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Australians Delight in Canada's Gift of Historic Document

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On September 11th, 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave the people of Australia a national treasure-and brought to light a little-known facet of Australia's past. Prime Minister Harper presented Prime Minister Howard of Australia with an historic playbill printed in Sydney in 1796, a document that experts have confirmed to be the oldest surviving document printed in Australia.

"Canadians and Australians share a passion for the preservation of our cultural heritage," said the Honourable Josée Verner, Minister of Canadian Heritage, Status of Women and Official Languages. "We were thrilled to discover this extraordinary artifact, and we are proud to return it, in the spirit of the great friendship between our countries, to the keeping of the Australian people."

The story behind this event is intriguing. The playbill, for a July 30, 1796, production of Jane Shore, was discovered by Elaine Hoag, a rare book librarian with Library and Archives Canada while she was cataloguing items in the collection. The document had been tucked into a 150-year-old scrapbook that was donated to Library and Archives Canada by the Library of Parliament in 1973. Some of the scrapbook materials had come loose from their guard sheets and had been set aside in a folder for safekeeping.

Ms. Hoag remembers the dawning excitement of her discovery as she picked up one of these sheets for cataloguing-a playbill for a performance of Jane Shore, to be held at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, on 30 July 1796…

Theatre Royal, Sydney? Could Australian convicts really have erected a Royal Theatre by 1796? Surely, this must refer to a Sydney in England. The playbill was small and poorly printed, typical of a small, provincial press-but equally typical of an amateur printer operating in primitive conditions. Curiosity led me to John West's Theatre in Australia1, which notes that plays had in fact been performed in Sydney as early as 1789. Fortunately, two Theatre Royal playbills were reproduced in West's book-identical in size, typeface and layout to the one in my hand-for performances that had taken place on 8 March 1800 and 8 April 1800. To my astonishment, these bills were captioned "The two earliest known surviving Australian playbills." Take my breath away! I held in my hand a playbill that was printed almost four years earlier. I was eager to learn more.

And learn more she did. Detailed investigations by Ms. Hoag uncovered the significance of this document and its distinguished provenance.

Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Ian E. Wilson, contacted the National Library of Australia to report the find and to seek their expertise in confirming the document's provenance and authenticity. To everyone's delight, experts on both sides of the Pacific agreed that this was, indeed, the oldest known existing document printed in Australia.

What should be done with it? The Government of Canada took an unusual and generous step in offering the playbill to the people of Australia. As Ian Wilson explained, "Apart from having been found within the vast collection of Library and Archives Canada, the playbill has no connection with Canada and it has played no role in our history or our national life. The playbill is of enormous historical significance to Australia, and Library and Archives Canada supports its return to the Australian people, in the spirit of international cooperation, and in recognition of the value that both our nations place on preserving our documentary heritage."

Library and Archives Canada collects and preserves Canada's documentary heritage in all its forms, for the benefit of past and future generations, as part of its overall mandate. Our collection is one of extraordinary range, depth, and magnitude, including books, periodicals, maps, photographs, drawings, films, sound recordings, and a unique music collection. Through the conservation, discovery and return of this invaluable piece of Australian heritage, Library and Archives Canada fulfills two other mandates: contributing to the advancement of Canada as a free and democratic society, and encouraging cooperation among communities involved in the acquisition, preservation and diffusion of knowledge.

"The discovery of this 211-year-old document and its provenance is a credit to our talented and dedicated people at Library and Archives Canada," said Minister Verner. "I'm proud to say that Canada has preserved it with great care so we can return it to the people of Australia."

The Jane Shore playbill will become part of the collection of the National Library of Australia, where it will be exhibited in their new Treasures Gallery, due to open in 2008.

1. John West, Theatre in Australia (Sydney: Cassell Australia, 1978), 9-12.

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