Reflections on a Day at Digital Humanities Australasia 2016

A ship moored at a dock with warehouse and containers on the dock.

While we were ensconced in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies building, Australia’s icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, was being loaded next door.

The field of Digital Humanities has been a significant influence on the way I work. There are many debates about the nature of Digital Humanities is but very broadly it covers the work humanities researchers do when they study the use of digital technology in society, adopt research methods which draw heavily on digital technology and present their findings using digital technology.

I follow experts in digital humanities on Twitter and read their blog posts. Through this I have deepened my understanding in using technology to explore World War I diaries, mine Trove for information and convert old documents into machine-readable form. You can read more about the technical details of what I am doing on Stumbling Through the Futuremy Digital Humanities blog. What I do is relatively simple but I owe it all from listening to experts on the internet and at conferences.

I was planning on visiting Hobart sometime for research and to visit family, but that sometime was hastened when I found out that the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities were holding their annual conference in Hobart. The Association had secured some thought-provoking digital humanists for their keynote sessions and I wanted to be there. Yesterday I sat in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies on the waterfront engrossed in some fascinating sessions. Continue reading

A Digitisation Scandal That Isn’t

book lying on a box cut in half with a lamp and camera (and tripod) overlooking the book

The equipment that the State Library of New South Wales uses for their digitisation program is a lot more sophisticated than that used in my budget digitisation studio.

A few days ago I woke to some startling news, “NSW state library to turn $3bn collection over to private sector: In exchange for free digitisation” the headline from ITNews screamed. I started huffing with indignation about this scandal but I read the article which followed very carefully, then downloaded and read the tender documents as well as the Library’s most recent Annual Report. Often things are not what they seem.

And so it was with this article. The Library is not selling any of its collections or giving them away in exchange for digitisation. It turns out that the Library is merely offering private operators “access” to historical items so they can digitise the items then return the items promptly. The headline is clearly misleading. From what I can see, the article is about a fairly typical digitisation project that many of Australia’s cultural institutions have been undertaking for a number of years now.

There were problems in the article itself. The Library’s ‘Digital Excellence Program’is a major multi-million dollar digitisation program funded by the state government which commenced in July 2012. Thus the Library is not even half way through this program, yet the ITNews article claimed that the Library was near the end of this project with the implied criticism that the Library had failed to digitise many items during this project. The article linked to an ITNews article published earlier this year about the State Library’s program which said that the Library “nearing completion” of the first phase of this significant project. This has been an essential overhaul of the Library’s “infrastructure and systems”. That would seem to be a wise move. It makes sense to upgrade systems before a massive increase in data generated by digitisation.

Continue reading

Women were Among the World’s First Computer Programmers

The first published computer program was written by a woman. The programmers of the world’s earliest digital computers were women. The inventor of the significant technology behind the most widely used programming language in the twentieth century was a woman. The software which was responsible for the first landing of men on the moon was written by a programming team led by a woman.

Clearly women are capable of being excellent programmers, but in a classic example of our culture preventing natural abilities from shining, the information technology industry is dominated by men. Worse, girls in the West are still growing up in societies that expect them not to be as good at using information technology as boys, or interested in becoming information technology professionals.

A little bit of history demonstrates how wrong those attitudes are.

This week Ada Lovelace Day was celebrated around the world to recognise women’s achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). It is named in honour of the women who is widely recognised as the world’s first programmer – Ada Lovelace.

Painting of Lovelace wearing a purple Victorian-era dress and Victorian-era fancy hairstyle.

Ada Lovelace is the stated author of what is now recognised as the world’s first published computer program in 1842. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron. Her parents had separated when she was a baby and her mother ensured that she had a mathematical education to counter what her mother saw as the ‘madness’ of Byron’s poetical mind. She was mentored by another important nineteenth century female scientist, Mary Somerville. Through Somerville Lovelace met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the forerunner to modern computers. Ada Lovelace claimed to write instructions for Babbage’s Analytical Engine even though the machine had not been built. She had to work off Babbage’s plans for this complex machine and discussions with him.

The instructions for the Analytical Engine that Lovelace claimed to write are now regarded as the first published computer program.

However, there is an ongoing debate about how much of this was her work and how much was that of Babbage himself. Clearly Babbage would have had to, at the very least, devise some simple instructions while creating this machine and to check his design. Hence I have observed that Lovelace was the stated author of the world’s first published program. (See Addendum at the end of this post for more discussion about this debate)

What was probably even more insightful about her work was her observation that the machine could be used to run many sorts of different programs. In Ada Lovelace’s ground breaking paper published in 1842, she observed:

The Analytical Engine, on the contrary, is not merely adapted for tabulating the results of one particular function and of no other, but for developing and tabulating any function whatever. In fact the engine may be described as being the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity

Ada Lovelace also considered the question of artificial intelligence:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.

(Wow, I became so absorbed by Ada Lovelace’s work that I am reading some of her paper from 1842.)

Nearly one hundred years later, computing pioneer, Alan Turing picked up on Ada Lovelace’s arguments about artificial intelligence to develop his own thinking in this area. (Turing’s article from 1950 is another interesting one that has side-tracked me somewhat.)

Ada Lovelace was an important pioneer in information technology, but she was not the only one. Continue reading

Top Retweets from 2015 Australian Historical Association Conference

Sandstone Quadrangle Building at University of Sydney

A glimpse of one of Sydney’s modern skyscrapers through an ivy-covered arch of University of Sydney’s nineteenth-century Quadrangle Building.

Retweeting amplifies tweets. One tweet is ephemeral. It can easily be lost in the deluge of tweets that are emitted at the same time. Retweeting is one way that tweeps catch tweets that appeal to them and increase the volume on those tweets. The tweet is sent again but to a slightly different audience and at a different time. A tweet that is retweeted many times has something in the 140 characters that has captured the imagination of the Twittersphere and has a much larger audience than the first time it was sent.

In my last post I wrote about the dominant themes that emerged in the Australian Historical Association Conference’s Twitter stream. This was done by analysing the most popular words in the Twitter stream. Another way to understand what interested the conference tweeps is to have a look at the most retweeted conference tweets:

Tweet No. RTs
1 RT @perkinsy: #OzHA2015 For all those who want to learn how to use @TroveAustralia API, here are simple step by step instructions: http://t.co/1vsBpXOZzm 17
2 RT @AustHistAssoc: Mark McKenna #OzHA2015. Historians need to be part of public debate as collaborators with journalists, documentary makers, museum curators. 15
3 RT @perkinsy: I’m presenting at #OzHA2015 now: Needle in the haystack: a searching look at digital tools’. See slides: http://t.co/NXuAT5Rsjp #dhist 11
4 RT @baibi: My paper is on Sydney boy Charlie Allen, who lived in China from 1909 to 1915, + the letters he wrote home. #OzHA2015 http://t.co/0donu76vCF 10
5 RT @history_punk: #OzHA2015 Matthews: fascinating insights into history/social change and a lifelong commitment to research/activism. http://t.co/kl8ZzVksvF 10
5 RT @AustHistAssoc: Catherine Freyne #OzHA2015. How to write history for radio? Balance of narrative and analysis, anecdote and reflection. 9
6 RT @ap_ap_ap_: Those at #OzHA2015 – check out this fab #DH2015 keynote on memory and access to archival sources by @wragge: http://t.co/xGgwy1707t 8
7 RT @AustHistAssoc: Anna Clark #OzHA2015. Historians caught between rigorous demands of scholarship and appetites of audiences for intimate stories. 8
7 RT @history_punk: #OzHA2015 Mootz: You can teach a 5 yr old about historiography. How? Ask mum/dad to tell you about the day you were born. Two perspectives! 8

Trove was the subject of the most retweeted tweet in the conference. It seems a lot of people are interested in learning how to use the facility provided by Trove for the speedy, mass download of search results. This technology is called an API. You don’t need any qualifications or programming expertise to use it. As I said in the tweet, you can learn how to use it with some simple step by step instructions I have written. By using an API you are liberated from the tedium of clicking each search result and saving it one by one. Give it a go – it will open up a world of possibilities for you.

In a similar vein, Tim Sherratt’s well-received and provocative keynote speech at the previous week’s Global Digital Humanities Conference gained deserved attention by people following the #OzHA2015 hashtag. His paper examined our access to government archives and questioned the perception that “open access” really means that. If you have not already done so, make sure you read his paper which he has made available on his discontents blog.

Three tweets from the Big Questions plenary panel were in the top retweets which reflects my comments in the last post about the interest of conference tweeps in this session on public history. panelists, Mark McKenna, Catherine Freyne and Anna Clark provided these morsels of interest. Likewise, women’s history is reflected in this list of popular retweets. It is worth clicking on the link to the screenshot from Jill Julius Matthews’ Australian Women’s History Network keynote presentation.

The last in the list of retweets is a wonderfully quirky but perceptive insight into the learning of history in real life. This pearl was contributed by Denis Mootz of the History Teachers’ Association of NSW in his paper on ‘Historical Literacy’.

There are two interesting tweets in this list. Both the third and the fourth tweets on the list were pre-scheduled tweets that Kate Bagnall and I sent while we were speaking. This indicates that people following the Twitter stream found it helpful when speakers contributed some tweets about their papers while they presented their papers. These pre-scheduled tweets provided some context to those following from afar and helped tweeps in the audience by locating information about the paper for them. For more about this see my post, ‘Presenting at a Conference in the Social Media Age’.

This post has focussed on the people who was the subject of the tweets, not the person who wrote and sent the tweets. There is a very good reason for this. In the academic and professional sphere the content of tweets is important. To take an extreme case, a professional who only tweets about their morning coffee is unlikely to get many followers, even if they are an esteemed leader in their field. A person who only tweets about themselves and their own work is of limited interest unless they are a leader in their field. There are few people like this.

Effective professional use of social media is an act of service to a professional community. Professional tweeps help share knowledge and assist members of the community to connect with each other.

Librarians and teachers understand this well. They regard their social media connections as a ‘Professional Learning Network’ (PLN). The historian tweeps at the conference and those following online were using social media to learn and to connect. People who use social media professionally learn from others and pass it on. They ask questions of their Professional Learning Network when they need help. While they certainly contribute their own work, this may be only about 25% of their tweets/posts. For the vast majority of us it is the content of the tweets that we send that is valued above all else.

It was the presenters at the conference and other conferences who provided the interesting ideas and comments which tweeps passed on to the Twittersphere. This list of popular retweets shows that Twitter can help raise the profile of people who are not on Twitter. Tweeting a conference is a service to an online community which wants to learn more about the subject. It is also a service to presenters at a conference as their ideas are disseminated to a wider audience.

This analysis uses the data from the Conference’s Twitter Archive maintained by digital historian, Sharon Howard. If you would like to look behind the analysis I have done of the conference tweets go to the Voyant Tools text analysis page I have created. Let me know if you find something interesting.

Presenting at a Conference in the Social Media Age

Conference sign stating name of conferenceIn many respects the format of academic conferences has not changed much over the years. There will be some plenary sessions with keynote lectures but the hive of the conference is the parallel sessions where many presenters stand up, read their paper and answer a few questions afterwards. Once upon a time presenters may have used overhead transparencies. These have been replaced by powerpoint presentations which in the hands of most presenters are little different to the old technology.

But social media has introduced a profound change to the dynamics of conferences. The soundscape of plenary sessions at the Global Digital Humanities conference did not simply comprise the tones of the person speaking on stage. There was also the soft sounds of hundreds of fingers tapping on keyboards, reporting the conference to the world via Twitter.

Over several conferences I have been observing presenters and thinking about how best to present a paper in the Social Media Age. At the Australian Historical Association conference a few weeks ago I had a chance to put some ideas into practice.

Firstly I made sure I put my name and my Twitter handle on the bottom of every powerpoint slide. The best way of giving attribution on Twitter is to use the presenter’s Twitter handle but too often the people tweeting a paper are not aware that the presenter is on Twitter. The presenter misses out on a higher profile online and the possibility of connecting to more colleagues online. Likewise the audience misses out on an opportunity to expand their professional networks. Continue reading

Digital History at #OzHA2015? There was some

Screenshot of the home page of the website.

The Prosecution Project from Griffith University is examining the history of criminal trials in Australia between 1850 and 1960.

There are good reasons to attend conferences. I treat them as my CPD (professional parlance for Continuing Professional Development). At a productive conference I learn a great deal from being immersed in a learning environment for several days. The breaks are as productive as a session because they are good opportunities to chat with others in the field about their work and further discuss what we have learned. These blog posts I am writing are a further opportunity for me to think through new ideas and approaches as well as to pass the learning on.

The Global Digital Humanities Conference was a week before the Australian Historical Association Conference. As I said in previous posts, Australian historians Peter Read, Julia Torpey and Tim Sherratt featured at those conferences. It was a rare opportunity for Australian historians interested in Digital History to learn from leading digital humanities practitioners.

It is very difficult for one person to attend two conferences in one fortnight, so it was understandable that digital history was not a big focus at the Australian Historical Association Conference. There were no sessions titled ‘digital history’ or something similar that would convey that the papers were about the use of technology in history.

Yet digital history was there. My paper was about digital history as was Janette Pelosi’s paper about the State Records NSW digitisation project, ‘Sentenced Beyond the Seas‘ which she presented in the same session.

With low expectations I have searched through the 2015 conference abstracts for papers featuring the words, digital, data, website, internet, social media, Facebook, Twitter. To my surprise I found thirteen papers which could be regarded as digital history. This was more than I expected. Continue reading

International Researchers Value Work of Australian Libraries and Archives

Trove logoParticipants at the recent Global Digital Humanities conference will remember the prominent contributions of Australian historians, Tim Sherratt, Julia Torpey and Peter Read. But I also want to highlight the more low profile but no less important contribution of Australian cultural institutions in bringing Australian historical records to world attention.

Australian governments and other funding bodies have shown international leadership by funding significant digitisation programs that have are freely accessible to the people of the world. This contribution to the world’s bank of knowledge is inestimable. As I listened to the papers presented at the Global Digital Humanities Conference I was struck by just how significant digitised Australian historical sources are for researchers around the world.

The Trove website is the flagship of Australia’s digitisation programs. Led by the National Library of Australia, with significant contributions from Australia’s state libraries, it is truly a treasure trove of all sorts of digitised items, including its famed digitised newspapers as well as the catalogue records of hundreds of cultural institutions around Australia. It is a massive online resource.

We would expect Australian researchers to embrace this resource, as they do, but researchers from other countries are also using Trove’s resources in cutting edge work.  Every day we researchers presented papers which referred to Trove. Every day one of these papers was presented by researchers who worked for universities or cultural institutions outside Australia.

These papers, like all papers at the conference, demonstrate world class research in the field of digital humanities. As the conference proceeded it became clear that Trove has made an important contribution to leading international research. Continue reading