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excerpts from Brian McKeown’s article on writing a school history

McKeown, B. ‘So you want to write a history of your school?’, Teaching History, History Teachers Association of NSW, Vol. 24, No. 3b, 1990


I did ours in decades. That is, I began with Chapter 1 as 1890-1900 and so on. I found this method suited our school's history. I have seen other schools write their books using the various principals as chapter headings and in larger time spans such as between the wars, the early 1900s etc. Unless you have some plan however, your book will lack continuity, will resemble a scrambled egg, and, in my opinion, lose its historical impact. Many schools also include a history of the local community. I was fortunate to be able to draw upon a separate book published by the community about Peak Hill.

Tell Everybody

Inform all the students you are writing a book and that they will be in it. Send out a newsletter requesting information about the school. Put notices in shops. Find old pictures of buildings, the students etc. and ask people to identify themselves or others. You cannot over publicise your intentions.


They are the lifeblood of your book. Visit the elderly ex-students, they are mines of information and often have photos and other memorabilia. One ex-student I have interviewed still had his school books from 1920! The oldest ex-student I interviewed was 95 and had left school in 1907. Follow-up every possible lead. I was a bit hesitant to visit one 88 year old ex-student as I had been informed she was deaf. She gave me some wonderful information, a photo of an early teacher from the turn of the century and told her son to lend me the complete Admission Register of a small school that had closed in 1946. It came with a lesson register from my own school. Apparently the teacher had boarded with this lady's family and this priceless historical material had been sitting in a cupboard in her house for half a century.


You will get hundreds. I was staggered by the number of photographs of school I received. Certainly the school photographer was alive and well in the 1890s at Peak Hill. Put the owner's name on them immediately and place them in a plastic cover. I had all my very old photographs re-photographed. You will have to find the names of the children in the pictures if they are to be meaningful. Even the names of one or two children will help. Although school photos of the 70s and 80s are often readily identifiable those of the 50s and 60s can be time-consuming if the photo is not fully identified on the back. Some of the classes of the 50s and 60s had up to 60 children in them. Of all the jobs concerned with a school history this aspect is the most frustrating and tedious. Write and thank everyone who sends a photo that is very old or very important. Chances are, if they have kept one photograph of themselves at school they have other material. You will not be able to use all your class photos. Have negatives taken and sell these to ex-students. It can be very worthwhile from a financial point of view. Also kids love looking at an old photo, especially if Uncle Billy is in it wearing a funny hat and a pinafore!

Libraries etc.

The Mitchell Library is a fabulous place to find out about your school's history They keep many provincial newspapers and photos. I found the 'Town & Country Journal' a fabulous resource. It has many articles on towns and suburbs prior to 1915. 1 was lucky to find a large article on Peak Hill. Your town or suburb might also be featured. The newspapers are essential. There is a catalogue in most libraries telling you where to find local papers. The State Archives may hold some material but ring them first. The recently installed laser disks at the Mitchell Library contain numerous photos of early life in NSW. You can get copies of those photos you need for your book.

Pasting Up

Special Lay Out sheets are available from the printers. As you complete each section or chapter, paste it up. This gives you an idea how things are going and will serve as an incentive to get on. Also you have something to show others and this may elicit more material.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Brian McKeown.


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