Canberra Research Week

Conference room showing back of crowd, Tim Sherratt at front with a projector screen and ceiling of lights above.

People, laptops and Manager of Trove, Tim Sherratt – the essential ingredients for a great THATCamp in Canberra. Photo by Geoff Hinchcliffe.

When I made the decision to write a book about Australian World War One history in the midst of our move to Singapore I knew I would have to come back to Australia on various research trips. While much of my research centres on digitised historical records, most historical records are not digitised and t is only recently that publishers have offered e-book versions of histories they publish. These physical records which are held in Australia provide the context and additional depth which provide richer meaning to the digitised diaries I am working with.

One day I flicked through my Twitter stream and was reminded of a digital humanities event to be held in Canberra at the end of October. Digital humanities is the emerging discipline which seeks to develop rigorous research in the humanities using technology. I stumbled upon it through twitter and blogs back in 2010. Through social media I started learning how to program in Python and how to analyse the language used in digitised historical texts.

A cake tin with cupcakes with brown icing and a pink icing splodge on top next to a cake tin with chocolate chip biscuits.

Not the kind of goodies we expect from Trove, but their staff do cook well! Photo by Tim Sherratt

There is so much that you can do by yourself but there is no substitute for face to face discussion. I was delighted that I could attend the digital humanities ‘unconference’ called THAT (The Humanities and Technology) Camp which was organised in Canberra to launch the fifth birthday of Trove. Keep in eye out for more #Trovember goodies in the next couple of weeks!

A plastic container with Melting Moments inside and a note in front reading, "Trove/ Melting Moments/ Butter, sugar, flour, vanilla, custard powder/No nutritional value at all, but tasty"

The food just kept on rolling out. Photo by Conal Tuohy.

THATCamps are held around the world. The unconference format makes them easy to organise. Participants are expected to propose and lead sessions on anything in digital humanities that interests them. In the opening session these proposals are heard by the participants who decide which sessions they will attend. There are no lectures, no hierarchy of rank and no fragile egos requiring others to tiptoe around them. At THATCamps a free-flowing discussion generally ensues with participants taking responsibility in each session to contribute and make the session fruitful for all. Back in 2011 I wrote a blog post about the first THATCamp that I attended, which was also in Canberra, on my digital humanities blog, Stumbling Through the Future.

For the last few weeks I have been choosing digital tools to use in my work and pondering how to extract useful information that is buried in the millions of words that I am working with. I was having difficulty in one area so hoped that the THAT Camp would help.

People milled outside the entrance to the National Library of Australia.

We had another surprise – a THATCamp evacuation as the National Library of Australia dealt with some issue. But really it was another THATCamp networking opportunity. Photo by Pru Mitchell.

It did. There were no sessions specifically on my research issue but I didn’t need that. The discussions in sessions and informal chats during breaks helped the light-bulb go off in my head on a number of occasions. The highlight was one sentence that someone said that led me to discover a possible solution to one of my problems.

Anyone who is interested can attend a THATCamp. The format embraces people who are novices as well as experts. Everyone is welcome. We had a family historian, a translator, an expert in eighteenth-century French literature, programmers, historians, curators and many others discussing digital humanities in a convivial atmosphere. The range of interests and professional backgrounds enriched the discussion. You can get an idea of what we discussed by going to the THATCamp Canberra 2014 website.

Bike handles in the foreground, a straight bike path in the background.

Some of us rode our bikes to the National Library. Bernard’s bike is more spiffy than mine, but I was very proud to have ridden my noisy, rusty bike twelve kilometres a day to and from the National Library. Photo by Bernard de Broglio.

THAT Camp ran for two and a half days at the National Library of Australia. I spent several more days in Canberra to catch up with my daughter who lives there and do further research at the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia.

I was pursuing a particular research question that had occurred to me as a result of my work with the World War One diaries. Yet after three days I concluded that the question was a dead-end and not important for my work.

Was I disappointed?


This is the nature of research. You can take an educated guess and pursue a particular line of enquiry but there is never a guarantee that it will yield fruit. However, the negative can be illuminating. Why did this unexpected result occur? A better angle can reveal itself with the dead-end.

I did not tell anyone about my trip before I arrived other than family and THATCAMP organisers. I had such limited time I did not expect to have time to socialise with friends in Canberra. However, on my last morning I realised that I had some free time so had coffee with Sue who has a dynamic book reviewing blog called Whispering Gums. We had a lovely time at Beyond Q second-hand bookshop in Curtin. She also suggested I visit Canty’s Bookshop in Fyshwick.

Canty’s bookshop was great for war history. I picked up quite a pile of books, such as  iconic histories, Broken Years by Bill Gammage, The Great War by Les Carlyon and Sacred Places by K S Inglis as well as less well-known books. As I drove back to my hotel I worried about how I would fit the books in the small suitcase I brought with me. The Carlyon and Inglis books are particularly thick tomes.

But I had thought ahead. When I arrived in Australia my suitcase only weighed 14 kilograms and that included a bulky item I gave my daughter. Even though my suitcase was now eight kilograms heavier than when I entered the country it was still within the airline’s limits.

My research trip finished by a twenty hour journey from Canberra to Singapore via Sydney and Kuala Lumpur. This was as much a part of my research trip as the conference and archives. I had eight hours of fairly uninterrupted writing time in which I reflected on my week and wrote this post.

My next research trip will be combined with a trip to Australia for Christmas. I hope that I can stay in Sydney in January and take a first hand look at some of the diaries I am researching.

5 thoughts on “Canberra Research Week

  1. Lovely to get a mention and to know that my recommendation added to the success of the trip – and so glad your spontaneous coffee suggestion actually found me with some free time! I thoroughly enjoyed our catch up. As I said, I never mind a spontaneous suggestion. If it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. But, better that than be coy and not suggest at all!

    THAT Camp sounds wonderful … and I love that they had home-made goodies. Above and beyond but so welcoming.


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