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

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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

Researching Across Borders

Holder of library cards

Not all archives issue readers tickets but I have ended up accumulating a wad of library cards and readers tickets from my travels.

In the first three months of this year I have been researching in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. As readers of this blog will have noticed I often travel to research in the archives and libraries of other cities. I have lived in all four eastern states from Hobart in the south to Atherton in Far North Queensland. From a very young age I have moved around and consequently noticed the cultural differences between various places in Australia.This made me effective in public relations. It also informs the history that I research and write.

Because I have lived in so many places with so many histories I am sceptical of the term ‘Australian history’. Which Australia and whose Australia are we talking about? The history of Sydney does not equate to the history of Australia.There are many substantial differences in the histories of the various states of Australia.

The genesis for my honours thesis on Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum came when we were living in Atherton near Cairns in Far North Queensland. By the time I had the opportunity to explore it we were living in Sydney and I had found that South Australia and Victoria had each conducted a referendum on the same issue but New South Wales had not. The issue had played out differently in New South Wales. Some Queensland newspapers might be in Sydney, some may be online but the records of key people and organisations are kept in the state in which they were created. The only way to properly explore a Queensland referendum is in Queensland. So I took myself to Brisbane. In the same year I visited Melbourne, Geelong and Armidale (northern NSW) for the Teaching Reading in Australia project. Each collection I visited had particular strengths, especially in records relating to their local area. Continue reading

200 Posts and Five Years of Blogging!

DSC_6271My last post was my 200th post on this blog. Wow! This milestone crept up on me, as did the fifth anniversary of this blog last August but now it is definitely time to reflect on these milestones.

Some posts have stood out for me. Sometimes I finish a post knowing that the writing is particularly strong. Generally this is when I have been particularly moved by the subject matter, whether it was a well-written book or an episode of history which has stuck an emotional chord within me.

It is the humble archive that has been the source of much of many of my posts. Archives are a crucial bulwark of human rights. The story over the last five years which demonstrated this with crystal clarity was the case of four elderly Kenyans who sued the British government for human rights abuses during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. For years the British government had denied their complaints and told historians and lawyers that no relevant documents existed about this issue. But the Kenyan’s legal team pushed and as I explained in ‘Archives are important, very important’, millions of colonial documents were found to have been illegally hidden from public view.

‘If… we are going to sin, we must sin quietly’, wrote the British Attorney-General to the Kenyan colonial authorities. This was the title of my second post about the issue in which I explored the troubling question of how such horrific crimes could have been ignored for so long. If you only have limited time to read this blog this is the one post I would like you to read. It demonstrates why historians and archivists are vital professions for any society professing to uphold human rights and democratic values, but it also shows how flawed archives can be and how historians sometimes fall short in their over-reliance on government archives. This post also seeks to understand why so many people do nothing when people in authority commit crime as part of their job. Continue reading

5 Tips about Queensland State Archives for researchers who live outside Brisbane

Front of Queensland State Archives Building

Queensland State Archives are at 435 Compton Road, Runcorn in Brisbane.

I had the pleasure of researching at the Queensland State Archives while I was in Brisbane recently. These tips are for anyone who lives outside Brisbane who wants to research at the Archives and make the best use of their time:

1.     Lockers for suitcases

Small suitcase in an open locker

Luggage locker at Queensland State Archives.

The first thing an out-of-Brisbane researcher needs to know about the Queensland State Archives is that there are two lockers big enough to store a small suitcase. This means you can save time by heading to the Archives as soon as you arrive in Brisbane without visiting your hotel to drop off your luggage first. Remember to bring a one dollar coin to use the locker. You receive the coin back when you have finished with the locker.

2.     You cannot order items in advance of your visit, but you can do some preparation in advance

The second thing an out-of-Brisbane researcher needs to know about the Queensland State Archives is that you cannot order items before you arrive. This is sad, but the reason this facility is not available is sadder still. Unfortunately researchers were ordering items and then not showing up. Like all archives, the Queensland State Archives does not have enough staff and they certainly cannot afford to waste staff time by retrieving items for people who do not show up. This is a lesson for all researchers. Sometimes we order stuff and are unavoidably prevented from visiting the archives eg illness. But it is important that if we order stuff we make every effort to use it. It would be a shame if other archives have to withdraw the facility of ordering items in advance.

But you can still make the best use of your time by preparing for your isit. Before you arrive at the Archives make a list of all the Item ID numbers for the records you want. When you arrive at the Archives, go straight to the computers in the reading room where you can order the items. Use the ‘Retrieve Using ID’ facility in the catalogue and lodge the order. You can order items whenever you want and are not bound by a timetable for getting orders in at certain times during the day like at some archives. Items arrive in a reasonable time. It all works smoothly and the desk staff are very helpful.

While you are waiting for your items to arrive go to the microfilm room and look at any microfilms that you need. Continue reading

Australian History Links on Stumbling Through the Past

I have been writing Stumbling Through the Past for over five years now. When I started this blog I thought that the right hand side column would be a great place for me to stow links to websites, libraries and archives that I have found useful in my research. I usually just add one or two links at a time, then move on with other things. This week I needed to go back over old work so I looked through the links.

I was surprised at what a useful Australian history resource I have gradually amassed. However, it is rather hidden on my blog as you have to scroll down to find it and look at the column. I wondered if anyone uses it, or whether I should place it elsewhere on my blog.

Australia’s Media History

Book cover

Bridget Griffen-Foley, ed. A Companion to the Australian Media, (North Melbourne, Vic: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014).

While pondering these questions I added nine new links. These links are for websites and archives about Australian business and media history. Many of these links have been plumbed from the wonderful Australian Media History Database. This website and the Media Archives Project are provided by Macquarie University’s Centre for Media History. The Centre’s director, Professor Bridget Griffen-Foley has also edited an invaluable encyclopaedia on Australia’s media history. This week I consulted A Companion to the Australian Media while researching at the State Library of Victoria. It is the first place to go to when embarking on research into any aspect of Australia’s media history. I am also impressed by the work the Centre’s Media Archives Project has done to identify important records in Australia’s media history and work to ensure that these collections are secured for researchers to access in perpetuity.

The web resources of the Centre for Media History are extensive. While writing this I found the Centre’s Colonial Australian Literary Journalism website which currently covers literary journalism in Australia from the first European settlement until Federation (1901).

The internet is built by links. It is a collaborative exercise built on an ethos of generosity. Everyone benefits the more they share their own work and that of others. The Centre for Media History is just one of thousands of organisations and historians online who understand this.

(While writing this I digressed and added another link which I should have added a while ago. Check out Jennifer McLaren’s history blog) 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