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Invisible Histories: Reclaiming Volunteering and Voluntary Action in Australian History

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Whilst research and interest in all aspects of volunteering and the third sector generally have grown exponentially since the 1990s, both internationally and in Australia, Australian historians have been ‘missing in action’ – they have not generally been part of this explosion of interest. Sociologists, social workers, economists, lawyers, accountants, political scientists, environmentalists, business managers, information technologists, those interested in sport and tourism – the list is endless - are part of an evolving multidisciplinary approach to what is now labelled as the ‘third sector’, ‘voluntary sector’, or ‘non-profit sector’, depending on your national preference. Public debates and discussions over issues of social capital; global initiatives such as the United Nations International Year of Volunteers in 2001; and the rise of peak organizations such as Volunteering Australia, have all brought volunteering to the fore.

But volunteering and voluntary action, the history of the non-profit sector and its relationship with government, are largely neglected topics in twentieth century Australian history. Whilst volunteering and voluntary action are integral to our western democratic traditions and both have played key roles in the development of Australian society in the twentieth century, our national histories remain largely silent. Where are the stories of volunteers, volunteering and the voluntary principle in our national histories? They have largely been ignored. They are part of our ‘invisible histories’.

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Read the keynote address delivered by Melanie Oppenheimer at the 10th National Conference on Volunteering, held in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on 2 June 2004.