of the reconciliation process now going on in Australia with the delicate issues of apologies and restitution of land rights. Justice Gray gave an insightful and fascinating presentation of the difficulty in reaching legal settlements with members of a culture that acknowledge first and foremost their own laws and dreamings handed down to them by ancestors and of the efforts of the bar to gain access and understanding of these laws. This presentation set the tone for the meetings as well as for my brief experience in Australia, later enhanced by Bruce Chatwin's book Songlines, a travel book with a personal insight into the life and customs of the Aborigines. It was a great surprise to me with my rudimentary and outdated notions of Australia that this country with an indigenous population of only 1.5% has made the reconciliation process a cultural policy with commitments on all levels of society.

AustLII, The Australian Legal Information Institute with its seven gigabytes of Australian and regional legal and free access databases, has taken a leading role, stepping in where the government has been afraid to tread, by creating the Reconciliation and Social Justice Library, a project providing public information on indigenous issues. It began in 1995 with the publication of Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, making countless volumes of out of print reports available electronically and free of charge. The goals are to continue to search for relevant material, to develop techniques for easy access to all
documents, and to increase access to legal information in remote areas and train indigenous people in internet e-mail use and evaluate its usefulness at that level.

There were other topics of great interest and curiosity from my perspective. In a lighter vein but highly educational, the former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia and a friend of libraries, Sir Anthony Mason, reflected on his experience as an itinerant judge in the Asia-Pacific region and the role of libraries in Australia and the small struggling jurisdictions of Fiji and Solomon Islands. A constitutional scholar from University of Melbourne gave a fascinating account of the constitutional intricacies of Australia and the then upcoming referendum. We now know that the Australians rejected the proposal of giving up the monarchy for a republic.

A panel of librarians rounded out the meetings by presenting their views. A law firm librarian was concerned with the trend in mergers, the academic librarians with the proliferation of law schools (in Australia an undergraduate degree), a court librarian was indulging his judges and a government librarian's problem was facing budget cuts, "downsized, capsized". Those are a
few things I recall and the overall impression was that they are fighting the same battles as librarians in most places. What impressed me was their unqualified professionalism and confidence that, no matter what, librarians are needed to get the job done.

With this IALL course the Australian law librarians have raised the standards for what a meeting of this kind can be like a true learning experience in a most delightful setting. It was a privilege to attend.


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