The Dictionary of Sydney Needs Your Help!

A dictionary is the first place anyone consults when they want to know the meaning of a word.  Likewise the Dictionary of Sydney is the first place you should go to if you want to know anything about Sydney, past or present.  It is a ground-breaking project where historians, whether amateur, professional or academic collaborate to create a dynamic and comprehensive website that is both authoritative and easily accessible.

Yet funding for this project is under threat.  The major sponsor of the project is the City of Sydney Council. Next Monday (30/7/2012) the Council will decide whether to release the funding it had approved ‘in principle’ in 2011.

Yesterday I asked the editorial co-ordinator of the Dictionary, Dr Emma Grahame, some questions about the Dictionary which she answered via e-mail.

“It’s the only project of its type in the world that we know about”, she remarked.  Encyclopaedias of cities have been produced for many years in book form, but producing this type of work through a website allows continual updating and expansion better reflecting the dynamic nature of the city.

“Browsing this online dictionary is an enjoyable and informative experience commented urban historian, Professor Alan Mayne.  The technology underpinning the Dictionary is technically advanced and well-conceived.  As with all good technology this enhances the user experience without them being aware of the significant effort underpinning the website.

The Dictionary is the product of collaboration between many volunteers and a very small paid staff. The seven hundred articles on the Dictionary’s website have been produced by hundreds of volunteer authors and a paid staff of the equivalent of 2.4 fulltime workers.

The Dictionary of Sydney is a wonderful example of how historians are starting to embrace technology to share history with the public.   This was the topic of much discussion at the recent Australian Historical Association conference.  Dr Lisa Murray, chair of the Board of the Dictionary of Sydney and historian for the City of Sydney Council, noted at the conference a characteristic of projects such as the Dictionary of Sydney is the collaboration they facilitate.  The articles on the Dictionary of Sydney website are written by a wide range of people, not just academic historians.  “[T]he dictionary reformulates the scope of academic history to engage with and extend community knowledge about the past”, remarked Professor Alan Mayne of the University of South Australia in a review of the site in the journal of the Australian Historical Association last year (History Australia, 8(2), August 2012, pp. 251-2).

“It’s intended in a very explicit way to make Sydney’s history inclusive, accessible and public” remarked Dr Grahame.  Unlike some other history projects the results are “not locked away in academic journals, conferences and books” she commented “but online, searchable, accessible to Google, available across the world”.

I would imagine that it would be a very useful resource for teachers and school children as all articles are properly vetted and edited making it a reliable source of information about Sydney.

When I first heard of the project one of the things that impressed me was that the City of Sydney Council was one of the major sponsors of the project.  What other council has the foresight and imagination to sponsor such an innovative history project?

“[W]e have a long and productive relationship with the City and we continue to be very grateful for their support over a number of years”, noted Dr Grahame. “The City helped initiate the project and has put in nearly a million dollars over the last eight years, as well as hosting our tiny office and providing computer access and so on.”

“We also work closely with the City’s exemplary History Program.”  Dr Grahame’s comment prompted me to have a look at the other work the council is doing regarding the history of Australia’s oldest city.  There are too many interesting projects to review here but I encourage you to have a wander through the History & Archives section of the City of Sydney website.

The stumbling block that is jeopardising further funding from the Council is the difficult economic climate.  Certain key performance indicators had to be met as a condition of funding.  “[W]e haven’t managed to raise enough external money from non-Council sources”, explained Dr Grahame. “Nevertheless, we reduced the City’s share of our operational funding to 69% just 4% shy of the target of 65%.”

The Dictionary of Sydney is clearly not the only deserving project that is struggling to gain funding.  It is well known that philanthropic giving is tight in Australia.  “[U]ncertainties in the global economy and structural adjustments in Australia mean that the macroeconomic environment for philanthropy is likely to remain challenging for a while at least” observed Bruce Bonyhady, the President of Philanthropy Australia, in his report to the annual general meeting of the organisation in April.

“We are not asking for more money”, explained Dr Grahame. “We are just trying to make sure we get the $200,000 the Council voted to give us, as part of a five-year funding support package last year.”

If the Council decides not to release the funding promised to the Dictionary of Sydney, all work on the project is likely to cease.  I asked Dr Grahame to explain the consequences of such a decision.  She gave me quite a long list.  In summary the following work is imperilled:

  • There is a possibility that with no funding to pay the University of Sydney for hosting the Dictionary of Sydney database that the website will no longer be available on the internet. Even if the website remains, all technical work supporting the project may cease;
  • Cooks River project:  this new project would close and money received for it would be returned to the Federal Department of Community Heritage;
  • Joint project with the Irish Consul-General’s office:  work on new content about the history of Sydney’s Irish community to be published on St Patrick’s Day in 2013 would cease;
  • Sydney Journal, an academic journal connected with the project, would end publication;
  • Up to seventy articles currently in the editorial process would not be published.

This would be a sad fate for what Professor Mayne has described as a “bold, new development in the historiography of Australia’s largest city”.

What can you do to help?  Firstly you can show your support for the project by making a donation through the Dictionary’s website.  Secondly you can write to the councillors and explain why you believe the funding should continue.  You may also wish to attend the council meeting where this decision will be made.  It is next Monday, 30th July at 5pm.

I will be writing to the Councillors and sharing this post with them.  Please contribute your thoughts about the Dictionary of Sydney in the comments below.  How have you used the information on the Dictionary’s website?  What contribution do you feel it has made to the way that Sydney is publicly presented?  What contribution has it made to our understanding of history?


  • The CEO of the City of Sydney is recommending that the Dictionary of Sydney be granted $72,000 by the Council, with $128,000 subject to the Dictionary developing a business plan that addresses the uncertainty regarding funding.  Read her memo here.
  • Councillor Phillip Black will move a motion to have the Council provide the entire amount The Council approved in principle for funding in 2012 – $200,000 (motion number 3 in this pdf on the Council’s website).

Wonderful news! Last night the City of Sydney council unanimously approved the release of all funds previously promised to the Dictionary of Sydney for the 2012 – 2013 financial year.  For further details please read the Dictionary of Sydney’s blog.


1 thought on “The Dictionary of Sydney Needs Your Help!

  1. Pingback: Dictionary of Sydney wins continued support from City of Sydney | Dictionary of Sydney

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