A gift to unlock access

Digitisation has the power to transform public access to Queensland’s history and culture, unlocking museum collections for everyone to explore and discover online.

Now, thanks to the generous gift of an anonymous donor, Queensland Museum has been able to conserve, digitise and share online a unique part of the State Collection held in the museum’s Research Library.

Our Research Library was founded in 1876 and has grown into an extraordinary and comprehensive collection, featuring rare books, journal collections and general monographs. Researchers around Australia and beyond continue to visit the Library in person to access resources to inform their work.

The William McLennan Personal Papers include ornithological field journals, letters and photographs which detail significant historic field work in Queensland. Supported by this donation, our digitisation project has enabled online access to 48 diaries, field notebooks and 200 pages of correspondence recording copious bird-watching observations in North Queensland. These sightings, recorded between 1906 and 1923, provide invaluable data regarding bird activity in the region.

Images of William Mclennan papers

The William McLenan Personal Papers. Image: Queensland Museum

Who was William McLennan?

William Rae McLennan (1882-1935) was an ornithology enthusiast whose reliable observations earned respect and employ from several key Australian ornithologists including Dr MacGillivray, H. L. White and Gregory M. Mathews. McLennan also provided observational data for the preparation of Neville W. Cayley’s Cayley’s Book of Birds, which informed Cayley’s 1931 publication What Bird is That?.

McLennan’s collecting work included expeditions to Cape York Peninsula between 1909 and 1915 and Gulf of Carpentaria between 1915 and 1916[i], both of which are referenced within Mathews’ monumental 12-volume publication The Birds of Australia (1910-1927). Mathews even named a bird genus after him, declaring “[McLennan] who, for Dr MacGillivray and others, has done such good work as a collector.”[ii] Sadly, only one bird species from the genus named after McLennan survives today – the Geoffroyus geoffroyi maclennani commonly known as the Red-cheeked Parrot.

The personal papers of McLennan also confirm he was a diligent record keeper and letter writer. There are more than 3,500 pages of observational notes in his diaries, which also include letters from his time overseas during World War One.

A flock of discoveries

McLennan’s work may be over a century old, but his findings continue to be of value to ornithology researchers today.

A new paper by Patrick Webster and Henry Stoetzel[iii] in a 2021 edition of the Australian Field Ornithology journal provided the first verified record of the Chestnut-backed Button-quail Turnix castanotus in Queensland—through the William McLennan Personal Papers collection, they have unearthed a similar sighting from 100 years ago that appears to have never been reported before.

Researchers Elinor Scambler, Mary Barram and co-authors have also recently used McLennan’s diaries as part of a research project on significant present and historical Brolga flocking sites. Thanks to McLennan’s observations, they succeeded in identifying details of a significant roost of approximately 1,000 Brolgas in Northwest Queensland in 1912.

By accessing data recorded in the past, researchers can map trends and changes between then and now, contributing to greater understanding of species and environments, informing environmental management and conservation strategies. In addition to McLennan’s ornithological observations, his material reveals significant geographical, meteorological and social descriptions from the early 1900s.

We are very grateful to the anonymous donor who enabled this project.

A drawn image of two birds species name Maclennania mathewsi

Illustration of the Maclennania mathiewesi in 'Birds of Australia'. Image: Courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library.

[i] https://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/bsparcs/biogs/P003170b.htm
[ii] Mathews, G. M. Austral Avian Record, v.3(5), p.127, 27 December 1917.
[iii] https://www.birdlife.org.au/afo/index.php/afo/article/view/2231/2251

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