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Jon Altman collection grows

We spent a busy week in May at the Institute for Post-colonial Studies in North Melbourne listing and packing Jon Altman’s latest addition of manuscript papers which he is donating to AIATSIS. 

Jon is a social scientist with a disciplinary focus on anthropology and economics and was the founding director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at the Australian National University (1990-2010). 

Jon is now ‘retired’, but has had a long and extensive relationship with AIATSIS, first receiving a grant at the age of 23 to undertake fieldwork. Part of this initial grant included a loan of the Institute’s Toyota Hilux which he drove to various fieldwork sites in the Northern Territory.

Sassi standing on anthropologist Jon Altman's ‘desk’. AIATSIS Collection ALTMAN.J01.BW.

Throughout his career Jon has used ethnographic methods and comparative analysis from the field of economic anthropology to examine Aboriginal ways of living at remote outstations on Aboriginal-owned land. 

During the 1980s he undertook a series of research projects about Indigenous engagement with new industries including mining, tourism, and the visual arts. 

In the 1990s his research focus was on the hybrid economy framework and Aboriginal livelihood approaches particularly in remote regions. And in the 2000s he shifted his intellectual focus to political ecology and critical development studies. 

Getting started

Our first task in Melbourne was to extract large, heavy cardboard cartons full of books, journals and papers from under a stairwell and set them out for sorting and listing in a large room at the Institute for Post-colonial Studies.

Jon Altman’s books, journals and papers at the start of the week.

Jon kindly helped us out and put together all of these manuscript boxes in which we re-housed his manuscript collection!

Jon kindly helped us by folding AIATSIS manuscript boxes and answering questions relating to his collection. We checked for duplicate book and serial titles on Mura, the AIATSIS catalogue, to see if we already had any of the published items Jon was intending to donate. There is no real use in AIATSIS acquiring multiple copies of the same book titles!  Jon is intending to donate his extensive book collection to other institutions, or community centres back on Country.

Jon’s extensive collection includes hand written notes, research papers, drafts of publications, reports and rare unpublished theses. 

He is a meticulous researcher whose archival filing systems and diligent note taking are a researcher and archivist’s dream! Much of the material in this third transfer relates to Jon’s work in Maningrida, in Arnhem Land, NT. One particular series in this collection includes more than 130 field note books documenting his travels, observances, work and ideas in Maningrida from 1979-2015.

Kylie Moloney and Jon clarifying details about his manuscript collection.

While sorting through the collection we kept an eye out for pests which can cause damage to paper archives. Fortunately we only came across three live silverfish and a spider, which were promptly dealt with! 

Once packed, Jon’s collection amounted to more than 40 manuscript boxes that were safely transported to the AIATSIS collection storage vaults in Canberra the following week.

Jon has assigned nearly all of his collection (MS 4721) to be ‘Open Access’ which means that after some further listing and re-housing this collection will also be accessible to clients.

The Jon Altman manuscript collection is one of the most significant and extensive collections held at AIATSIS. It amounts to more than 77 metres of manuscript boxes (approx. 430 boxes) as well as other collection material including maps, photographs and audio material covering a wide-range of subject matter relating to Aboriginal Australians from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

In 2017, Jon was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day Honour's list for significant service to tertiary education as a researcher and administrator, and to the social sciences and Indigenous economic policy.


Last updated: 05 August 2022