The travels of a permanent student

Adam Johnston working in the Mitchell Library Reading Room

It’s extraordinary to think that given his long involvement with scholarship and obvious appetite for history and understanding, Adam Johnston’s February visit to the Mitchell Library Reading Room was his first.

He visited once or twice a week through early autumn, settling in Special Collections to look through charitable sector reports, royal commission papers and the Library’s disability ephemera collection — brochures, letters and leaflets advertising services and soliciting support.

He was waiting on the rights to use restricted papers from the manuscript collection when the Library was forced to shut abruptly in late March. Almost three months later, on the very first Monday that collection services are recommencing, Adam is one of the first through the door.

He comes to his research with a lifetime’s experience of seeking a good working match between needs and services. He chuckles as he tells the story of his undergraduate studies at Macquarie University in the early 1990s. There was a single disability officer, but her office was inaccessible. And she was blind. To meet with her, Adam would make his way into a courtyard between the university buildings and ring a bell. She would then descend the stairs and the two would only find each other when her cane hit his wheelchair. 

Almost 30 years later, Adam is back at Macquarie University undertaking a PhD examining the Federal Government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme. He is exploring whether its service structure, which outsources support services for disabled citizens to non-government and private sector groups, is a case of history repeating. Adam wants his work to express his concern that the stories of abuse and neglect being uncovered by the current Disability Royal Commission will be repeated under the NDIS. 

To put the current scheme into context, Adam needed to understand the history of disability services in NSW. He delved into Macquarie University Library’s online catalogue and found some information but not enough. ‘In desperation, I thought … State Library!’ He searched the online catalogue, posted an Ask a Librarian request outlining his research and then followed it up with a visit to look at the suggested materials. 

Adam Johnston working in the Mitchell Library Reading Room

‘I never meant to be a permanent student,’ Adam confesses. The son of a seafarer and a scientist, he had wanted to study economics and enter federal politics. But he ‘spectacularly misjudged’ his ability with maths, lasting a term before transferring into a Bachelor of Arts in the School of Politics where he became ‘the ultimate political junkie’.

Needing to find a career, he transferred into Law via the History and Philosophy of Law course, and later completed a Master of Laws at the University of New England where he investigated how common law views the body — whether we own our own cells and DNA. He says of a career in the law, ‘I wanted it more than it wanted me.’

Adam’s years of research have taught him how to get the most out of libraries. But academic libraries can be noisy places full of students. ‘The things I love about coming in here are the beautiful marble staircases, the Roman columns, the sandstone building.’ Adam describes the Mitchell Library Reading Room as ‘a statement of NSW history, architecture and so much more’. He says it’s the first time in his life that he has come into a library with aisles and aisles of books. He can feel the historical patterns they contain. ‘For the first time in my life I feel like a real researcher.’ 

So far, his research at the Library has confirmed what he suspected about past lessons not being learnt. But it’s also reminded him of what a good match between a need and a service can be. ‘I’ve been so surprised at how helpful everyone here has been, turning pages, running off to find things for me.’ It reminds him of the importance of public service for the public citizen, the whole reason the welfare state was put together in the first place, so that people can fare well.  

As he glances up to the galleries of books above us, he smiles. ‘I’ll be happy to extend my travels around this collection.’

Mathilde de Hauteclocque
Library Assistant, Information & Access