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What makes one historian enchanted by the Middle Ages and another obsessed with Stalingrad? On Thursday 19 May, the History Council of NSW presented a panel session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Winners of the 2015 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards Alan Atkinson, Carolyn Holbrook and Babette Smith revealed to Caroline Butler-Bowdon how and why they fell in love with their subjects.

Our session chair, Caroline Butler-Bowdon, Director of Curatorial and Public Engagement at Sydney Living Museums, opened the session noting, ‘obsessions, if wisely applied, can lead to all sorts of wonderful results’ and then asked the panellists how and why they became fascinated by their subjects.

Alan Atkinson revealed his fascination with the ‘continuing unsolvable mystery’ and ‘enigma of other people’s lives’; that the historian is in constant search of a full story which will never be complete. He cited the joys of exploring the National Library of Australia’s Trove, and how it has the capacity to bring people to life.

Babette Smith spoke of her rich and varied life and career, and how that has helped shape her understanding of human nature. She also noted how feminism influenced her early writings, particularly when exploring her own family history and the story of a female ancestor who was transported to New South Wales, leaving children behind. Smith made assumptions about her life and the hardships she endured, only to find a letter written by her convict ancestor which noted how transportation was one of the best things that happened to her!

Carolyn Holbrook relayed how she experienced Anzac Day growing up, and how the myth of Anzac has evolved since the troops first made landfall at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. She also noted that because of her background in journalism, she has discovered readers change their opinions at the emotional ‘gut level’ rather than through their minds. As a result, she tries to balance her historical works with the emotive elements that can arise through story, and the analytical components of academic enquiry.

To view a summary of the tweets from the event, see our Storify story or read it below.

Special thanks go to our chair, Caroline Butler-Bowdon, and our panellists Alan Atkinson, Babette Smith and Carolyn Holbrook, for a fantastic and highly engaging session. Special thanks also to Kate Steinweg and the Sydney Writers’ Festival for organising this event.