Searching Catalogues Effectively: National Archives of Australia

Rectangular building with horizontal stripes. In between the stripes are the windows.

State Library of Tasmania in Hobart. This photo is undated but it looks like it could have been taken when the building had just finished completion. Photo courtesy of State Library of Tasmania flickr collection.

While in Hobart I have been spending a lot of time in the ‘History Room’ at the State Library. This is where researchers can retrieve items from the state and national archives that are held in Hobart. In my book I want to include stories of soldiers from each state in Australia and also look at their pre-war experiences, hence my Tasmanian research.

As usual I am encountering the problem of records that were never kept at the time or are difficult to find through existing catalogues. I have needed to delve deeply and creatively into various catalogues. I thought that many of you would have encountered similar problems researching your family history, trying to complete assignments etcetera, so I thought I would share a little of what I have learned.

Each archive and library has its own way of organising their catalogues, filing their material and explaining how to find items. Sometimes items or collections may not even be mentioned in electronic catalogues or they may be on card catalogues which have not been transferred onto a computer yet. Other items in the collection may never have been catalogued in the first place because of shortage of staff.

The catalogue on the website of the National Archives of Australia only describes about twenty percent of the items they hold. So how can you find out about the thousands of boxes of archival material that are not mentioned in the electronic catalogue? 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

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

“If… we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”

“If therefore, we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”. The British Attorney-General for Kenya, Eric Griffith-Jones wrote in June 1957 to the Governor of Kenya. In the letter the Attorney-General shared how the policy over the use of physical violence on imprisoned Kenyans was being altered so that the beatings would be ‘legal’. (‘Sins of colonialists lay concealed for decades in secret archive‘, 18/4/2012).

In my last post I described how the quest for compensation by a small group of now-elderly victims started a process which led to the discovery of over one million historic documents that were illegally hidden from the inquiring eyes of the public. Some of these documents provide evidence of horrible crimes perpetrated by British personnel against colonial subjects in the dying days of the British Empire.

This raises many issues. The issue that I want to explore here is what we can learn about the construction of archives from this issue. This has then led me to wonder why horrendous crimes can be ignored for so long. Continue reading

Archives are Important… Very Important

We all rely on archives. The moment that we first drew breath in this world is registered in an archive. Our education records, driving records, legal records, marriage and death are all recorded in an archive somewhere. We go about our lives assuming that vital information about our lives is automatically and adequately stored by our governments. We assume that important records about the workings of government and businesses are held.  Our justice system depends on well-maintained archives and strong archival procedures.

Yet it doesn’t always work like that.

This particular story concerns the Mau Mau uprising in the British colony, Kenya during the 1950s.It is about a civil war, the messiest kind of war where right and wrong are obscured in viscious blood-letting that involves too many willing and unwilling participants. Very few people emerge from such wars without harbouring personal shame, bitter regrets and a sense of loss that lives with them for the rest of their lives. Continue reading